After playing Wisconsin to the wire, the Arizona State football team knows it will need to clean up its mistakes and execute game plans much better if it wants to take down the fifth-ranked Stanford Cardinal.
The Cardinal represent a variety of challenges for the Sun Devils, not the least of which is a mammoth offensive line. All-American left guard David Yankey headlines a tall, physical front that is also among the nation's smartest. The Stanford linemen are such forces in the running game that it's easy to overlook their pass protection abilities.
The Cardinal give quarterback Kevin Hogan ample time to pick apart defenses and Arizona State corner Osahon Irabor knows the secondary has to put together a clean effort.
"We definitely have to be more locked in, this is a Pac-12 opponent with better skill positions," Irabor said. "They're the defending Pac-12 champions so in the back end we have to take away what coach is telling us to take away and play within the defense."
Hogan has completed 28 of 45 attempts this season, 10 of which have gone to breakout wide receiver Ty Montgomery. The junior caught 26 passes last year and is on pace to smash his career highs. Irabor believes Montgomery will be his toughest matchup thus far, but he thinks Stanford has more than just one receiver who can make plays.
"Good receiver (Montgomery), they're all good receivers, they're all good skill players." Irabor said.
Irabor was a factor in the run game last week by providing a hard-nosed presence on corner blitzes. The grad student has 10 tackles on the season and racked up 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack against the Wisconsin Badgers. Irabor believes he'll be needed more in pass coverage this week. Still, he plans on making a difference when Stanford runs the football.
"We're going to bring pressure from all over the field like we always do so I'm always going to be in there a little bit," Irabor said. "Good receivers so I'll be in coverage a little bit more, but I definitely expect to get in the backfield."
The Sun Devils are fortunate to have a sure-tackler playing in their secondary. Against a team that can grind down defensive linemen, reliable run-stoppers can make all the difference.
"If you're a front seven guy and you make a mistake, you can tackle that," Irabor said. "But if you're in the back end and you make a mistake it's a touchdown."
Complete Game Preview
Arizona State has won 16 of the 27 meetings between the two schools. Saturday's meeting is the first time the teams will play since 2010 when an Andrew Luck-led Cardinal squad squeaked by the Sun Devils 17-13 in Tempe.
The Sun Devils own the longest winning streak in the series with five consecutive wins from 1981-1985. If the Cardinal defeat Arizona State on Saturday, it would match the program's longest winning streak against the Sun Devils. Stanford took three straight games between 1999-2001.
Meet the Cardinal
Head Coach: David Shaw (25-4 career, 16-2 in Pac-12)
Stanford on Offense: The Cardinal employ one of the most unique offenses in college football. Though Stanford runs a small amount of base plays compared to spread teams like Oregon, the Cardinal align in formations that include six offensive linemen, three tight ends, pistol and shotgun looks, and even Wildcat sets.
Arizona State safety Alden Darby gave his interpretation of the Cardinal offense.
"They do a lot of shifts and motions," Darby said. "They'll insert a tight end at the tackle spot and have a tackle outside the tight end. They'll have the linemen in a spread formation and split in gaps, they do some tricky stuff."
Bottom line: The trickery is effective. Stanford has amassed more than 400 yards per game in each of its first two games while maintaining balance that most offensive coordinators only dream about. The Cardinal have passed for 206 yards per game while rushing for 196 yards per game.
Tyler Gaffney is the lead horse out of the backfield with 40 carries for 236 yards in two games. Gaffney returns to the Cardinal after making a foray into professional baseball and his 6-foot-1, 226-pound frame is more than capable of bulldozing linebackers.
One difference in the Cardinal's scheme this season comes in the passing game because Stanford lacks a go-to threat at tight end. Stanford's 34-20 win against Army marked the first time in four seasons that a Cardinal tight end did not have a reception. This means Montgomery and fellow wide receivers David Cajuste and Kodi Whitield will see more targets.
Offensive linemen typically don't receive the hype and attention that Stanford's linemen get. That's because they simply aren't as talented as Stanford's offensive line. Guards David Yankey and Kevin Danser are agile (Danser played defensive end earlier in his career) and tackles Andrus Peat and Cameron Fleming move well for their size.
How the Sun Devils can attack the Cardinal
There aren't many ways to outmatch Stanford and that's why Alden Darby says the Sun Devils have spent so much time in the film room this week.
"Stanford is Stanford," Darby said. "A very disciplined team, physical, fast, they're not going to beat themselves."
