Stanford and Arizona State have evolved to such degrees since their late-September duel that Cardinal coach David Shaw said Saturday's Pac-12 championship game feels "like a different season."

Stanford has coalesced around running back Tyler Gaffney and solidified defensively.

The Sun Devils have learned how to win high-stakes games and expanded their array of playmakers.

But the biggest difference this time around is the change in location from Stanford Stadium to Sun Devil Stadium.

"It's going to be loud and exciting against a really good team that feeds off the environment,'' Shaw said.

The venue shift helps explain why No. 7 Stanford, which won the first meeting by two touchdowns, is a three-point underdog this week.

The Cardinal has been skittish away from home. It lost at Utah and USC and needed a last-minute defensive stand to secure its lone Pac-12 victory in true road games, at Oregon State.

The Sun Devils are dynamite at home, handling their five Pac-12 opponents by an average of 28 points. The ledger includes a blowout of Washington, which lost by a field goal in Stanford Stadium.

If Shaw requires an antidote for complacency against an opponent the Cardinal already vanquished, he need only show highlights of the Sun Devils on their home field.

"They've dominated teams we struggled with,'' he said.

When Stanford and ASU met on the fourth Saturday of the season, the Sun Devils had just beaten Wisconsin in a controversial finish and were about to face USC and Notre Dame.

They emerged from the four-game gantlet -- those teams have a collective record of 36-13 -- with two victories and innumerable lessons learned.

"I don't think we'd be where we are without that schedule,'' ASU coach Todd Graham said. "It allowed the program to grow."

The 42-28 loss at Stanford proved to be a powerful example for the Sun Devils, showing them what was needed to compete for the conference crown and what is required to beat Stanford on Saturday.

The Cardinal's ground-and-pound approach stands in contrast to the style of play used by most teams in the Pac-12. ASU seemed wholly unprepared in the first meeting: Stanford rushed for 240 yards -- or 100 more than the Sun Devils have allowed, on average, this season.

"I think it has benefitted us tremendously,'' Graham said. "Our guys know how physical they're going to be, how efficient they're going to be and how well-coached they're going to be.''

  • ASU was one of the most-penalized teams in the Pac-12 under former coach Dennis Erickson. But in just two seasons, Graham has instilled a heavy dose of disciple:

    The Sun Devils have transformed into the league's least-penalized team, with an average of 3.7 per game.

    "We actually educated our players on the rules,'' Graham said.

  • Shaw has personal experience with ASU football. His father, Willie, spent five years as an assistant in Tempe when Shaw was in elementary school.

    "I have unbelievable memories every time I go back to that stadium,'' he said.

    For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.

    Saturday's game
    Pac-12 Championship: Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) at Arizona State (10-2, 8-1), 4:45 p.m. ESPN