When Arizona State met Stanford earlier this season, it turned out to be a clear mismatch in favor of the Cardinal. Now, the two foes are preparing to lock horns again with the Pac-12 Championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl on the line.
The Sun Devils are the only Pac-12 team that made it through nine conference games with just a single loss and they have earned the opportunity to host the Stanford Cardinal. While Stanford holds a head-to-head victory over Arizona State, the Cardinal lost to Utah and USC which are two opponents that the Sun Devils defeated this season.
The most glaring issue for the Sun Devils in the Sept. 21 matchup between these two squads was Arizona State's inability to stop the run. Sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood suffered an injury early on in Palo Alto, and Arizona State was ill-equipped to deal with his loss. Now, the Sun Devil defense line has taken on a different look with Davon Coleman on the interior, and it's decisively dominant unit.
Arizona State has also inserted Damarious Randall and Salamo Fiso into the starting lineup at safety and linebacker respectively, and the young athletes continue to grow with each outing. Three of the Sun Devils' defensive starters are different, but the Arizona State offense also has a different look.
Running back Marion Grice is out for the Pac-12 Championship game and the conference's leader in all-purpose yards per game and touchdowns is a significant loss. For the second week in a row, Arizona State will rely on D.J. Foster to tote the rock and Foster will look to build off of his career-best performance against Arizona.
But enough about the new-look Sun Devils, it's time to see how Stanford has evolved throughout the season. For the second time this year, let's meet the Cardinal.
The First Look
Stanford: (10-2, 7-2 in Pac-12)
Stanford opened the season as a national title contender, and if not for a few tough breaks, the Cardinal might still be in the championship game mix this week.
The Cardinal have one of the most physical defenses in the country, but it's been the Stanford offense that has let down coach David Shaw's squad this season. In Stanford's two losses, the Cardinal have mustered a combined 38 points.
Scoring wasn't an issue for the Cardinal in its first five games of the season, as Stanford jumped out to a quick 5-0 start. After pummeling San Jose State and Army, the Cardinal hosted Arizona State and thrashed the Sun Devils in a 29-0 beat down in the first half. When the teams returned from the locker rooms, the Sun Devils regrouped and made the game competitive again before falling 42-28.
Two victories later, the Cardinal traveled to Utah for what should have amounted to Stanford's sixth win of the season. But the Utes flipped the script and played inspired defense in a shocking 27-21 win that sent Stanford tumbling out of the national championship picture.
The Cardinal responded with two straight wins, including a 24-10 victory against a tough UCLA Bruins squad just a week after collapsing in Salt Lake City. At 7-1, the Cardinal prepared to host the Oregon Ducks for Pac-12 North bragging rights.
Though Oregon came into the matchup undefeated, the Cardinal handed the Ducks a 26-20 loss that was a complete exercise in frustration for Mark Helfrich's team.
Stanford looked invincible once again after toppling Oregon, but nine days later the USC Trojans sent shockwaves through the Pac-12 with a 20-17 upset of the Cardinal. The loss marked Stanford's second conference defeat, and meant the Oregon Ducks were back in the North division driver's seat.
Amazingly, the Cardinal found themselves back in control of the division after a listless effort from Oregon against Arizona the following week. Stanford rounded out the regular season with victories over California and Notre Dame, and now, the Cardinal will compete for the Pac-12 Championship in Tempe on Saturday.
Head Coach: David Shaw
At Stanford and overall: (33-6, 23-4 in Pac-12 in three seasons)
Stanford on Offense
When Stanford met Arizona State in September, the Cardinal game plan was simple. David Shaw wanted to gash the heart of the Sun Devil defense on the ground and bring the defensive backs into the box to open up the play-action game.
This Saturday, the Sun Devils should expect more of the same from the Cardinal, with a few wrinkles thrown in to create mismatches at the point of attack. The Sun Devil run defense has grown by leaps and bounds since the two teams last met, and the personnel is confident in its ability to shut down high-profile opponents.
Everything Stanford does offensively starts with putting the ball in the hands of Tyler Gaffney, who carried 33 times for 189 yards and a touchdown last week against Notre Dame. Gaffney's 1,485 rushing yards are third in the Pac-12, and 87 of those yards came against the Sun Devils earlier this year.
