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ASU football Pac-12 Championship preview: One step away from the promised land

(Photo: Allyson Cummings/WCSN)

Todd Graham preached, and tonight, the Arizona State Sun Devils have a chance to deliver.  From day one, Graham talked about winning championships and playing in the Rose Bowl.  A win over Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game at Sun Devil Stadium would result in just that.

Arizona State wins if:  The Sun Devils can keep pace in the rushing game.  Marion Grice won’t play, but D.J. Foster looked just fine against Arizona in a replacement role.  The problem for Arizona State when they lost at Stanford in September was that not only did Grice look ineffective, but Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson also ran all over the Sun Devil defense.

If that changes, the Sun Devils will win this game.  Arizona State’s passing attack is much better than the Cardinal’s, and Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan isn’t an explosive player.  If the game comes down to who wins the passing game, and if ASU can come even with Stanford on the ground, it will, than the Sun Devils are headed to Pasadena.

The Sun Devils are in trouble if: They turn the ball over more than once.  The Sun Devils are one of the best teams in the country in turnover differential.  But when Taylor Kelly throws more than once interception, or when the skill players fumble the ball, ASU gets in trouble.

Stanford doesn’t turn the ball over much, so Arizona State cannot afford to fall behind in the turnover category.

Arizona State loses if: Kevin Hogan has a clean pocket.  The Stanford quarterback struggles under pressure.  Look at both Stanford losses for further proof.  Against both USC and Utah, Hogan was battered.  He completed under 60 percent of his passes in both games.  Hogan thrives off the play-action and does a nice job extending plays with his legs, but he doesn’t have elite arm strength and he can’t push the ball down field or into tight windows.

But if Arizona State can’t get to the quarterback, especially on passing downs, eventually Stanford receivers are going to come open and make plays.  Ty Montgomery, in particular, is a big weapon for Hogan.  He has game breaking speed and if Hogan can get the ball to Montgomery in space, he will do some damage, as was the case in September when the combo connected twice for touchdowns in the win over ASU.

Prediction: Arizona State wins, 34-27.  Both teams have changed a lot since the early season meeting.  The Sun Devils also benefit from being at home.  They are a machine on offense, pumping out long, quality drives that almost always result in scores.  Zane Gonzalez has developed into the best field goal kicker in the conference.  The defense is attacking and forcing turnovers scored in three-straight games.  I think this will be a close, physical game, but in the end Arizona State will smell roses for the first time since 1997.

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