With the Pac-12 championship approaching, Stanford sits in a somewhat familiar position. At this time last year, Stanford was preparing to face a UCLA squad that it had already dismantled 35-17. This year, the Cardinal must ready itself for another rematch, this time against an Arizona State team that it soundly defeated 42-28 at the beginning of the season. In contrast to last season, when Stanford played UCLA in back-to-back weeks, the Cardinal will now face the Sun Devils nearly three months after the first meeting.
“We haven’t seen these guys in a long time,” said head coach David Shaw. “Let’s reintroduce ourselves to them personnel wise. Let’s go back and watch the film. They’ve played a lot of football since we played them last. They’ve drawn up a lot of blitzes since we played them last. We have to treat them as a new team, a new game.”
As the Cardinal remembers all too well, the Sun Devils came roaring back in the last meeting. After trailing 39-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, ASU came back to make things interesting before Stanford finally put the game away. Since their previous matchup with the Cardinal, the Sun Devils are 8-1, including five games in which they scored 50 or more points.
“They were playing well when we played them,” Shaw stated. “We started off like gangbusters in that game, but they came storming back. They’re just a good football team. They’ve got really good players at all three levels on defense…I think [Taylor] Kelly is a dynamic quarterback that just keeps fighting the whole game.”
Kelly, recently named to the all-Pac-12 second team, has guided an offense that ranks eighth in the nation with 43.3 points per game. While Arizona State will be without starting running back Marion Grice, who was ruled out due to a leg injury, the team possesses capable backups in D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis, who are averaging 4.7 and 5.4 yards per carry respectively.
On the defensive side, Arizona State has held six of its last seven opponents to 24 points or fewer. Defensive tackle Will Sutton was recently named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and finished the regular season with three sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.
“They’re fast,” said Shaw on the most difficult part of facing Arizona State’s defense. “Their linebackers run. Their [defensive backs] make up speed; when the ball goes up in the air they close the cushion fast … Will Sutton gets off on the snap. Just when you think you’ve got him blocked he does that counter move and the next thing you know he’s hitting your quarterback.”
Stanford hopes to enter Saturday’s contest at full strength with the return of senior defensive end Josh Mauro. Shaw is optimistic that Mauro, who sat out against Notre Dame, will return against ASU.
Senior running back Tyler Gaffney is in the midst of a very special season. Despite leaving to play minor league baseball for a year, Gaffney has returned in remarkable form, as his 1,485 rushing yards on the season rank third all-time in Stanford history behind only Stepfan Taylor (1,530 rushing yards in 2012) and Toby Gerhart (1,830 rushing yards in 2009).
“I’m excited for Tyler,” Shaw said. “He’s put on film that he’s a potential high-round pick in the NFL because that’s how NFL backs run. He’s done it every game — he’s caught the ball out of the backfield, he’s pass protected, he’s come back and shown that he’s a complete back.”
Gaffney will have a tough decision to make at the season’s end when he decides to pursue football or baseball professionally. While he said that he hasn’t thought about it yet, he did express his desire to continue playing football. If he does choose to play in the NFL, he may not be the only current Cardinal back who finds himself on an NFL roster someday, as senior running back Anthony Wilkerson may wind up earning a roster spot on a team next season as well.
“You just put Anthony Wilkerson carries together, one after another, I think he looks like an NFL back also,” Shaw said.
Despite losing snaps to Gaffney, Wilkerson has shown his value every time he steps on the field. Shaw compared him to former Cardinal running back Jeremy Stewart ‘11, who played behind Stepfan Taylor ‘13 while at Stanford but now plays for the Oakland Raiders.
Gaffney and Wilkerson have two more games left in their Stanford careers to impress scouts before the NFL Draft in April.
Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.