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Thursday night showdown with Arizona State

Stanford football travels to Arizona to play Herm Edwards and the Sun Devils

Senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside had eight catches for 103 yards against Utah. Arcega-Whiteside and the Stanford offense will face an Arizona State defense that leads the Pac-12 conference in sacks. (JIM SHORIN/isiphotos.com)

“It starts with stopping the run.” After three straight games allowing a 100-yard rusher, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson knows disrupting the Arizona State run game is the top priority for the Stanford defense.

The Stanford Cardinal (4-2, 3-1 Pac-12) will return to action tonight at Arizona State (3-3, 1-2 Pac 12) looking to rebound from consecutive defeats. The Cardinal will come off their bye to play a team in the Sun Devils that has been perfect at home under first year head coach Herm Edwards, including a win against a top-25 ranked opponent in Michigan State.

If Stanford has any hope of leaving Tempe with a victory, the defense must regain its once elite form and prevent Sun Devil running back Eno Benjamin from becoming the fourth straight rusher to top 100 yards.

“The first thing we have to do is stop the run, and that’s where we’ve struggled the last three weeks,” said Anderson. “It’s hard to survive on defense if you can’t stop the run.”

While the focus will be on stopping Benjamin and the run, the Stanford defense will also have to contend with a multidimensional Sun Devil offense headed by senior quarterback Manny Williams and potential NFL first round wideout N’Keal Harry.

Once again, much of that burden will fall on the shoulders of the Cardinal’s impressive linebacking corps, a group that stands out for its versatility and experience, according to Anderson, who doubles as the position coach. One of those skilled linebackers is senior Sean Barton. Coming off a major knee injury that caused him to miss the majority of the 2017 season, Barton is second on the team in tackles behind his battery mate, senior Bobby Okereke. What makes Barton so special, according to his coach, “is the energy he brings every single practice. He goes hard and he’s ready to play.” Or in his words, “I’m not afraid to bring the juice.”

That intensity will be in high demand against an offense averaging 228 yards on the ground and 260 more through the air per game at home. The Sun Devil offense is also averaging over 100 more yards per game rushing in wins than they do in losses, adding to the sense that the Cardinal will need to contain the running game to beat Arizona State.

Meanwhile, it is the defensive talent of the Sun Devils that prompted head coach David Shaw to remark that the team is “thankful we’ve had a week and a half to get ready.” The Cardinal were fortunate that the scheduling provided them with a bye week exactly midway through the season.

“Couldn’t have come at a better time,” said offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard.

Senior quarterback KJ Costello will face a Sun Devil defense that is tied for the conference lead in sacks. Facing a variety of blitzes and fronts, a much maligned Cardinal offensive line will be tasked with sorting out, blocking and maintaining blocks on defenders. Based on the film he has watched, senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside said “it’s always just one guy that messes up and it messes up the whole play,” that has caused the struggles in the running game. After failing to surpass 75 yards in three straight games, Stanford now sits at eleventh in the Pac-12 in rushing offense. With senior running back Bryce Love and junior right guard Nate Herbig both questionable, both the running game and the pass protection are in doubt.

With the Cardinal unlikely to see the repeat of Bryce Love’s performance last year against Arizona State, in which he rushed for a school-record 301 yards and three touchdowns, the offense will probably rest on the arm of Costello and the hands of the wide receivers. After throwing for 381 yards two weeks ago in a game where three separate Cardinal pass catchers went for at least one hundred yards, what was once uncanny for Stanford may start to become the new normal.

The message during the bye was “rest and recovery,” which players such as senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside took advantage of to “take a step back out of football, and focus on school and family.” After that week to recover, reset, and get healthy, Arcega-Whiteside said the past week has been focused on “looking at yourself, pointing the finger at yourself, and saying ‘how can I make the team better?’”

That necessity for accountability and execution has been apparent to these players since the minutes after Utah left Stanford Stadium with a victory. After the game, Okereke responded that the performance was not typical Stanford football. Barton said the focus of the bye week was “just got to get better.”

The coaches know it too. For Pritchard, among all the great offenses he has witnessed through his six years on the coaching staff and ten years affiliated with Stanford football, the “one thing that is a hallmark, whether it’s run or pass, is the level of execution.”

“It’s up to us to play our best football,” said Shaw. “And I don’t believe we’ve played our best football any time this season.”

Kickoff is at 6 p.m. PST tonight, from Tempe.

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu

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