The Arizona State Sun Devils enter week four of the college football season with a 2-0 record and the No. 23 ranking in the latest AP poll. The Sun Devils' heart-stopping win against the Wisconsin Badgers has this team feeling like it's on top of the world. Now it's time for reality to set in.
Arizona State played uncharacteristically sloppy against Wisconsin and squeaked by with a win. Against a team like Stanford, the same mistakes will turn a two-point win into a 30-point blowout loss. The Cardinal is regarded as one of the top teams in the country and enters this weekend with an identical 2-0 mark.
Stanford does not put up Oregon-like offensive stats. Instead the Cardinal runs the ball with physicality and toughness and often in offensive sets aimed at creating mismatches on the ground. Expect three-tight end sets, six-offensive linemen sets, and a rugged approach from the Cardinal ballcarriers who enjoy running through their opponents as much as they do running around them.
Does Arizona State have what it takes to chop the trees in Palo Alto this Saturday? It's time to meet the Stanford Cardinal.
The First Look
2012 Record (12-2, 9-1 in Pac-12)
Last week, Arizona State faced off against reigning Big Ten champion and Rose Bowl finalist Wisconsin. This week, the Sun Devils get the Rose Bowl victors and a team that has dominated the Pac-12 over the past two seasons.
Stanford was among the most impressive teams in the country last year with a smash-mouth style of play on both sides of the ball. The only team that pressured the quarterback better than Arizona State was the Cardinal as they racked up more than four sacks per game.
The primary issue plaguing Stanford last season was inconsistent quarterback play at the beginning of the year. After David Shaw tagged redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan as the starter, Stanford enjoyed a 5-0 finish to the regular season with victories against four consecutive ranked opponents.
Hogan and the Cardinal defeated Wisconsin 20-14 in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day and celebrated with the knowledge that most of their major contributors from last season's squad would return to chase a National Championship.
2013 Record (2-0, 0-0 in Pac-12)
The Cardinal opened the season with two solid efforts against overmatched opponents in the San Jose State Spartans and the Army Black Knights.
Stanford has looked vulnerable at times but expect the Cardinal to have all their kinks worked out by Saturday because Pac-12 play is starting. The Cardinal suffered a blow against Washington early in the Pac-12 schedule last year and they want to head into their showdown against Oregon with an unblemished record.
Led by running back Tyler Gaffney's 236 yards, the Cardinal have flashed moments of brilliance in the running game thus far. Stanford has also had its fair share of plays stuffed at the line of scrimmage and the longest run the Cardinal broke in their first two games was a 27-yard dash from Anthony Wilkerson.
In a 34-13 demolition of San Jose State, the Cardinal defense allowed 216 passing yards but just 35 rushing yards. That doesn't mean they aren't susceptible to giving up big plays on the ground. A steady option attack from Army netted 284 rushing yards and a better than expected offensive output.
It's hard to say how far along the Cardinal is this season with just two games in the books. Arizona State passed a tough test against Wisconsin and Stanford is looking forward to the opportunity to take on a ranked opponent this Saturday.
Head Coach: David Shaw
At Stanford and overall: (25-4, 16-2 in Pac-12 in three seasons)
Stanford on Offense
Redshirt sophomore Kevin Hogan is 7-0 in his career as a starting quarterback and demonstrates great footwork and knowledge of his offense. Hogan is similar to Taylor Kelly in that both players thrive in the short to intermediate passing game and can make plays with their feet when called upon. Hogan has completed 28 of 45 attempts this year and is averaging just under 200 yards per game.
The Stanford offense is built on its running game and that means the Cardinal have a stable of capable backs. Tyler Gaffney is the overwhelming No. 1 as his 40 carries are 27 more than the next closest back. Gaffney returned to the farm after trying his hand at professional baseball and his athleticism and vision have helped separate him from the pack. Anthony Wilkerson will mix in against Arizona State and watch out for the highly touted Barry Sanders Jr. in special situations.
Through the Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw years, the one knock on the Cardinal offense has always been its receivers. Stanford churns out tight ends like its got a factory on campus, but the receiving game has lacked consistent threats. Ty Montgomery looks like the answer this season after posting 10 catches in two games. David Cajuste and Kodi Whitfield have shown promise so far, but an experienced Arizona State secondary could force Stanford to run the ball even more so than it expects to.
As the receiving cupboard stocks up, the offensive line reloads. Left guard David Yankey is a future first round draft pick and Khalil Wilkes won a three-way battle for the starting center job over two qualified candidates. Sophomore left tackle Andrus Peat is a Tempe native who could mold into the anchor of the offensive line in the future.
Stanford on Defense
Despite surrendering 33 points in two games (It's Stanford so we're calling that a lot of points), the Cardinal have the potential to be the nation's best defense. Sophomore cornerback Alex Carter is the lone underclassman in the starting eleven and he held down the fort as a freshman last season.
Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards form one of the premier safety duos in the Pac-12 and Reynolds has a reputation as one of the most punishing open field tacklers in the country.
The linebacking corps may be the defense's top individual unit as it returns a pair of fifth-year seniors in Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Murphy and Skov are team captains and ferocious run stoppers who will make a living on Sundays in the near future. James Vaughters and A.J. Tarpley are a little behind Murphy and Skov, but they round out the linebacking group well.
Ben Gardner is a force to be reckoned with on the defensive line and David Shaw has praised the play of fifth-year senior Josh Mauro in his first two games. Mauro was an integral part of stopping the run against Army and will definitely play in short-yardage situations against Arizona State.
Stanford has yet to exhibit traits of invincibility on defense, but the Cardinal players have yet to face an opponent that they can get fired up about. All that changes when Arizona State comes to town on Saturday.