By Joseph Beyda
Last season, Stanford defeated Arizona State handily by a score of 42-28 in its third game of the season, and later went on to trounce the Sun Devils 38-14 in the Pac-12 Championship game. Ahead of this week’s battle against Arizona State, we asked football writers Joseph Beyda, Jordan Wallach and David Cohn: Was the Card’s dominance of the Sun Devils last season a fluke, or are the Cardinal built to beat the Sun Devils?
Joseph: The biggest matchup questions on paper heading into those two games last year was how Stanford’s offensive line would hold up against Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and the rest of Arizona State’s front. The result? Basically a wash: The Cardinal gave up five sacks and 14 tackles for loss in those two games, each slightly below ASU’s season average, while racking up an impressive 240 rushing yards in each game. And with Sutton and Bradford — as well as four Stanford offensive linemen — gone this year, it is really hard to say which team has an advantage in that battle this time around.
To me, another important matchup from last season that will figure into this year’s contest is the showdown between the Cardinal’s wideouts and the Sun Devils’ secondary. Kevin Hogan only threw 35 passes in his two games against ASU last year, but especially in the Pac-12 Championship Game blowout, the Cardinal passing game gashed ASU for big gains time and time again. Stanford averaged 23 yards — 23! — every time it caught the ball.
With the entire 2013 Cardinal wide receiver corps still around, and three talented tight ends joining the mix in a big way so far this season, Stanford has to be licking its chops in the passing game. Arizona State is also giving up 245.5 yards per game, which ranks 73rd in the FBS. I am not sure whether Stanford is built to beat the Sun Devils, but at the very least, its major strength on offense matches up with an ASU weakness.
David: “Fluke”? That is a strong word to be throwing around with last year’s ASU-Stanford contests. In short, no, last year’s performances were certainly not a fluke; the Cardinal, in the meaningful minutes of both contests, did not just beat the Sun Devils, but destroyed them. On offense, Stanford imposed its will in the running game, to the tune of 378 yards and four combined rushing touchdowns. On defense, Stanford partied in the backfield, to the tune of eight combined sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, two blocked punts and 17 tackles for a loss in the two games.
However, I think the more relevant question for this conversation is not necessarily rehasing over Stanford’s dominance in 2013, but instead talking about how the 2014 Arizona State squad will be an extremely formidable threat for the 2014 edition of the Cardinal. For one, this Sun Devil squad is playing with a newfound confidence after its “Miracle at the Coliseum” win over USC. As that game showed, Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly are both capable quarterbacks in ASU’s vaunted aerial attack.
Furthermore, DJ Foster is averaging nearly eight yards per carry and has scored five touchdowns this season; he is clearly a dangerous runner when inserted into ASU’s uptempo scheme. Finally, Sun Devil Stadium, regardless of the Card’s performance last year in the Pac-12 Championship Game, is a hostile environment for road squads, as Arizona State has gone 7-2 at home over the last two seasons. In short, the Cardinal should be ready for a very difficult contest on Saturday.
Jordan: I certainly do not think last season’s wins over the Sun Devils were flukes, and the Cardinal have been built to beat ASU for a while — the last time Arizona State defeated Stanford was in 2008, the second year of Jim Harbaugh’s reign and just before the “Rags to Roses” run. However, we have already seen that this year’s Stanford team simply does not resemble the elite teams of years past.
It starts with the offensive line, the highly touted Tunnel Workers Union, that has paved the way for one of the best ground games in the nation in recent years. Names like David Yankey, David DeCastro, Andrew Phillips and Chris Marinelli all inspired fear in opposing defensive linemen. Yet this year’s O-line struggles have been well documented and perhaps exaggerated, as the Cardinal are without the downhill back that is usually a team stalwart. Last season, Stanford combined for 480 yards rushing against the weak ASU defensive front, but similar rushing performances just don’t seem possible this year.
Stanford Offensive Production: Rushing
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Stanford might also have to deal with the return of Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly, who has been sidelined since Sept. 13 with a foot injury, but has been practicing since last Thursday. Kelly tore up the Cardinal secondary in the two matchups last season (especially in the September game), combining to go 47-for-80 with 540 passing yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Yet we have seen how Stanford’s top-ranked scoring defense has responded to threatening quarterbacks, well, last week.
The Cardinal should not have too much trouble with Arizona State this weekend, but they will certainly have to rely on different weapons than they have in the past against the Devils.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu, David Cohn at dmcohn ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.