The season is two weeks old, but it begins on Saturday evening. Yes, the Cardinal dispatched San Jose State, 34-13, two weeks ago and held off Army, 34-20, last Saturday, but the first true test for Stanford arrives in the form of 23rd-ranked and undefeated Arizona State. (Yes, the Pac-12 has all but admitted the Sun Devils should've lost to Wisconsin had the officials done their jobs properly in the closing minutes, but that doesn't really matter anymore.)
ASU opened the season as a popular dark horse choice in the Pac-12 South, and nothing in the season's first few weeks has changed that perception. The Devils sliced through an FBS opponent, Sacramento State, to the tune of 55-0 in the opening week, then squeaked by Wisconsin, 32-30, in the game mentioned above. The Sun Devils will bring with them the type of high-octane offense that's sweeping the Pac-12, and they're led by junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who's gone over 300 yards in each of his first two games.
While ASU probably feels good about how their offense will match up on Saturday (even though they haven't seen a defense like Stanford's), there are likely some concerns about how the Sun Devil defense will deal with Stanford's offense. Wisconsin averaged a whopping 7.2 yards per carry while rushing for 231 yards against them, and it's almost certain that Tyler Gaffney and company will look to exploit that weakness.
But that's enough from me. I'll step aside now and let you listen to an Arizona State expert, Cody Ulm from the ASU blog House Of Sparky. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions to give us a better idea of what to expect from the Sun Devils. (You can read my answers for him about Stanford right here.) Read on, 'cuz knowledge is power!
Go Mighty Card:
It's only been two games, but are you seeing any differences in the Sun Devil offense in the second year under head coach Todd Graham?
House of Sparky:
The offense is relatively the same but wide receiver Jaelen Strong has at least added a new vertical dimension. The junior college transfer has some serious jump ball skills which gives Taylor Kelly a margin for error that he didn’t have last season. One thing worth noting is how little Arizona State has utilized D.J. Foster in the run game thus far. Averaging 137.5 rushing yards per game is underachieving for this team and upping the number of carries Foster receives seems like a simple fix.
Taylor Kelly was great in his first season starting at quarterback in 2012, and he appears to have picked up right where he left off this year with consecutive 300-yard games. In what ways has he improved since last year?
I’d say the biggest improvement is Kelly’s overall knowledge of the offense. He isn’t forcing passes as much. He’s been less about ad-libbing and more about quick reads. Saturday against Wisconsin, Kelly set career highs in completions, attempts and yardage. And the craziest part is he probably would have had another six or seven completions if it wasn’t for drops. But the real test will be how he plays on the road. His decision-making was substantially worse away from Sun Devil Stadium last season.
There is some concern amongst Stanford observers that the defense has appeared vulnerable on the outside. Can we expect to see much speed on the edges from the Sun Devils?
I sure hope so. And this goes back to utilizing D.J. Foster better. Foster is a game-breaking talent who is lightning-quick when he gets to the edge. But for his change-of-pace ability to be effective, Marion Grice needs to eat up chunks of yardage in between the tackles. Grice is averaging 4.0 yards per carry this season after a 6.6 average in 2012. He’s been steady, but I think most spectators can agree that he hasn’t looked as slick on inside runs as he did in his first season. Grice’s unparalleled knack to find pay dirt is still intact; he just needs to match that vision on runs outside the red zone.
The ASU defense yielded more than 200 yards rushing and passing against Wisconsin last week. Was this simply because they came up against a great offense, or are there concerns on the defensive side of the ball?
A worrisome run defense is nothing new for Arizona State. The Sun Devils gave up 182.8 rushing yards per game in 2012. The major flaw resides in the fact that ASU’s defense has sacrificed size for speed. In an effort to rectify that, Arizona State’s excellent strength and conditioning staff helped defenders such as Will Sutton bulk up this offseason. All things considered, ASU did a solid enough job bottling up most of Wisconsin’s runs but they’re obviously still susceptible to the big play. It’s a weakness that Stanford should definitely look to exploit Saturday.
Aside from Taylor Kelly and Will Sutton, give me one player to watch on each side of the ball on Saturday.
Since we already touched on Strong, Grice and Foster, I’ll go with Deantre Lewis. Technically, Lewis is third on the running back depth chart. But there’s a case to be made that he has actually been the most explosive Sun Devil this season. Todd Graham said on Monday that he’s going to try to get him the ball more, so that will certainly be something to watch for. On defense, Carl Bradford seems like the ideal candidate. After publically setting his sights on ASU’s sack record this offseason, the “devilbacker” has failed to register a single sack through two games. To his credit, he has been putting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The most unheralded play in the win over Wisconsin was when Bradford burst through the line to rattle Joel Stave, preventing a game-tying two-point conversion. The Devils are going to need a few plays like that if they’re going to stand a chance against Stanford.
Finally, what's your prediction? Give me a final score and an explanation.
Stanford is going to win, but I’d be absolutely stunned if it was by more than 10. Stanford isn’t built to blow out the opposition and the Sun Devils are aggressive enough to hang with the best of them. Ultimately, I just believe Stanford is too fundamentally sound to allow a lesser opponent to stroll into Palo Alto and steal away their national title aspirations. For all the good Todd Graham has done, his Sun Devils are still without a signature road victory. Nor have they defeated a Pac-12 team with a winning conference record. I don’t think they cross either goal off their checklist Saturday. I’m going to say 27-20, Stanford.