Welcome back to The Vault. Each week I take a peek back at a fateful game between Stanford and the team they are set to play on Saturday. The Cardinal will host the Arizona State Sun Devils this week and I think it’s pretty obvious which game should be examined. The Stanford Cardinal have played Arizona State exactly 30 times, but only once did their game decide the conference champion.
The 2013 PAC-12 Championship Game was certainly the most meaningful game Stanford and ASU have ever played. Both teams have had their ups and downs in the 39 years since the Sun Devils joined the PAC-10, but they’ve rarely been good at the same time, or at least good enough to directly challenge each other for the league title.
Stanford, of course, was the defending PAC-12 Champion. In 2012, the Cardinal won their first conference title since 1999 with a victory over UCLA in the second PAC-12 Championship Game. Many of the key contributors on the 2012 team carried over onto the 2013 roster. It was Kevin Hogan’s first full year at quarterback and the redshirt sophomore flourished. He was augmented in the backfield by Tyler Gaffney, who averaged over five yards per carry and gained exactly 1750 yards that season. The receiving corps of Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, and Michael Rector provided much needed aerial assistance.
As good as the offense was, the defense was on another level. It might have been the most talented defense that David Shaw has led on the field, and it was the primary reason that the Cardinal repeated as North Division champions. Linebackers Shayne Skov, A.J. Tarpley, and Trent Murphy were all key contributors. DB’s Ed Reynolds, Wayne Lyons, and Jordan Richards all made more than 60 tackles on the season.
When this Stanford team played their best, they were unstoppable. They took care of business in a workmanlike manner that, while generally low scoring, left little doubt as to who was the best team on the field. The Cardinal began the season ranked 5th in the country, in the very thick of the national championship race. They remained 5th for the first month, where they played and defeated Arizona State in their first conference game of the season. Stanford also avenged their loss to Washington the previous season, which had been their only blemish in PAC-12 play that year.
In the second week of October, Stanford went to Utah and were upset 27-21 by the underdog Utes (who wouldn’t even go bowling in 2013). It was a blow to the Cardinal’s championship hopes and a complete surprise. Stanford rebounded by taking down two top ten teams in the coming weeks: UCLA and Oregon. Stanford’s win over the Ducks once again assured that the Cardinal would have the tiebreaker to go to the PAC-12 Championship Game if it came to that. With these wins, the Cardinal clawed their way back to 5th in the polls where they would again be an outside candidate for the BCS Championship Game depending on the breaks.
Things didn’t break Stanford’s way. The Cardinal were again upset, this time a crushing 20-17 loss to unranked USC in the Coliseum. It finally threw Stanford out of the national title conversation and, with Oregon now one game ahead of them in the standings, it looked like the Cardinal wouldn’t even win the division. Serendipitously, while Stanford was taking out their frustrations on Cal in a 63-13 slaughter, the Ducks fell 42-16 to Arizona in another shocking upset. The Cardinal were done with their conference slate, and had now won the right to play in the PAC-12 Championship by way of their tiebreaker win over Oregon.
Todd Graham came to Tempe in 2012, replacing Dennis Erickson who had failed to get the ball rolling in his five seasons leading the Sun Devils. After winning 10 games in his first year, Erickson failed to win more than seven in his next four. Graham immediately improved the team, and in his first season ASU went 8-5 with starting quarterback Brock Osweiler. The Sun Devils were even better in 2013.
In his first season as a starter, Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly passed for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns. Kelly’s favorite receiver, Jaelen Strong, averaged nearly 15 yards per reception. Marion Guice was ASU’s best running back, as well as a heavily used receiver and primary kickoff returner. Linebacker Chris Young was the defensive MVP of the team and had 112 tackles, more than any Stanford player that year.
The Sun Devils didn’t start the season ranked, and they certainly weren’t expected to win the PAC-12 South. Their controversial victory over #20 Wisconsin in Week 2 was what first put them into the polls, but their next game was against #5 Stanford in Stanford Stadium. The Sun Devils actually played pretty well considering the circumstances, outgaining the Cardinal 417-391, but it was a textbook Stanford win. The Cardinal shut down Arizona State’s run game and Taylor Kelly by himself wasn’t enough to will the Sun Devils to a road win over a top five opponent. ASU fell 42-28, but it was a respectable loss.
