If you watched any part of Saturday afternoon's Arizona State-Stanford game, you probably gained a very good understanding of why the Cardinal are ranked fifth in the country.
Stanford knew that Arizona State presented a formidable challenge. The Cardinal responded by unlocking their offensive playbook and unleashing their defensive weapons. David Shaw is not just an elite college football coach, he's an elite football coach in general and he prepared his players as if they were ready to play a Pac-12 title bout.
In the first half, the Cardinal's dominance was unlike anything they've displayed through their first two games. That says something about Arizona State, but it might say more about Stanford. Shaw's game plan was to knock Arizona State in the gut from the opening snap. The Cardinal executed the game plan, while showing the respect they have for the Sun Devils as an opponent.
Fans might wonder why the Cardinal didn't lay it on San Jose State or Army the way they did against Arizona State. Simply put, Stanford didn't have to. The Cardinal knew they could win their first two games on talent alone. They didn't treat their preparation for this game the same way.
Stanford unveiled new offensive formations (Who knew they didn't already run every formation ever invented), showed off the depth of the defensive scheme, and put its players in positions to make plays better than the Sun Devils did.
Furthermore, everything that could have possibly gone wrong for Arizona State did go wrong.
Taylor Kelly tried to throw the ball away. A defensive end intercepted his pass. The Sun Devils had open receivers all night. They dropped passes. Arizona State needed a run-stopper on the field. Jaxon Hood was injured. Kelly tried a pooch punt. It was blocked. Todd Graham trotted out Matt Haack at punter. Haack's punt was blocked too.
The list goes on.
The Sun Devils' reality-check hurts even more so than last year's loss against Oregon. The No. 2 Ducks came into Tempe last season for a black out game and stomped on the Sun Devils' hopes and dreams. A 5-1 Sun Devil squad learned what a true powerhouse looked like. But most people didn't think Arizona State had a shot against Oregon.
Saturday's game against Stanford was different. Folks knew Stanford had talent, but thought Arizona State might just have enough to pull off an upset. Todd Graham wants to craft his program in Stanford's image and many people thought he might be closing in.
Saturday's game was a setback. But as much as the game may have looked like "Oregon: Round Two" or cut deeper in your stomach, there are some takeaways that suggest Arizona State is on the verge of turning things around against the top dogs.
Arizona State trailed Oregon 43-7 early in the second quarter. The Ducks never scored another point in last year's game. That was their decision. Against Stanford, David Shaw inserted his second string with the game well in hand. Later, Shaw had to put his front line back in because the Sun Devils had a legitimate chance.
The box scores from these two blowouts looks eerily similar. The Ducks and the Cardinal jumped ahead early and the Sun Devils tacked on a few feel-good touchdowns late. But things aren't nearly that clear cut.
On Saturday night, the Sun Devils made a dangerous run at the Cardinal lead. What was once insurmountable suddenly became improbable. Sure it would have taken an onside kick and a little bit of luck, but against Oregon last year, the late scores felt like parting gifts. Against Stanford, the late scores made us believe again.
Arizona State scored 28 points in the second half and proved that the Sun Devils could move the ball against a vaunted Stanford defense. Taylor Kelly took hits all night long and faced pressure from the get-go. Kelly maintained his poise and stayed in the pocket, regardless of whether his receivers caught the ball or not.
Last year's Oregon squad and this year's Stanford squad both hit Arizona State in the jaw. The difference? Arizona State responded tonight. It may not have been the response Sun Devils fans wanted, but they did respond. Competing with the best takes time. It was only Todd Graham's 16th game.
At times, Kelly looked inconsistent. He overthrew his receivers, he came up short on tosses to his running backs, and he threw a confounding interception. But like his teammates, Kelly responded.
In last year's Oregon game, Kelly was pulled after completing 10 of 18 passes for 93 yards. After hitting Kevin Ozier for a 28-yard touchdown on his first pass, Kelly was very much a first-year starter learning a craft.
Against Stanford, Kelly proved why the coaching staff trusts him with the keys to the offense. The redshirt junior will make his mistakes, but he's a rugged playmaker who has instincts that can't be taught. Ben Gardner and Shayne Skov harassed Kelly all night long and he still managed to maintain his pocket presence. It's difficult to play under enormous duress and the Sun Devil signal-caller battled his way to a 367-yard outing.
On Saturday, Kelly looked like a quarterback who's made the next step. His protection was suspect and he's far from elite. The bottom line is that Kelly battles his way through drives and he puts his receivers in positions to make plays on third and fourth downs.
The loss against Oregon was a learning experience for Kelly. The loss against Stanford was a learning experience for Kelly's doubters. Yes, there's some validity to what they've got to say. But no, Kelly's never going to back down.
On The Road
It's the No. 2 team in the country and it's the middle of the season. Sun Devil Stadium is blacked out and Arizona State has all the momentum on its side after the first offensive series. Then Oregon decided to show up and turn it on. It didn't matter where that game was played, no home field advantage could have changed the Sun Devils' fortunes.
It's the No. 5 team in the country and it's the beginning of the season. Stanford Stadium is soggy, a little over half-capacity and Arizona State has no momentum on its side at any point in the first half. The fact that the Sun Devils made the game interesting in the second half is a testament to their character. Unlike Oregon, Stanford could not have made Saturday night's score anything it pleased.
Playing on the road is far from an excuse for losing. Still, adjustments must be made. Alden Darby told us earlier in the week how focused he was in preparing his teammates for playing in the road. He said nothing could simulate the feeling of walking into a locker room and not knowing where your things were. Nothing could match the feeling of new turf or grass underneath your feet.
It took far too long, but when Arizona State started to show up, it did so with a vengeance. How a team performs under pressure on the road telling of its character. The Sun Devils had no business coming back. But they did and they know what they are made of.
The Bottom Line
The coaching staff could pick apart the horrifying aspects of Saturday's game on film for the rest of the season. That's how many mistakes the Sun Devils made. There aren't many redeeming aspects from the loss against Stanford. Todd Graham knows this better than anyone. He also knows not to dwell on it.
He saw the character of his team. He saw how his team still has a ways to go when it comes to discipline and controlling the line of scrimmage. He sees Stanford and he sees this game in his rearview mirror. Up next is a tough USC Trojans squad.
The Sun Devils need to find a way to move on immediately. As soon as the players step foot on the plane home, their minds should turn to USC. One loss does not define a football team. Especially against a team of Stanford's caliber.
The national championship might be off the table. The only way to achieve the goal of winning a Pac-12 championship is to prove that the Sun Devils deserve a rematch or a shot at Oregon (Sorry Washington fans) by taking care of business on the field.
Saturday was a gut check and it wasn't pretty. Now it's time to step away from the battlefield and make sure it doesn't happen again.