In September, Gaffney split the load with Anthony Wilkerson who also carried 18 times, and Wilkerson could see a similar workload against the Sun Devils because his physical running style is tougher for the Sun Devils to slow down.
Stanford often uses seven and eight offensive linemen in select formations, and that will hold true against Arizona State. The Sun Devils are more vulnerable on edge rushing plays, and much of the Cardinal's success on the ground will hinge on All-American guard David Yankey's ability to pull through running lanes and free up his backs.
Arizona State has thrived on backside pursuit to the football this season, and no one does it better than Carl Bradford and Chris Young. When plays flow to the strong side, Young and Bradford shore up cutback lanes which is something Stanford can capitalize on if the duo becomes too aggressive.
Wide receiver Ty Montgomery is a threat on reverse plays and speed sweeps, but it was fellow wideout Kelsey Young who rushed for 32 yards on a reverse against Arizona State back in September. The key for the Sun Devils' defense will be reading the flow of the offensive linemen and not over-pursuing if they see ball carriers moving the opposite direction of the linemen.
As Stanford looks to find a way to get the ball to Gaffney and Montgomery, the Cardinal will rely on Kevin Hogan to manage the hostile crowd in Tempe. Arizona State has enjoyed a significant home field advantage this season, and Hogan will be under siege throughout the night.
Hogan may rank 11th in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game, but he owns the conference's fourth-best efficiency rating among quarterbacks. The Sun Devils will look to force Hogan to beat them, so the man-to-man coverage from the secondary must be excellent when Todd Graham dials up blitz packages.
The Cardinal have been most successful in the intermediate passing game of late, and this week marks another chance for the Sun Devil defense to prove it can shut down an opponent perceived to be more physical.
Stanford on Defense
Stanford's 3-4 front is regarded as one of the toughest, most rugged front sevens in the country. The Cardinal are led by two of the country's most dynamic linebackers in Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, who are the fearless leaders of the "Party in the Backfield" for Stanford's defense.
Murphy leads the nation with 13.0 sacks and anchors a Cardinal scheme designed to collapse the pocket and force opposing quarterbacks into making quick decisions.
James Vaughters and A.J. Tarpley are the inside linebackers and they aren't far behind Skov and Murphy in terms of production. Tarpley's 80 tackles rank second on the team and Vaughters owns 6.0 tackles for loss on the season.
The Cardinal's biggest test this week will be the battle up front, as Stanford has been hampered by injuries to key players on the defensive line. Ben Gardner is one of the smartest Cardinal defenders, but his career is over after injuring a pectoral muscle against Oregon State this season.
Defensive end Josh Mauro had a solid outing against Arizona State earlier this year, but he's also been slowed by an injury and missed the game against Notre Dame. Mauro expects to return for the Pac-12 Championship game, and the Cardinal can certainly use his ability to push the line of scrimmage backward. Mauro will often be the man Taylor Kelly reads in the read-option, so that should give you a hint about Mauro's importance to this game.
With a defensive line on the mend, the Cardinal will rely on its linebackers to slow the run and its secondary to make improvements in pass coverage from the last time it played Arizona State. The Stanford secondary couldn't contain Jaelen Strong, who hauled in 12 receptions for 168 yards in Palo Alto.
Stanford also made errors in coverage and missed tackles in the second half, but those are uncharacteristic mistakes the Cardinal are not prone to committing. Last week, cornerback Wayne Lyons recorded two interceptions against Notre Dame and it wouldn't come as a surprise to see Lyons press Strong and have the Cardinal bracket the Sun Devils' top threat over the top.
Safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards form a potent 1-2 punch in the secondary, and the Cardinal are hoping that Reynolds can play a complete game against the Sun Devils. Reynolds was ejected for a targeting penalty in the teams' previous matchup, and he's one of the best defensive playmakers when he's on the field.
One of Stanford's strengths in the last matchup was the Cardinal's ability to adjust to new schemes and play calls from Mike Norvell and Arizona State. It felt as if Norvell tried to outsmart himself at times in the first half, but once he restored rhythm to the offense after halftime, we saw why he's one of the brightest minds in college football.
If anyone can devise a scheme to take advantage of the Cardinal at this point in the season, Norvell is a likely candidate. Stanford has one of the most efficient defenses in the country and can put pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush, so we'll see a tremendous game of cat and mouse when the Cardinal line up on defense this week.