Jaelen Strong's heroics are officially in the rearview mirror. Arizona State most important building block game is here, as the Stanford Cardinal come to town. Why is this game the most important in terms of building towards the future?
That's easy. The Cardinal were dominant in both meetings last season, and represent the type of team Arizona State has to, at worst, be competitive with if Todd Graham is going to prove that the program is truly taking a step forward.
Stanford is down this year, too, which plays into Arizona State's favor. Here are five keys to taking down the Cardinal:
1. Stop the run: Last season, Stanford averaged over 5 yards per carry combined in the two wins over Arizona State. Talk about a recipe for success. The Sun Devils had to load the box, and even then they couldn't stop Tyler Gaffney and his backfield mates from running all over the place. That opened up the play-action pass, and the wheels fell off the bus in both games. Gaffney is gone, as are some key offensive lineman for Stanford. They don't run the ball as well this season (4.4 yards per catch), and both USC and Notre Dame shut down the run in defeating Stanford. Kevin Hogan still hasn't proven he can win big games.
2. Play the right quarterback: Unless Taylor Kelly is 100 percent healthy, and can execute every play without hindrance, he shouldn't play. There's no argument to be made otherwise. Mike Bercovici has proven he can win football games, has proven he's got elite arm talent, and has proven that his teammates trust and respect him. That's all you need in a quarterback to win you games.
3. Establish the run: D.J. Foster has slowed down the last two weeks, but the pace of the game and situations have had a lot to do with that. Arizona State needs to get him involved early and often, and I'd also play Kalen Ballage more, using his size to wear down the Stanford defensive line. This is the game where the Sun Devils offensive line has to prove that they're as improved as everyone thinks they are. A weak performance here puts the Notre Dame game in serious peril as well.
4. Break even on special teams: I won't ask the Sun Devils to win special teams, but they have to break even. Ty Montgomery is the best return man in the country, averaging over 21 yards per punt return and nearly 30 per kick return. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, have been inconsistent in coverage of kick off and punt returns. This is an area where Stanford could steal all of the momentum.
5. Win the sack battle: Stanford has sacked opposing quarterbacks 17 times, while Arizona State has just 10 sacks on the season. Part of that can be blamed on the schemes of some of their opponents, and part of it on the youth and inconsistent lineups from early in the season. The Sun Devils have done a great job of protecting both Kelly and Bercovici so far, but the Cardinal have taken down opposing quarterbacks 13 times. A negative split in this category could mean trouble.