TEMPE, Ariz. – Arizona State coach Todd Graham has repeatedly asked his players to embrace big games, not fear them. Winning when the spotlight is shining brightest is what takes teams to the elite level, he tells them.
The Sun Devils have had some success with resume-building wins in their three seasons under Graham, including a victory over No. 16 Southern California two weeks ago.
But for all Arizona State has done right on the big stage, one team has consistently kept it from climbing higher: Stanford.
So when it comes to measuring-stick games, knocking off the 23rd-ranked Cardinal on Saturday night in the desert could be a huge boost for the 17th-ranked Sun Devils.
"Our guys know that this week is character vs. character, smart vs. smart, discipline vs. discipline, toughness vs. toughness and these guys have our respect," Graham said. "They are the two-time defending champion and they define those four things, and that's what we're trying to do."
Beating the Cardinal with both teams in contention for division titles could be a start to getting there.
Arizona State's biggest problem in the past has been matching up with Stanford's physical style.
The Pac-12 is filled with fast, athletic teams that like to push the tempo. The Cardinal are more gut-punchers than knockout artists, relying on brute force, a rare approach — at least these days — that makes them tough to prepare for.
The Sun Devils have yet to figure out how to do it.
The Cardinal (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) have won the past four games in the series, dating to 2008. Stanford manhandled Arizona State in a pair of games last season, beating the Sun Devils 42-28 in Northern California after racing to a 32-point lead, then steamrolling them 38-14 in the Pac-12 championship game in Tempe.
But the Cardinal aren't looking at the Sun Devils (4-1, 2-1) as a team they can dominate again. There's been too much turnover in personnel on both teams, and they know the Sun Devils will vary their plan of attack after being overpowered twice last season.
"It's hard to say there will be much carry-over at all," Stanford coach David Shaw said.
A few more things to look for when Stanford faces Arizona State at Sun Devil Stadium:
KELLY RETURNS: Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly is expected to play for the first time since injuring his right foot against Colorado on Sept. 13. How much action he sees is up in the air. Kelly returned to practice this week and Graham said he will play some against Stanford. Junior Mike Bercovici has played well in his place, throwing for 998 yards, but it's not clear who will start or how much Kelly will play.
CARDINAL INJURIES: Stanford has struggled offensively at times this season and will be without one of its top playmakers against Arizona State. Devon Cajuste, Stanford's second-leading receiver with 18 catches, has been ruled out after suffering a concussion against Washington State last week. Austin Hooper also is questionable with an undisclosed injury. He leads the Cardinal's tight ends with 16 catches for 202 yards.
DIVISION RACES: The Cardinal and Sun Devils are still in the hunt for their respective division races, adding to the importance of this game. Stanford, which lost its Pac-12 opener to USC, has won its past two conference games to stay tied with Oregon atop the North Division. The Sun Devils followed a loss to UCLA with a desperation-pass victory over USC that leaves them a half-game behind the Trojans in the South.
PACE GAME: Arizona State runs an up-tempo offense that's among the fastest-paced in the country, averaging 77 plays per game. The Cardinal, on the other hand, are a bit more methodical, averaging 65 plays per game. Stanford has been good at the pace game against the Sun Devils in the past, grinding out long drives to keep Arizona State's offense off the field. The Sun Devils must change that to end their losing streak to the Cardinal.
CONTAINING MONTGOMERY: Slowing Stanford's Ty Montgomery will be one of Arizona State's top priorities. The Cardinal receiver/kick returner is a threat to score every time he touches the ball and has given the Sun Devils trouble in the past. He had a game-opening 50-yard kickoff return that set the tone in the first matchup between these teams last season. Montgomery is ninth nationally returning kickoffs, averaging 29.1 yards per return, and was voted the Pac-12 special teams player of the week after totaling 206 all-purpose yards against Washington State last Friday.