Do you remember the 21st night of September?
The No. 11 ASU football team certainly does. It was the night the Sun Devils (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) suffered their first loss of the season at Stanford, 42-28. While the Sun Devils ended up winning eight of their next nine games, they still look back to how that night changed the course of their season.
Now that ASU is set to host the Pac-12 Football Championship Game on Saturday, the Sun Devils are eager to avenge their loss against the defending Pac-12 Champion for a berth to the Rose Bowl.
Since Sept. 21, everyone on ASU’s roster will admit the Sun Devils are completely different than they were in the first meeting against No. 7 Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12).
“I think (the players) have improved tremendously,” said ASU coach Todd Graham, who was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year on Monday. “Close games and the hard-fought games and the level of competition we’ve played have really seasoned our guys. I’ve really sensed that in the last two or three weeks. We’re a veteran group.”
Aside from the added experience and general improvement, the Sun Devils go into the rematch with a more organized rotation, particularly on defense.
Redshirt junior Damarious Randall has emerged as an integral part of ASU’s secondary at field safety. The Sun Devils have better depth on the defensive line, which has been drawing double-teams, even away from Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and redshirt senior defensive tackle Will Sutton. Graham also credited ASU’s improved run defense to the now-stable linebacker corps, which rotated different players around three of the four linebacker spots every week for the first half of the season.
While Graham is quick to say his team has evolved since the Stanford loss, he acknowledged the Cardinal have changed as well in every part of their game.
“They’re not the same team,” Graham said. “Neither are we. We’ve improved dramatically, and they have too. … It helps them, too.”
This is ASU’s first appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game and the first time the title bout is hosted in a Pac-12 South school since its introduction in 2011. Home-field advantage is critical for the Sun Devils, as a sellout crowd is expected to pack the 71,706-seat venue.
Stanford’s first loss of the season was on Oct. 12 at Utah, where ASU squeaked out a 20-19 win a month later. The Sun Devils are also on an eight-game winning streak in games played in Tempe.
“We play great at Sun Devil Stadium,” said ASU redshirt senior defensive back Osahon Irabor. “It gives us that added edge. We feel a little invincible in the stadium right now with just the way we play and the energy on offense, defense and special teams.”
The Sun Devils will be without senior running back Marion Grice (leg) for the second game in a row and will start sophomore D.J. Foster in his place once again. ASU had just 50 rushing yards in the first meeting against Stanford, but the speedy Foster said he is prepared to beat the Cardinal’s elite front-seven by using quick tempo.
“We just have to play fast,” Foster said. “We need to make sure we’re taking care of our business.”
In the regular season meeting, Stanford gave ASU issues in almost all aspects of the game, particularly in the first half. The Cardinal controlled the line of scrimmage on both ends of the ball, nullifying the Sun Devils’ offense while recording 240 rushing yards of their own. ASU committed two fatal turnovers in the first half, including a botched snap on a punt play that led to a safety.
The Cardinal went into halftime with a 29-0 lead before the Sun Devils outscored Stanford 28-13 in the second half. Things went better for ASU when the players starting playing more naturally.
“We got to go out and do what we do,” said ASU redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly. “We didn’t do that in the first half against Stanford. We just couldn’t execute on third-and-mediums. Early on in the first half, turnovers, where we were at on the field (hurt us).”
ASU had dealt with adversity all season even after the Stanford loss, yet the Sun Devils are still in the running for the Pac-12 Championship. Many people around the ASU program the past several weeks talked about the buy-in process the entire team had to make throughout Graham’s two seasons in Tempe. The Sun Devils are a step away from leaving no doubt that the system they created together works toward winning championships.
It all comes down to this game, though.
“We got to go out there and not overestimate them or underestimate them,” Sutton said. “They’re going to play with unbelievable discipline. They’re well-coached. We just have to go out there and play like we’ve never played before.”
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