The Sun Devils then proved their mettle by thrashing USC 62-41, directly leading to the firing of Lane Kiffin as the Trojan head coach. Once again ranked, ASU fell once more, this time by only a field goal to a strong Notre Dame team in Arlington, Texas. Faced with another setback, Arizona State pressed on with renewed effort. The Sun Devils smoked hapless Colorado and Washington State, and much less hapless Washington. Their win over the Huskies vaulted ASU into the rankings for the third time in six weeks, but this time they would remain there for good. Unlike Stanford, Arizona State escaped Salt Lake City with a win in early November. The Sun Devils’ 38-33 victory over UCLA at the Rose Bowl won them the South Division, and a 58-21 pasting of rival Arizona was icing on the cake.
The 2013 PAC-12 Championship Game was set, with 10-2 #7 Stanford traveling to Tempe to face off against 10-2 #11 Arizona State. The Sun Devils had only lost one conference game to the Cardinal’s two, so they hosted the proceedings. It was the last time the game was played at the home field of a conference team, the Championship Game moved to Levi’s Stadium the next year. It would be ASU’s second most attended home game after the Duel in the Desert with Arizona.
Kickoff was at 5:45 Mountain time. It was December 7th so there was little danger of the Arizona heat coming into play. The biggest storyline was the matchup between Arizona State’s high powered offense, which had scored more than 30 points in all but two of their games, and Stanford’s fantastic defense, which had allowed 20 points or fewer an all but three games.
Things began more quickly than anticipated. Stanford received the ball first and on the third play from scrimmage, Tyler Gaffney ran 69 yards for a touchdown, tied for his longest run all season. On Arizona State’s fifth play of their drive, D.J. Foster ran 51 yards to even the score. This wasn’t the contest most people were expecting, but it didn’t take much longer for the real character of the game to reveal itself.
Stanford put together a four and a half minute drive on their next possession that ended with Gaffney again running into the endzone, this time from just beyond 1 yard out. Arizona State responded with a long, grinding drive of their own, but stalled out on the Cardinal 47 and they were forced to punt. Kevin Hogan took Stanford from their own 11 to the ASU 36 in just two plays, then Gaffney and Ty Montgomery brought the football the rest of the way home. Another Sun Devil punt and another Stanford touchdown put the score at 28-7 midway through the second quarter. D.J. Foster managed to turn a three or four yard Kelly pass into a 65 yard touchdown run to eat into the deficit a little, but it was all the Sun Devils could manage for the rest of the game.
The second half was all Stanford. The Cardinal had imposed their will both offensively and defensively and there was little the Sun Devils could do about it. Stanford ground down the clock with their usual efficiency, tacking on a field goal and their only passing touchdown (Hogan to Montgomery) to make the final score 38-14. In Arizona State’s six possessions in the second half, the Sun Devils missed a field goal, failed three straight fourth down conversion attempts, punted, and ran the clock out when they got the ball back with only 38 seconds remaining.
Stanford won the PAC-12 Championship Game and with it the resulting berth in the Rose Bowl, their second in a row. The Cardinal lapsed back into their bad habits, losing to #4 Michigan State 24-20 in a game that looked remarkably similar to their losses against Utah and USC. A lack of adjustments kept the offense bottled up and defense struggling to keep things in check. It was a disappointing end to a season with such high hopes, but a second consecutive Rose Bowl will never be taken for granted by Stanford fans, and, of course, the Cardinal returned for a third just two years later.
Arizona State lost to Texas Tech 37-23 in the Holiday Bowl, a surprisingly lackluster performance by the Sun Devils which may be owed to their disappointment at losing their chance to go to their first Rose Bowl in this millennium. ASU finished the year 20th in the AP Poll. Arizona State was arguably better in 2014 than they were in 2013, they certainly looked like it when they played Stanford and beat the Cardinal 26-10 at Sun Devil Stadium. ASU again won 10 games and this time ended the year 12th in the AP, their highest finish under Graham. They did not, however, win the PAC-12 South, which they lost to archrival Arizona at the end of the season. The Sun Devils haven’t been relevant to the division race in the past two years, and last season Arizona State failed to reach bowl eligibility for the first time in Graham’s tenure.