(Photo: Jannah Din/WCSN)
Not long ago, it would have been unfathomable for the Sun Devils to be playing in the only game in the country featuring two ranked programs, however that’s the case this week. But if No. 22 Arizona State thinks it can get away with playing the way they did last week and winning, they’re in need of a reality check.
No. 5 Stanford is about as consistent of a program as there is right now. Head coach David Shaw picked up right where now San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh left off, running a program that is disciplined, strong, physical and innovative.
The spread offense that Stanford has slowly moved towards with quarterback Kevin Hogan is unusual because it still features so many aspects of the power run game that made Stanford famous. The Sun Devils haven’t, and won’t see anything else like this unless they play Alabama at some point (queue the laughter). Hogan is undefeated in his career, and like Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly, rarely will you see Hogan make a mistake.
This game should be a slobberknocker. Everyone expected a slugfest last week, and instead we saw an epic shootout with a bizarre ending. I’d expect fewer fireworks this week, but still, this should be another fantastic football game. Will Todd Graham get his first statement road win as the Sun Devils coach?
Arizona State wins if: The Sun Devils win the turnover battle. Arizona State won’t play a team as good as Stanford at getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers. Safety Ed Reynolds is a ball hawk in the mold of Ed Reed, linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy are fantastic blitzers, and the Sun Devils have big questions about the right side of the offensive line, as well as every receiver not names Jaelen Strong. Taylor Kelly must take care of the ball (he’s usually pretty good at that), but more importantly, Arizona State must force a few turnovers; they failed to do so last week, and as a result, Wisconsin scored more than they probably should have. Carl Bradford and Will Sutton have to start hitting the quarterback before he throws, not right after, and a strip sack or a misfired pass for an interception will go a long way towards keeping the Sun Devils in this one.
The Sun Devils are in trouble if: They regress against the run. Believe it or not, Arizona State actually played extremely well against the run last week. Wisconsin’s only real success on the ground came on the fly sweep, and Stanford simply doesn’t have a running back like Melvin Gordon who can turn the corner with that type of speed. The Cardinal misses Stepfan Taylor dearly, as Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson are just too slow. But that doesn’t mean Stanford can’t establish the run. Their offensive line is the best in the Pac-12, with four seniors starting, and Wilkerson and Gaffney can both lower their shoulders and pick up tough yards. Gaffney is also an exceptional pass catcher for a tailback, so keep an eye on that. And don’t dismiss Hogan. Like Kelly, Hogan isn’t likely to break off an 80-yard touchdown run, but he certainly will take off and pick up yards on rollouts and draws. Holding Stanford under 125 yards on the ground is huge in this one.
Arizona State loses if: They make the mental mistakes this week that they made last week. Todd Graham talks about ‘critical errors’ everyday. Last week was the worst example of critical errors in his Sun Devil career. From players not wrapping on tackles, to eight dropped passes, including five that would’ve been first downs and one that was a touchdown, to the multiple false starts on the offensive line, Arizona State did everything in their power to throw that game away. If they do that again this week, the Sun Devils won’t have to worry about the referees at the end, because Stanford will run away with the game.
Prediction: Stanford wins, 31-24. I think this game comes down to mental mistakes, and with the Cardinal finally playing a relevant team, at home, and coming off of a disappointing performance against a bad Army team, I don’t expect any crucial mistakes from the defending Rose Bowl and Pac-12 champions. That being said, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Arizona State wins the game, but it’s going to take a mistake from Stanford to do so.
You can reach Jason Galvin on Twitter @Jason_Galvin or by email email@example.com