In its Pac-12 opener against then-No. 23 Arizona State, Stanford opened with arguably its best half of football ever. Seriously.
In building a 29-0 halftime lead and extending it to 39-7 through three quarters, the Cardinal looked every bit a team poised to make a run at a national title. Then came the fourth quarter, in which Stanford was forced to hold off a furious charge to win 42-28.
Those first three quarters were rendered nearly obsolete, and when Stanford coach David Shaw addressed the media following the game, it wasn't the most jovial of sessions.
"I'm not going to apologize for winning a football game," he said, almost defiantly. "I could care less about style points; I could care less about what it looks like. We played one great half and a solid third quarter and a bad fourth quarter. That's the bottom line."
With the Cardinal (10-2 overall, 7-2 Pac-12) set to play Arizona State (10-2, 8-1) again on Saturday in the Pac-12 championship, it turns out that poor fourth quarter might have been a blessing in disguise. Say Stanford had added another two touchdowns and won 53-7. Would there be any feeling in the Stanford locker room that the rematch was anything to worry about? Probably not.
Instead, Stanford has a first-hand reminder of just how dangerous the Sun Devils can be, and if that's not enough, there is plenty of game film since then that makes the same case.
"You put the film on, you watch these guys run by people. You watch them dominate games," Shaw said. "You watch them dominate teams we struggled with. You put two game films on and you immediately have a lot of respect for these guys.
"That game was a long time ago. We believe we’re a different team, they’re a different team, this is a new game and it’s almost like a different season."
If there are two players to watch in the game, they're Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton and Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy. For the second straight season, Sutton was named the conference's Defensive Player of the Year despite much more gaudy stats from Murphy, the nation's sack leader. It's been a topic of debate since it was announced Monday and was addressed by Shaw.
"I don’t know if anyone in our conference causes more problems than Trent Murphy leading the nation in sacks," he said. "I would say that’s a little bit of a disappointment. But I’ll never say anything bad about Sutton. He’s a great football player, not a good football player, a great football player."
If Stanford wins, Shaw would join Chip Kelly (Oregon) and Larry Coker (Miami) to become the third coach to take his program to BCS bowls in each of his first three seasons. A Rose Bowl berth would be Stanford's fourth consecutive BCS bowl, which -- pending an unlikely at-large bid for Oregon -- would give the Cardinal the nation's longest active streak.
Arizona State hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since losing to Ohio State 20-17 in 1997.