Stanford can't afford letdown at ASU

Jim Harbaugh leads No. 6 Stanford to Tempe to face Dennis Erickson's Sun Devils, who are fighting for bowl eligibility. US Presswire

Coach Isaac Newton used to tell his players, "To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction." He got fired and found a second career in science, but his point is relevant to Stanford's visit to Arizona State.

Winning inspires one reaction. Losing, another.

Last weekend, Stanford celebrated a big win over Arizona that pushed it to No. 6 in the BCS standings.

"The next six hours are some of the best times you have," coach Jim Harbaugh said.

And Arizona State (again) pulled defeat from the jaws of victory at USC, losing its second one-point game -- and third by five points or fewer -- this season.

"Somber, very somber," coach Dennis Erickson said. "When you go on the road against a program like that and you have a chance to win the football game and don’t, it’s disheartening."

But the question on Saturday is how each will react, because the stakes remain huge for both.

Erickson's Sun Devils need to win the rest of their games to earn bowl eligibility. The Cardinal figure to be their highest hurdle, though UCLA and a visit to rival Arizona hardly qualify as "gimmes."

And the Cardinal are playing for a potential BCS bowl berth -- either the Rose Bowl or an at-large BCS bowl invitation.

While Stanford is 8-1 and highly ranked and ASU is 4-5 and not, this is far from a mismatch.

"The overall thing with Arizona State is speed," said Harbaugh, indirectly alluding to the only question with his team. "They put a lot of pressure on a defense -- the no-huddle, the tempo, a quarterback who gets the ball out quick."

If Stanford, which has shown a good killer instinct much of the year, comes out flat, it will lose. And Harbaugh seems as aware of the danger the Sun Devils pose as anyone.

"[They are] the kind of football team that would be 7-2 or 8-1 had the bounces gone their way," he said. "Had the luck been with them, they certainly would be there. And they certainly know that."

Of course, Harbaugh has Luck with him: Andrew Luck, a Heisman Trophy candidate and the potential No. 1 overall pick in this spring's NFL draft. (You saw that coming, didn't you?)

Luck has been consistently good throughout the year, and it doesn't hurt that he's playing behind offensive linemen who are physical as run blockers and have yielded just three sacks all season.

"Their offensive front is probably as good as I’ve seen in college football in a long time," Erickson said. "Their quarterback is the best in the country."

The Sun Devils' chances aren't helped by some players being banged up on defense: End James Brooks (concussion), defensive tackle Corey Adams (stinger), linebacker Gerald Munns (hip pointer) and defensive end Junior Onyeali (shoulder) are expected to play, but the Stanford O-line isn't the sort you'd want to face when you're already in pain.

Still, the Sun Devils showed they can challenge a physical, top-10 team (at Wisconsin) and can make big plays that change the complexion of a game quickly (USC). If the Cardinal don't bring their proverbial A-game, they might end up enduring an equal and opposite reaction to its locker room experience last weekend.

As Erickson said, "Somber, very somber."