The Sun Devils need to force the Stanford running game into uncomfortable situations. Stanford thrives on second-and-short and third-and-short downs so stopping the Cardinal rushing attack on first down is a priority.
Will Sutton will finally avoid double teams because Stanford is confident in David Yankey, so Sutton needs to own the line of scrimmage. When Sutton and Jaxon Hood face new center Khalil Wilkes, they need to make the most of their opportunities against the lone question mark on the line.
At the linebacker spot, Steffon Martin, Salamo Fiso and Chris Young have to pursue the ball with a purpose. Taking away cutback lanes is critical because the Cardinal linemen work to the second level so well.
With the linebackers consumed in the running game, the defensive backs will not have the advantage of extra pass defenders. Darby, Irabor, Robert Nelson and Laiu Moeakiola cannot miss coverages.
The real x-factor this week is the Sun Devils' ability to take away the edge running game. Wisconsin dominated the Sun Devils with perimeter sweeps and the Stanford coaching staff knows a thing or two about finding an opponents' weakness. Spur linebacker Anthony Jones cannot lose contain, and the same goes for defensive end Gannon Conway when the Cardinal run his way.
The success of the Sun Devils' defense will rely on how quickly Jones and Conway can pursue upfield and force the Cardinal backs to plant their feet and make the rest of the defense miss.
The Cardinal Defense
Stanford's defense is not just fundamentally sound, it's fundamentally fun to watch. Teams versed in fundamentals earn the "boring" tag far too often, but Stanford's players are some of the best "hitters" in the country. Linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy have All-American potential and Murphy is Stanford's version of Carl Bradford.
Safety Ed Reynolds is arguably the best defensive back in the Pac-12 and his run fill makes just as much of an impact as his pass coverage. Reynolds makes it difficult for teams to hit a home run over the top, and corners Wayne Lyons and Alex Carter make it tough for receivers to find any openings.
The one area the Cardinal is most susceptible is the defensive line. Defensive end Henry Anderson suffered an injury against Army and will miss this week's contest. That means fifth-year senior Josh Mauro will start and his effectiveness against the triple option might not carry over against a spread scheme.
Nose tackle David Parry and defensive end Ben Gardner can stop a running game before it get started, so combo blocks from center Kody Koebensky and his guards as well as strong tight end play are a key to helping Marion Grice get moving.
The Cardinal have proven time and again that points come at a premium in their games, so Arizona State must vary its attack to take advantage of any openings.
How the Sun Devils can attack the Cardinal
The Cardinal were the only squad that pressured the quarterback better than Arizona State last year, and they return plenty of their best pass rushers. That means Taylor Kelly needs to have one of the most efficient games of his career if the Sun Devils want to pull off the upset.
Kelly's duties start in the run game with the read-option. Mike Norvell will target Josh Mauro because of his inexperience, so Kelly's reads are critical to establishing the running game. If the Sun Devils get moving, play-action passes to tight ends should be the next step because Chris Coyle and De'Marieya Nelson are matchup nightmares for any team.
Don't be surprised if the Sun Devils use as many dual-tight end sets as they do three-tight end sets. The Sun Devils should have added wrinkles in the running game this week to put D.J. Foster and Grice on the field at the same time to keep Stanford guessing.
The more options the Cardinal have to cover, the less effective their pass rush becomes. Jaelen Strong will be a factor, but Kevin Ozier and Rick Smith may not see the same success this week because the Cardinal defensive backs are so talented. If Kelly can keep himself from forcing the ball and throw to his safety valves when available, the Sun Devils have a better chance at moving the chains.
Lastly, it's time the Sun Devils incorporate the screen game into their offense. The best way to neutralize a pass rush is with screens and Norvell should try to put the ball in the hands of Grice, Foster, or Deantre Lewis. Rick Smith is slick, but Grice and Foster are more experienced making moves in space.
The Final Breakdown
Stanford is a mirror image of how Todd Graham views his program two to three years from now. The Cardinal are disciplined, efficient, and business-like in every aspect of the game. Stanford even has consistent special teams, which is often the missing link for teams on the brink of greatness. The Sun Devils are capable of pulling off an upset, but they will have to take matters into their own hands. Arizona State needs to win the turnover battle, extend drives on third down conversions, and force Stanford into long down situations. The Sun Devils have too many issues to clean up from the Wisconsin game and it's hard to foresee them turning things around so quickly.
Prediction: Stanford 31, Arizona State 20