Following their 42-28 defeat in Palo Alto in week three of the season, the Sun Devils knew they needed to limit Stanford's big plays on offense and match their physicality at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in order to produce a different outcome. On Saturday, they did neither.
The Cardinal opened the game on a two play, 62 yard scoring drive - capped off by a Tyler Gaffney 69 yard touchdown run - and never looked back. Stanford's first three offensive possessions of the night resulted in scoring drives of 62, 60, and 89 yards as they dominated the Sun Devils up front.
The Cardinal out-gained ASU on the ground 240-138, led by Gaffney who rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries for the night.
"I think it was one of those games that we haven't had in a while," said Arizona State Head Coach Todd Graham afterwards. "But the reason you lose those games is because the other team is so well-coached, so well-prepared and it's a veteran group. We just made too many mistakes. We had, like, eight critical errors just on defense in the first half.
"As far as physical, did I think they were physical? Oh yeah, they're the most physical team that we've played. But I thought our guys inside all year long - Will Sutton's never been physically dominated. Davon (Coleman) has played unbelievably, and again, (Gannon) Conway's played unbelievably. But you've got to have 11, and their 11 were more physical and better than our 11."
For as well as the Cardinal moved the ball on the ground against the Sun Devil defense on Saturday night, quarterback Kevin Hogan was just as effective in the passing game. The junior completed 12-18 passes for 277 yards and one touchdown, a 24 yard scoring strike to junior Ty Montgomery early in the fourth quarter.
Unlike in their first meeting this season, the Sun Devils displayed more offensive fire power in the first half, countering the Cardinal's first scoring drive with one of their own when sophomore D.J. Foster broke free on a 51 yard touchdown run, igniting the crowd of 69, 535 inside Sun Devil Stadium on the chilly championship night.
Foster paced the Arizona State offensive attack with 62 rushing yards, 80 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, Foster came up limping on the first play of the second half with an apparent knee injury and the offense never looked the same.
Already playing without senior running back Marion Grice and Foster for most of the second half, ASU looked to junior quarterback Taylor Kelly to lead their comeback hopes. Kelly completed 17-25 passes for 175 yards and one touchdown but was consistently under pressure, resulting in five sacks and a handful of hurried attempts.
Saturday also marked the first time the Sun Devils lost a game in which Kelly did not throw an interception.
"We're a run, play action pass offense," said Graham. "I think Stanford's ability to stuff the run is really hard on our offense. That would be the thing that I will tell you on our offense, and nobody else does that to us. So you've got to give them a lot (of credit). I think their defensive line and the veterans that they have, the depth that they have, they've got great depth in that forcing unit. They're just really solid."
For the second time this season, the play of the special teams proved costly for the Sun Devils against the Cardinal. Freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez had his streak of 18 consecutive made field goals come to an end in the third quarter when he missed his only attempt of the night from 31 yards out and ASU trailing 28-14.
Stanford (11-2, 8-2) also benefitted from favorable position as senior Alex Garoutte averaged only 33 yards on his four punt attempts, including a 16 yard punt in the second quarter that allowed the Cardinal to take over at the ASU 37 yard line. Stanford scored six plays later on a Gaffney one yard run to jump ahead by 21 and take a commanding lead.
"You know, just being honest with you, it's been the most frustrating thing I've ever dealt with in coaching," said Graham on ASU's special teams woes this season. "To work so hard and be so good on offense and defense, and to play like that in the games that we've played, it's been so frustrating. And we spend a lot of time on special teams and worked hard on it. It's just so frustrating.
"That's my responsibility. If there's anything that - I'm pretty transparent about it, obviously - when that became very evident was the first time we played Stanford. It was alarming. It's a little hard to rally. I think we rallied probably the best that we could, but that's absolutely unacceptable, and we can't play special teams like that. So, obviously, that's an area that we've got to improve dramatically before the bowl game."
Arizona State (10-3, 8-2) finishes the season with eight wins against conference opponents, matching the school record set in 1996. The Sun Devils will find out which bowl game they'll be invited to and their opponent when the bowl match-ups are announced Sunday evening.
"I think the Pac-12 has seen what Tempe and Arizona State is all about tonight," remarked Graham. "A tremendous atmosphere. I'm really proud of our fans, and again, sorry we let you down. But I couldn't be more proud of our seniors and what they've done and what they mean to me."
"Again, you're always into the emotion that you're feeling at the time, but I don't know that I've had a group of seniors that I'm closer to than these guys. Some of the best competitors. I'm an intense competitor and I love this game. Some of the best competitors I've ever been around that love this game with a tremendous passion and love this program, love being a Sun Devil."