Good news Sun Devil Fans: Your team is 2-0, ranked and just beat a team fresh off of three consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl. Bad news: This week's opponent is fresh off a victory in the Rose Bowl against that very team the Sun Devils beat last week, is a legitimate National Championship contender and the game is on the road.
No. 5 Stanford has been one of the most consistent teams in college football over the last five seasons. The team plays football the old-fashioned way, or at least they have in the past. They want to run the ball down your throat, win the time-of-possession battle, not turn the ball over and hit you in your jaw on defense.
But recently the Cardinal have been able to expand the playbook a little. Like the Sun Devils, the Cardinal have found success allowing the quarterback to improvise and use his feet to extend plays, and that will put an even bigger emphasis on the two of the conferences best linebacker groups.
Matchup of the Week: Quarterbacks vs. middle linebackers
Each team has smart quarterbacks who have proved themselves in various situations, and both teams have veteran linebackers up the middle who are athletic and know how to play the run and pass well. The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense, making calls at the line of scrimmage and leading his squad throughout the game. Watching each quarterback adjust to the opposing defense and then seeing the defense adjust back should be a lot of fun Saturday night.
Taylor Kelly versus AJ Tarpley and Shayne Skov
Stanford runs a traditional 3-4 with two aggressive middle linebackers that are usually responsible for different assignments on each play. Skov is a versatile linebacker who could also play outside if needed. He is an explosive pass rusher from the middle and a sound tackler. Kelly must identify when Skov is blitzing and either move protection around or audible into a play that takes advantage of the aggressive middle linebacker.
But Kelly can't simply step up and run every time Skov brings the heat. Tarpley is a really good sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker. He is better in coverage than Skov and is the Cardinal's best open field tackler. Tarpley will be responsible for spying Kelly out of zone schemes, and Stanford runs a lot of zone blitzes. Kelly does not have the foot speed to simply outrun Tarpley, and that could be a difference maker.
Where Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell can make plays is by getting H-back Chris Coyle involved more. Coyle has been almost non-existent through two games, with just 5 catches for 81 yards and a blown-coverage touchdown against Sacramento State. But Coyle is a good route runner and a tough matchup for Tarpley, and if the Sun Devils can keep Skov honest with the play action and get Coyle and fellow H-back De'Marieya Nelson in space underneath, it will force Tarpley to play the coverage more and worry less about Kelly. Two things happen at that point; Kelly gets time to find his receivers or Kelly takes off and picks up easy yardage on the ground, and the vicious cycle of who to guard, Kelly or Coyle, starts all over again.
What Kelly can't do is try and force the ball to his receivers underneath, get frustrated and try to force the ball vertically or try and run when there aren't lanes available, because between Tarpley, Skov and outside linebacker Trent Murphy, not to mention safety Ed Reynolds, the Cardinal will batter and bruise Kelly or force him into poor turnovers, like his lone interception against Wisconsin.
Kevin Hogan vs. Chris Young, Steffon Martin and Salamo Fiso
It's amazing that Hogan was not the starter for Stanford 12 months ago. But when Hogan got his chance, he thrived, working as a super-lite version of Johnny Manziel for the Cardinal. Hogan has not lost a game as the Stanford quarterback, but he has been far from perfect this season.
Hogan struggles when forced to make multiple reads. His strength comes in making one read and then either dumping the ball off or, like Kelly, using his feet. Hogan is faster than Kelly, but much like the Sun Devil signal caller, has major questions about arm velocity and needs to be on the money to be successful with his throws. This is where the Sun Devils' hybrid defense can really take advantage and attack Hogan and Stanford.
Arizona State actually did a really good job of shutting down Wisconsin's power rushing attack. In fact, if not for Melvin Gordon's blazing speed on the fly sweep, Wisconsin would not have breached the 150-yard mark last Saturday. This is good news for Sun Devil fans because Stanford doesn't have a speed option like Gordon. Stanford relies on a lot of one-cut, zone and power blocking schemes, allowing running backs Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson to get up field quickly.
This is the problem for Stanford though. The game plan for the Cardinal is to get Gaffney and Wilkerson running north and south, work the play action into the attack and then let Hogan innovate. But with Chris Young, Steffon Martin and Salamo Fiso rotating at the Sam and Will linebacker positions, Hogan will have a hard time finding space to operate. Fiso has been a revelation for the Sun Devils, running sideline-to-sideline better than anyone on the team. Young is a rock at the Will position and is great in zone coverage, and also capable of playing man on passing downs. Martin is the key, as he has done a nice job of getting pressure up the middle so far.
Hogan hasn't exactly been perfect this year, completing just 62 percent of his passes. Young will most certainly draw the task of keeping Hogan from running, and the Sun Devils' pass rush, which has gotten pressure but not sacks so far, will need that extra time to get to Hogan if they want to win the game on Saturday.
It's a tough task for the Sun Devils, as Stanford plays a disciplined style of football. But if Arizona State can repeat its performance from last weekend, minus the dropped passes and poorly timed penalties, there's no reason Arizona State can't pull off the upset. It's not likely, but it is possible.