From the day Todd Graham arrived at Arizona State, he talked the talk. On Saturday night, the Sun Devils have a chance to walk the walk.
Graham has piloted this team to its first ever Pac-12 Championship game appearance. If that's not impressive enough, imagine this Sun Devil fans: if the conference did not start a title game three years ago, Arizona State would have clinched the Pac-12 and a trip to the Rose Bowl with last week's win over Arizona.
Graham has managed to change the culture and dynamic in Tempe without ever taking a step backward, but the one thing he's yet to do is beat up on of the conference's big two. Oregon and Stanford have blown out the Sun Devils in meetings over the last two years, but that was before Graham took a page out of NFL coach Bill Belichick's playbook, and that could be the difference in this one.
Matchup of the Week: Arizona State versus What Stanford Does Best
I don't care how obvious and simple this may seem, the fact is you would be blown away by the amount of coaches out there who simply don't adapt to what other teams do. How often do you hear "we're gonna play our brand of football" and "they're gonna have to beat us" from players and coaches? It's borderline nauseating and simply not intelligent.
But since the Notre Dame game, Graham and the Sun Devils have done a great job of keying in on what the other team does well and neutralizing it; instead forcing role players to step up and make plays. The New England Patriots have won Super Bowls using this strategy. The plan has only backfired once for the Sun Devils.
Sun Devil D vs. Stanford Rushing Attack
I said the plan only backfired once, right? That game was in Dallas, against Notre Dame, when ASU finally shut down an opponent's strength - in this case the single back running game - only to have mediocre quarterback Tommy Rees look like Joe Montana most of the night.
Since then, Arizona State has neutralized the opponent's best players and schemes. Bishop Sankey couldn't get Washington's run game, at the time the best in the country, past the line of scrimmage for most of the game, and quarterback Keith Price couldn't beat the Devils. Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey was neutralized in the first half, a non-factor, and B.J. Denker was battered and bruised because of it. UCLA couldn't get Myles Jack going in the first half, and the Bruins found themselves in a hole too large to overcome. Even Oregon State, with the best quarterback and receiver combo in the country at the time, could never spring Brandin Cooks free and Sean Mannion was a turnover machine as a result.
So what's the plan this week? Arizona State has to shut down the Stanford power rushing attack.
In the first meeting between these two teams, the Cardinal pummeled Arizona State. Stanford ran for 240 yards on a 4.9-yard per carry average. The worst part is, the average wasn't skewed by multiple home runs, but instead Stanford just picked up 3.5-4.5 on every carry and hit a few doubles along the way.
The Sun Devils have changed on defense since this meeting. Until the second half against Arizona, Arizona State had prevented opposing teams from running the ball for any significant amount of yardage since the Stanford game.
Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway have gone from little-known rotational ends to lock-down edge setters. And Jaxon Hood, who was hurt in the first meeting, is playing the best football of his career.
The best way to stop Stanford's rushing attack is to get multiple bodies in the backfield. Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson are both one-cut runners. Neither wants to really bounce the ball outside and dance around, they'd rather just go through defenders. Arizona State is too small to take on the running backs and Stanford's massive offensive line one-on-one, but they hold a distinct athletic edge over the Cardinal up front.
Blitzing Chris Young from different angles and getting Carl Bradford and Will Sutton rotating and stunting should help Arizona State find some holes in the blocking scheme and get in the backfield. The secondary will also be key for the Devils, thanks to the improvements made by Damarious Randall and Robert Nelson, which should allow for more blitzing by Osahon Irabor and Alden Darby in the run game.
Keep an eye on Stanford left tackle Andrus Peat, a towering and strong lineman who struggles to get his arms extended and move his feat. That's the side I would expect Arizona State to attack from.
If the Sun Devils can shut down the Cardinal running game, the onus will be on quarterback Kevin Hogan to win the game for Stanford. Hogan has taken a step back this season, and in the first meeting he struggled when asked to throw the ball. And now he has to go on the road.
Arizona State has returned an interception for a touchdown in three straight games. Robert Nelson has six interceptions on the year, including one off of Hogan, and the team has 21 total.
Hogan's also a totally different quarterback away from the farm, as expected with game-managers. In Stanford's loss to Utah, he completed just 15 of 27 and was sacked twice. Against USC, Hogan threw two interceptions while completing 14 of 25 for only 127 yards.
Interestingly enough, the Cardinal ran the ball extremely well against USC, with Gaffney averaging over six yards per carry, but Stanford insisted on continuing to throw the ball.
This should also worry Cardinal fans, as should the team's refusal to use Wilkerson of late. If Stanford is already trending away from the run for no apparent reason, what's doing to happen if Graham can devise a plan to stop Gaffney?
If David Shaw's answer is to let it fly, look out.
Hogan is more of a manager than he is a playmaker, and forcing him to win a game of this magnitude should be exactly what the Sun Devils need to smell roses when the clock hits zero.