STANFORD, Calif. (AP) - Arizona State linebacker Mike Nixon and Stanford running back Toby Gerhart will be seeing a lot of each other on Saturday night.
How those quick meetings end will go a long way in determining the outcome of their Pac-10 confrontation.
Arizona State (4-2, 2-1) brings a two-game winning streak and the nation's second-best rushing defense to Stanford while the Cardinal counters with the conference's top rusher and second-best rushing offense. Stanford (4-3, 3-2) has a two-game losing streak.
Nixon leads the Sun Devils with 34 tackles and he has company from freshman linebacker Vontaze Burfuit and sophomore linebacker Brandon Magee.
Arizona State's top four tacklers are all linebackers, and that means everybody on defense is doing their jobs.
"All their linebackers have really good instincts," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "They are uniquely gifted. It's an extremely good front seven, as is the secondary."
Gerhart has been slowed but not stopped yet this season, bringing a 124.1 yard average into the fray. He runs behind an experienced offensive line bolstered by the return of NFL prospect Allen Smith last week at left tackle. Sophomore fullback Owen Marecic also factors into the equation.
"No one has consistently moved it against us, but the team we're playing this week is by far the most physical team that we've faced," Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson said. "Their offensive front is really good, their running back is good and their quarterback, Andrew Luck, is special. They've been scoring points against everyone, so we've got our work cut out for us. This is by
far the biggest test that we've had."
Gerhart rushed for 200 yards in the Cardinal's win over Washington earlier this season. Arizona State has not given up more than 81 yards (to Oregon State's Jaquizz Rodgers) to any one running back.
"They run the power play every way you can possibly run it," Erickson said. "Gerhart; he's a stud. He is 240 pounds that can run fast, break tackles, so he creates all kinds of problems. The key to them is their offensive front."
Both teams are in need of a win this week if they want to continue entertaining bowl aspirations. After this game, both schools have dates with California, USC and Oregon remaining.
"It's a process," Harbaugh said. "Four of the five games left are at home. The heavyweights are coming to town and that starts this week. It's something we have to rise to."
Luck had a breakout game for the Cardinal in last week's 43-38 loss to Arizona, throwing for 423 yards and three touchdowns. Arizona State quarterback Danny Sullivan has completed 63 percent of his passes over the past two weeks.
"You know you are going to get the best from Stanford every time you go out," Sullivan said. "I have known that for years, especially with Coach Harbaugh. You are going to get their best every time."
Gerhart's younger brother, Garth, is an offensive lineman for the Sun Devils. Erickson and Stanford defensive coordinator Ron Lynn coached together with the San Francisco 49ers. Arizona State has won the last three games, by a combined score of 120-23, in the series.