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December 5, 2013

Notebook: Slowing the Sun Devils

Stanford was well on its way to a thorough shellacking of then-No. 23 Arizona State when the Cardinal and Sun Devils met in September. Then, the fourth quarter arrived. In the final 15 minutes of play, the Sun Devils trimmed a 32-point deficit to a two-touchdown one, and put a brief scare into Stanford.

What allowed Arizona State to close the gap?

"I think they executed," Stanford inside linebackers coach David Kotulski said. "We mentally maybe got a little conservative with what we did (and) also switched some people on them. We made some mistakes, they made some plays. They're a good football team. Any time you play a good football team like that they're going to make some plays. You have to contain the big ones. As Coach Mason always talks about we have to stop the explosives and the big plays. You do that and tackle and play, we'll be able to control it. It's going to be a dogfight. There's no question about that, especially going down to their stadium and their home."

Arizona State's offense has been operating on all cylinders for most of the season. The Sun Devils have been held below 30 points only twice all year (against Stanford and Utah), and are ranked No. 8 nationally in scoring offense. Arizona State is averaging 44 points per game in its current seven-game winning streak.

"(Arizona State) has a really great facilitator in (quarterback) Taylor Kelly," Kotulski said. "He's like a point guard in basketball. He can really make things work. Whether it's a Chris Paul or whoever it is, that's what he's like. He's an athletic guy, makes very good decision, is deceptive with the ball. Throws accurate passes. He has some very skilled kids to get it to. With the tempo and everything else, the thing that they do is they've cut down the penalties, they've cut down the turnovers and been very effective in terms of what they do. Whether it's Marion Grice, whether it's D.J. Foster or Jaelen Strong or the tight end, they're all very, very good players and guys that we have a lot of respect for."

The Sun Devils are expected to be without one of the key cogs in their offense on Saturday, however. Starting running back Marion Grice, who's rushed for 996 yards and scored 14 touchdowns this year, is unlikely to play with a sprained ankle. Still, Grice's absence won't impact Stanford's defensive approach.

"They're explosive athletes and whether it's Grice or D.J. Foster (who received the bulk of the carries in Grice's absence last week), they're both guys that play very well in space and have good vision and make excellent cuts," Kotulski said. "D.J. has played a lot of running back in his time so he has a lot of skills… We change our scheme a little bit to suit the team that we're playing and they'll do the same thing. Other than that, no, it really doesn't change a whole heck of a lot."

Senior legacy: Stanford's senior class is already arguably the most accomplished in school history. A win over Arizona State and a second straight trip to the Rose Bowl would only add to the group's accomplishments.

"They want to see how far they can push themselves and see what their legacy is," Shaw said. "(Either way), it's still a phenomenal legacy. As I said the other day, there's only three teams in the nation that have 10 or more wins in four years. That's already a legacy. To go to back-to-back Rose Bowls, that's an addition to the legacy. How high we finish ranked is addition to the legacy. All those things that I think worked together. But they don't think about the negative side of it because it's all positive right now. just how far can we push ourselves."

The Pac-12 title game will also be one of the final times fifth-year senior linebacker Shayne Skov will deliver one of his patented pregame speeches to the team.

"I do know that it's from the heart," Shaw said. "I do know that he takes that role seriously as a team leader, as a captain, and as the heartbeat of our defense. I think he likes for his teammates to feel his energy. That's what that moment is about for him."

Shaw's favorite Skov speech? The one the Cardinal inside linebacker gave before the Grandaddy of Them All.

"The Rose Bowl was probably the one I remember the most," Shaw said. "He talked about playing for each other, do it for your brothers, do it for your family. That one kind of gave me chills."

Nwafor could miss bowl game: It's still uncertain when reserve defensive lineman Ikenna Nwafor will return to the field from the lower-body injury he suffered against Washington State earlier this season. It's now likely that Nwafor will miss at least the early portion of Stanford's bowl practices, and there's a chance he might even miss the team's bowl game.

"He hasn't quite turned the corner yet liked we had hoped," Shaw said. "He's off of crutches and out of the boot and starting to do some of the plyometric stuff but not ready to do the on-the-field stuff. It might still be close. We might not have him for the bowl game. We'll see."

If Nwafor isn't able to participate in Stanford's bowl practices, he'll miss a valuable period in the development of any young player.

"It's extra spring practice," Shaw said. "Especially early in bowl practices the older guys don't do a whole lot. We're still getting those guys to refresh and recuperate. But the younger guys get a ton of it. And they get to do our stuff, not running cards for somebody else's offense. They get to do our stuff. We get to coach them and teach them and push them. The older guys are kind of on the side yelling at them, cheering them on. That's what we need."

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