Key 1: Win Again at the Point of Attack
Stanford dominated Arizona State in the trenches during the first meeting between the two teams back in September, and nothing about that advantage changed on Saturday. The Farm Boys established their physical superiority on the second play from scrimmage, when the hulking left side of their offensive line (featuring super sophomores Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy) paved the way for Tyler Gaffney's 69-yard touchdown scamper. That play muffled Sun Devil Stadium.
Todd Graham's team believed that it had made significant physical strides entering this Pac-12 Championship Game. That progress was certainly not apparent on either side of the ball against the Stanford physical juggernaut. "Their defensive line was the story of the game," Graham said afterward.
Stanford's ultimate victory at the point of attack came on the defensive side of the ball, when Shayne Skov and Zach Hoffpauir spearheaded an epic goal line stand at the end of the third quarter. The Sun Devils were inches from scoring, but Skov timed the snap to stuff a third down quarterback sneak before Hoffpauir -- making a return to his hometown -- blasted into the backfield to freeze the Fork. In our postgame Bootleg Breakdown (above), Hoffpauir told me that he wasn't even supposed to be in the game on that fourth down play, but he dug in to make the pivotal stop anyway.
Key 2: Take Away the Run
The Sun Devils were missing stud running back Marion Grice (ankle). D.J. Foster showed explosiveness in his place -- on two plays. In fact, his 51-yard touchdown run and 65-yard scoring reception were the two longest gains the Stanford defense has given up this season. Outside of bad angles and missed tackles on in those two instances, though, the Cardinal turned in another disciplined effort that bottled the home team up. Foster mustered only 11 rushing yards outside of his long touchdown run, while Arizona State did not manage a single sustained scoring drive, though they were averaging 49 points per home game coming in. Their 14 points came courtesy the two aforementioned explosive plays.
As expected, ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly contributed with his legs (73 yards), but Stanford neutralized most of that production with a contained rush and five sacks that took away 37 of his yards.
Key 3: Play the Game on Your Terms: Set Up Kevin Hogan
Stanford rushed 44 times and passed only 18 times. But given the Cardinal's personnel advantage on Saturday, it's safe to classify that distribution in the "beautiful balance" department. For the first time since this season, Kevin Hogan was fantastic on the road. He made his 12 completions count (each averaged over 23 yards). The Cardinal's playcalling was fantastic: David Shaw firmly committed to the creative run (Graham said ASU was surprised by Stanford's perimeter rushing attack) while peppering in passes with perfect timing.
Jordan Pratt (3 catches, 56 yards) told me he was "licking his chops" before an early 35-yard playaction opportunity. The cornerback was playing the slant, and not the streak. Devon Cajuste later hauled in a 78-yard floater from Hogan that very nearly turned into a 95-yard touchdown. Stanford ran two consecutive fullback dives to Ryan Hewitt before unleashing that bomb coming out of a timeout. Since the Cardinal was operating in the shadow of its own goal post, the Sun Devils were anticipating another conservative run call. A linebacker matched up with Cajuste as a result.
Hogan has proven that he can be very effective when put into proper position to succeed. Credit Mike Bloomgren, Mike Sanford, and the rest of the Cardinal's offensive staff for committing to an extraordinary plan on Saturday that did just that. The power run set up the dagger pass, and Hogan rewarded the staff for their faith in him.
Key 4: Handle the Road
Entering the game, Stanford was ranked first in the nation when it came to home red zone efficiency, but 109th in the same metric on the road. The Cardinal's one glaring weakness was offensive performance in enemy territory. For Shaw's club to win its second consecutive Pac-12 championship, they would have to reverse 2013 tendencies at Sun Devil Stadium.
Of course, that's exactly what Stanford did. The Cardinal scored on all four of their trips to the red zone, punching in touchdowns on three. Gaffney's fourth down goal line score demoralized the Sun Devils in the second quarter. ASU came up empty on both of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Just like the 2012 team rid itself of the "Oregon problem" at Autzen Stadium last year, Stanford indeed exorcised its road demons in Tempe on Saturday night. The Cardinal's reward is the 100th Rose Bowl Game against Michigan State, a rugged team that will further test the offense's improvement.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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