Lombardi: If Stanford loses this Pac-12 title game, I think it's safe to say that the Cardinal's season will be classified as a disappointment. This is a Stanford team that won the Rose Bowl last year and then returned its quarterback, offensive line, and almost all of the star-studded defense that delivered it to glory. There was plentiful talk coming from the program itself about reaching and winning this season's national championship. Obviously, that won't happen now, but it turns out that those BCS title goals were very attainable for this club: The only blemishes on the Cardinal's record have been poor red zone decisions against unranked teams.
So the two losses have rightfully been the cause for disappointment, but another Rose Bowl berth can simultaneously ensure that this 2013 season will be classified as a success. For Stanford, I think it's possible to have both feelings at once -- but they have to win Saturday for that to be the reality.
The only two losses the Cardinal has suffered were on the road to Pac-12 South teams. In light of that fact is there any apprehension of facing ASU in Tempe on Saturday?
Lombardi: It's not as much the Pac-12 South as it is the road. Stanford's defense has traveled well, but the team's offensive production has been staggeringly worse on the road, and that's what has led to the team's two losses. Consider this: At home, the Cardinal is the nation's No. 1-ranked team in red zone efficiency (they've scored points in all 22 of their trips there). On the road, though, Stanford is ranked No. 109 in red zone efficiency (68.7 percent scoring rate). That's obviously an alarming drop that makes Saturday's game in Tempe very concerning for this team.
The first meeting between ASU and Stanford was largely a one-sided affair. How has the Stanford offense and defense changed in their level of play since the first meeting between both teams?
Lombardi: The first half of Stanford-ASU back in September was an excellent example of the Cardinal firing on all cylinders. David Shaw's team was running creatively, delivering on the play action pass, and playing stifling defense through their dominance of the line of scrimmage. The team has consistently delivered that type of all-around excellence -- at home. Things have changed for the Cardinal, particularly offensively, on the road (see above). Play calling and execution has been worse in hostile environments for this team. That's what must change in Tempe Saturday, or the defense will have to provide another epic bailout.
Do you feel that the scheme that Stanford employed on both sides of the ball in the first meeting would be the same game plan employed this weekend?
Lombardi: Stanford's roster is big, strong, and fast. Because of that, the Cardinal employ a similar plan each and every week. The defense sticks to it religiously: Stop the run, unleash the pass rush, force short throws, and swarm to the ball. The offense has abandoned the winning formula on the road at times, but it's fairly simple, too: Establish the run, and let Kevin Hogan operate in space (so he can run too) off play action. Receivers will be open given proper execution of this strategy.
Ben Gardner was a force early in the season. How do you feel the defensive line has gotten along without one of their leaders and more disruptive players?
The defensive line has not skipped a beat. NFL prospect Henry Anderson (6-6, 295) was out when Stanford last faced Arizona State. He returned the weak after Gardner was hurt and made the transition for the unit seamless. The Cardinal were missing defensive end Josh Mauro against Notre Dame, and it showed. He's expected to play against ASU, but keep an eye on that. A loss of another defensive lineman would be a significant blow to Stanford.
Lombardi: They're both big, strong, fast, and talented. Teams have tried to slow Gaffney by committing extra defenders in the box, but Montgomery usually burns the defense when this happens, and vice versa. These two guys are top-tier conference players who are very difficult to bring down.
Montgomery is a versatile weapon that Stanford has been lining up just about anywhere -- against Notre Dame, he took some snaps from the backfield. He is the Pac-12's leading kick returner and could very well end up as the X factor in this championship game.
Who are some of the players that perhaps flew under the radar even back in September that are now some of the more significant contributors?
Lombardi: Well, in the ASU game specifically, no receivers outside of Montgomery and Devon Cajuste caught a pass. Now, Michael Rector is a significant deep threat. Kodi Whitfield can make solid contributions, and the Cardinal have been turning to Jordan Pratt as a possession guy. Davis Dudchock has emerged in the intermediate passing game at the tight end position, too. So I'd say the Cardinal's passing game has matured. It's deeper now.
David Shaw may be the most respected coach in the Pac-12. How has he been able to maintain the success Jim Harbaugh established there and do you feel Stanford may be in danger of losing him to either a college or NFL team following this season?
Lombardi: The primary key to Stanford's success is its strength and conditioning program. Shannon Turley is the best in the business (he just won a national award). He's been around since Harbaugh arrived and has built a physically dominant roster that has constantly pushed Pac-12 opposition around. The Cardinal has parlayed this advantage into dominance of the trenches and four consecutive 10-plus win seasons.
Shaw has done a great job overseeing the entire operation. Stanford is not in danger of losing him anytime soon, though. He is an alumnus and wants to stay on The Farm for quite some time.
What areas do you feel can ASU present biggest challenge to Stanford?
Lombardi: The Sun Devils blitz a lot. At home, Stanford seemed to counteract their aggressiveness with ease. On the road, though, the Cardinal have had much more trouble offensively. If Shaw's club cannot fix these road issues, Arizona State has the potential to force Stanford into fatal mistakes.
Defensively, I see the Cardinal delivering another solid performance -- through Jaelen Strong can cause trouble in any secondary, especially if the Sun Devils can give Taylor Kelly enough time for strong to get downfield.
What are your keys to the game and score prediction?
Lombardi: The usuals are the keys: red zone efficiency, third down efficiency, and turnover margin. We already know each team's strengths and weaknesses well. The club that wins those key battles on Saturday will win the football game. All three metrics have been areas of concern for Stanford on the road, and it's also a well-documented fact that Arizona State is much better at home than they are on the road. So I think that tendencies will have to break for the visiting team to win this championship.