Utah’s football season is over, but the Utes will experience flashbacks Saturday. The high point of the Utes’ third year of Pac-12 membership and an example of the missed opportunities that characterized their season will be represented in the conference championship game.
Utah led Stanford and Arizona State by 13 and 12 points after three quarters of each game. ASU rallied to earn a one-point victory, a month after Stanford had come within 6 yards of doing the same.
That frame of reference should make the championship game appealing to Ute fans, who have strong memories of the contestants’ visits to Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson’s having recruited the bulk of the ASU roster is another intriguing element of the matchup.
Erickson obviously left the Sun Devils with considerable talent when he was fired after the 2011 season, his fifth year in Tempe. Todd Graham, his replacement, has maximized that personnel. Graham merited the Pac-12 coach of the year award with two impressive sets of numbers: a 10-2 record and his team’s 28.5 penalty yards per game, ranking third nationally.
ASU never was known as a highly disciplined team, but that’s changed. “I think young people will meet whatever standard you set,” Graham said Tuesday during a Pac-12 media teleconference, adding that his staff “actually educated our players on the rules” in the interest of reducing penalties.
Last season, Stanford topped UCLA in the Pac-12 title game only six days after beating the Bruins to conclude the regular season. In this year’s case, what happened Sept. 21, when Stanford held a 39-7 lead over ASU after three quarters on the way to a 42-28 victory, “almost feels like a season ago,” said Stanford coach David Shaw.
The Sun Devils have improved markedly since then — “We found out what a disciplined team looks like,” Graham said — while Stanford appears to be about the same team. The result should be a terrific game at Sun Devil Stadium, with the winner advancing to the Rose Bowl.
These teams are deserving, that’s for sure. Stanford lost close games to Utah and USC, but beat Oregon and also benefitted from the Ducks’ loss to Arizona in earning the Pac-12 North’s bid to the title game.
ASU, which lost only to Stanford in conference play, would have represented the South even without having rallied for that 20-19 victory over Utah. But salvaging that win helped enable the Sun Devils to host the championship game in a season that began with ASU outside of the AP Top 25. ASU is approaching the rematch with Stanford as “contenders,” Graham said. “We’d better respect the fact that these guys are champions. … Our guys know exactly what they’re in for.”
Stanford and ASU led the Pac-12 with six first-team all-conference selections apiece. The Cardinal’s honorees are defensive lineman Ben Gardner (who’s injured), linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, defensive back Ed Reynolds, offensive lineman David Yankey and return specialist Ty Montgomery.
ASU features defensive lineman Will Sutton (the league’s two-time defensive player of the year), defensive backs Robert Nelson and Alden Darby, tight end Chris Coyle, offensive lineman Evan Finkenberg and kicker Zane Gonzalez.
O No. 7 Stanford at No. 11 Arizona State
Saturday, 5:45 p.m.
TV • ESPN