The Pac-12 championship game is a venue for stars to shine. And there will be plenty of star power on both sides of the ball when Stanford travels to Arizona State for the 2013 title game. There will be 12 first-team all-conference players, six from each team, squaring off. But who are the guys who aren’t first-teamers but could end up making a difference? Who are the unsung heroes from each team? Your Pac-12 bloggers offer up their thoughts. Ted Miller takes the ASU side, while Kevin Gemmell picks a Stanford player.
Ted Miller: While I think the key for Arizona State is establishing some type of running game against the rugged Stanford defense, I want to go the other way on Arizona State's unsung hero: LB Chris Young.
Now, Young is no longer a complete secret. He earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors at a position that's stacked in the conference, but it does seem most folks don't know much about him, a point that two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year Will Sutton brought up Monday when he singled out Young as a "baller" when talking about the Sun Devils defense.
Young not only led the Sun Devils in tackles with 95, he had 35 more tackles than anyone else. So you'd think he'll play a key role as the Arizona State defense tries to contain Tyler Gaffney and Stanford's power running game. In the first meeting at Stanford, a 42-28 Cardinal domination, Young had a game-high 10 tackles.
But in that game, he only had half a tackle for a loss, as Gaffney and the Stanford O-line dominated. In fact, the Sun Devils only had five tackles for a loss in the game. They averaged 7.3 per game in the other 11 games. Young himself had 12.5 tackles for a loss this season to go along with 6.5 sacks, including three against UCLA.
The Sun Devils run an aggressive, attacking defensive scheme. They are willing to take risks to get a handful of negative plays. They need negative plays against Stanford. They can't afford to give the Cardinal third-and-short over and over again.
Of course, Young also could make a couple of plays on third-and-short, and that likely would energize his defense and the home crowd. Stanford likes to go mano-a-mano at the line of scrimmage. If Young leads a charge that wins some of those battles during the early going, you'll see the Sun Devils taking a major step forward from their first meeting at Stanford.
Young needs to make plays against Stanford, both behind or close to the line of scrimmage. You'd have to like the Sun Devils chances if Stanford and QB Kevin Hogan are forced to throw the ball more than they'd like.
Kevin Gemmell: I’m on board with picking a defensive player. It’s always Trent Murphy this and Shayne Skov that when talking about the Stanford defense, which is fine. Those guys are All-America candidates and worthy of all of the praise that is heaped upon them.
But you know who always gets lost in the shuffle? The forgotten linebacker, A.J. Tarpley. Let’s not forget about the guy who is second on the team with 80 tackles, including five for a loss, and a sack.
Tarpley often gets overlooked because of bigger-name players. But who is the guy usually coming up with a big play in a big game? That’s right, it’s Tarpley.
See his 2011 interception of Matt Barkley. See his 2012 pick of Marcus Mariota. And don’t forget about his pick this season of Keith Price and Washington. Tarpley is a big-game player. And the Cardinal will need another big-time performance out of him as they travel to Tempe.
That’s not to say that Tarpley is going to get a pick in this game. Taylor Kelly doesn’t throw many -- though six of his 11 interceptions have come at home this season. When Kelly throws an interception in his career, the Sun Devils are 6-7. When he doesn’t, they are 11-0. So pass rush and turnovers will obviously be critical, as is the case every week.
A lot has been made about this game being at ASU and the fact that both of Stanford's losses have come on the road, which is an important storyline. But some of Tarpley’s best performances in his career have come on the road.
In fact, when you look at just this season, Tarpley averages 8.1 tackles per game on the road and 6 tackles per game at home. Twice he’s had double-digit tackles this year. Both came on the road, as Tarpley had 13 at Oregon State and 12 at Utah.
This is the kind of game Tarpley was made for; on the road, a tense situation, and everyone looking for the superstars to make a play. But it might just be Tarpley who ends up being the true difference-maker.