The worst stretch of the season is about to end for Arizona State, but not before the Sun Devils play host to Stanford. Todd Graham probably see's David Shaw in his sleep. The Cardinal absolutely dominated the Sun Devils in both contests last season.
Granted, injuries played a big role in both games, but nothing was changing the outcome of either of those games.
Guess what? Injuries, or an injury specifically, is the absolute biggest story entering this game, and that brings us to this week's Matchup of the Week:
Todd Graham vs. Taylor Kelly
Wait, what? I know what everyone is thinking right now. And yes, I know Kelly is the quarterback for Graham's Sun Devils. And no, there is no Taylor Kelly on Stanford, so don't waste your time looking.
The biggest matchup in this game has less to do with talent on the field and more to do with Todd Graham's willingness to know when to say no.
But first, let's address the talent issue. Arizona State was a team with decent football talent, but good coaching and football smart players masked a lot of physical weaknesses. This year, the physical weaknesses are all gone, but youth and inexperience have already cost Arizona State against UCLA.
The good news is Stanford lost more than the Sun Devils did last season, and Arizona State did a great job of fixing the giant holes on the offensive line that kept the offense from scoring when it mattered. The linebackers are also more athletic this year, although again, athleticism can't trump mental mistakes. Stanford is a rather simple team, though, and that leads me to believe that the Sun Devils will be able to stay in front of the Cardinal and make plays defensively.
None of that will matter, however, if Taylor Kelly convinces Todd Graham that he's ready to go when he isn't. Graham indicated on Tuesday that Kelly would play this weekend. But in a troubling turn of events, he also indicated that Mike Bercovici would play. Apparently Graham doesn't remember the Michael Eubank experiment.
This idea is troublesome in multiple ways. First, Kelly is either healthy or he isn't. If he is, he should play, and that's where the conversation should end. Kelly is a senior, the team captain, and surely wants revenge on Stanford. So if Kelly is healthy, he should be the only quarterback taking snaps.
If he isn't healthy enough to play the entire game, Bercovici should play. Not share time, but play. The entire game. No debates, no questions, no throwing Kelly into the fire as a distraction or a decoy. Mike Bercovici has proven that he can be a Pac-12 winning quarterback. He's also earned the right to not share snaps with Kelly for the sake of playing mind games.
Kelly is going to do his best to convince Graham that he can go. The only scenario where Graham realistically should play both quarterbacks is if Kelly plays and simply doesn't look healthy. He can't be pulled for rust; he can't be subbed for a series. Graham has to pick his stallion and ride with him. But he also needs to recognize when that stallion has run to many races. Kelly's athleticism will be a huge advantage to the Sun Devils in trying to score points on Stanford, but his health for the remainder of the season is more important.
Stanford will hit Kelly, too, and that should cause Graham concern. If you're going to start Kelly but limit his running in order to preserve his foot injury, you might as well keep him on the bench. Bercovici has the better arm talent, so let him throw the ball. The Cardinal have already sacked opposing quarterbacks 17 times, and you can't subject Kelly to that type of abuse if he's not fully recovered.
At this point, I expect Taylor Kelly to start. What I don't know is whether Todd Graham will be smart enough to pull his star if he's not performing at a normal Taylor Kelly level. How Graham manages Kelly is not only the most important aspect of this game, but also a key for the rest of the Sun Devils season.