It’s not often you hear a coach glorify a 2-2 run.
But for Todd Graham, Arizona State’s early-season slugfest — which started with a fortuitous win over then-No. 20 Wisconsin and ended with a crushing 37-34 loss to defending national runner-up Notre Dame at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — cut the rugged, wild Sun Devils into disciplined diamonds.
It was during that month-long stretch from Sept. 14 through Oct. 5 that Arizona State found itself tested and up to the task. In good times (62-41 win over USC in Week 4) and in bad (the USC win followed a 42-28 loss to then-No. 5 Stanford), the Sun Devils bought in and buckled down, setting the stage for a seven-game winning streak down the stretch.
And setting the stage for a rematch with Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, which Arizona State will host on Saturday at 5:45 p.m.
“That stretch there, I think our team matured more than I’ve ever had a team mature,” Graham said. “That’s been a major factor in forming the maturity and toughness in our team.”
The Sun Devils will need both against a Cardinal team whose hallmark has become toughness and discipline.
The maturation of ASU and the consistency of Stanford were rewarded on Monday in the annual all-conference awards, as each team had six players on the first team. They combined for 13 on the second team.
In the team’s first matchup, at Stanford Stadium on Sept. 21, the Cardinal’s bulk beat up the Sun Devils’ brawn as Stanford jumped to a 39-7 lead before watching Arizona State climb back with a 21-3 fourth quarter.
On that day, the Sun Devils were erratic — Taylor Kelly threw two interceptions — and inefficient, rushing for just 50 yards while going only 6-for-18 on third down.
“When we went to play them, we felt our guys were pretty confident,” Graham said. “We came off a win against Wisconsin, a pretty talented team. We thought we were disciplined, and then we saw what a disciplined team looked like.”
Even in victory, Stanford coach David Shaw saw signs of what was to come for the Sun Devils.
“This team, this year – we didn’t see them last year – they play with such energy,” Shaw said. “Such passion. They’re so aggressive. They have great team speed. Defensively, they try to keep you on your heels. Offensively, they’re always on attack mode. Attacking with the run, attacking with the quarterback, with a lot of things. It’s fun to watch.”
It’s been nearly two months since the two teams met, and much has changed. The Cardinal suffered two surprising losses at Utah and at USC, and the Sun Devils have soared. Arizona State is actually favored by 3 on Saturday, despite being ranked lower.
Not that Graham is paying attention.
“More important than being a veteran team, they’re the defending Pac-12 champions, the defending Rose Bowl champions, and that experience is big,” Graham said about Stanford. “We talk about being humble and hungry. Well, they are the defending champion. We are the contender.”
PAIN AND GAIN
The Sun Devils’ strength of schedule — theirs was rated the third-toughest in college football — was not lost on Graham.
“If you can stay healthy through a schedule like that, like we’ve been able to do, I don’t think we’d be where we’re at without that schedule,” Graham said. “It’s allowed our program to grow and improve dramatically.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE
Shaw has his Cardinal back in the conference championship game for the second straight year, and he’s using some rote motivational tactics to spur on his team. He’s almost completely forgetting Stanford’s 27-24 title win over UCLA last season.
“There’s a sense of excitement because it’s a challenge,” Shaw said. “Last year, we were fortunate to have it at home. This year, we’re on the road. It’s going to be a loud, exciting environment against a really good football team. Our guys are getting geared up for that. It’s a completely different world from last year. It’s going to be a tough game to win.”
Initially dismissive of a question about his opinion of the hire of Steve Sarkisian at USC, Shaw ultimately did say that he’s sure it wasn’t any one thing that took the Washington coach down to the Trojans.
“There are so many things that go into it,” Shaw said. “Money is one thing, where you live, where your wife wants to live, where you have history, don’t have history, a family base. I don’t know anything about the particulars, but when things like this happen, it’s usually never just one thing. Not, they’re going to pay me $10 more, so they’re going to go down there.”