"Been there, done that" doesn’t fly with this year’s Stanford team.
True, the Cardinal are in the Pac-12 championship game for the second straight year. But the team is different. The circumstances are different. The opponent is different. And, perhaps most importantly, the venue is different.
“I think there is a sense of excitement because it’s a challenge,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “Last year we were fortunate enough to have it at home. This year we have to go on the road, and it’s going to be loud. It’s going to be an exciting environment against a really good football team that feeds off of that environment. Our guys are getting geared up for that. They know it’s a completely different world than last year and it’s going to be a tough game to win.”
With 14 seniors listed as starters on the depth chart -- plus seniors at both kicking spots -- Stanford’s veteran group has seen its share of tight games and hostile environments. On defense, 10 of the 11 starters are juniors or seniors.
“They want to see how far they can push themselves and see what their legacy is,” Shaw said. “It’s still a phenomenal legacy. There’s only three teams in the nation with 10-plus wins in four years. That’s already a legacy. To go to back-to-back Rose Bowls would be an addition to the legacy. How high we finish ranked is an addition to the legacy. All those things work together. They don’t think about the negative because it’s all positive.”
As it was in last year’s title game, the Cardinal will be playing an opponent for the second time in a season. This time, they at least have more than six days between meetings.
But the Sun Devils have a pretty veteran group, as well -- especially on defense and in their front seven -- and they, too, are trying to establish their own legacy. ASU coach Todd Graham vividly remembers the lessons learned when these teams met earlier this season, a game Stanford won 42-28 after jumping out to a 39-7 lead through three quarters.
“When we went to play them earlier in the year, we felt like we were pretty confident,” Graham said. “We were coming off a big win over Wisconsin. We’re a pretty talented team. We thought we were pretty disciplined. And we found out what a disciplined team looked like.”
Since that game, the Sun Devils have gone on to win eight of nine while Stanford has gone 7-2 over that stretch -- including wins over four teams ranked in the top 25.
“There is no question they are a veteran team,” Graham said. “But more importantly, they are the defending Pac-12 champion. The defending Rose Bowl champion. That experience is big. We talk to our players about being humble and being hungry. We are the contender. They are the defending champion. You have to take it from them. They aren’t going to give it away. You can see that maturity. You can see they won the Rose Bowl and they are the defending champion.”
Both of Stanford’s losses have come on the road this season to unranked teams -- though it’s worth noting that quarterback Kevin Hogan is still perfect as a starter against teams ranked in the AP Top 25. But on the road there is a significant drop-off in offensive production as the Cardinal have averaged fewer than 20 points per game in their past three contests away from Palo Alto.
“I think it’s high school, college, NFL -- you play better at home,” Shaw said. “Everybody does. You just have to find a way to win the game at the end. ... For us, it’s about keeping our composure. We don’t want to kick a bunch of field goals. You've got to end those drives in the end zone and hopefully we can slow them down on defense.”
Despite the perceived advantage of playing at home -- where ASU is 7-0 this year and outscoring opponents by an average of more than four touchdowns per game -- Graham said his team can’t take anything for granted.
“We are the contender,” he said. “We have not won a championship. We have to outwork, outprepare -- we have to be twice as hungry. And we'd better be humble and respect that these guys are champions.”