Stanford at Arizona State
Advanced stats say Saturday's Pac-12 Championship game is a Top Five match-up: The Fremeau Efficiency Index ranks Stanford no. 3 and Arizona State no. 4 in the country. Statistics also suggest that the Cardinal will have a much harder time this around against the Sun Devils. Both teams have been significantly better at home than on the road, and this decisive game will be held in Sun Devil Stadium. Still, it cannot be forgotten that Stanford physically dominated ASU back in September. The Cardinal's keys to victory are similar to what they were back then. Here they are, along with The Bootleg's comprehensive preview podcast:
Win Again at the Point of Attack
Arizona State has been playing well, but with the exception of their domination of Washington, their defense has shown a glaring vulnerability against teams with capable rushing attacks. Wisconsin (231 yards, 7.2 per carry), Stanford (240 yards, 4.9 per carry), USC (247 yards, 6.7 per carry), and Arizona (249 yards, 5.1 per carry) have all inflicted serious ground damage against the Sun Devils.
The Cardinal, of course, thrive off rushing success. It's the integral part of their winning formula. Back in September, Stanford creatively bruised Arizona State. They sliced the Sun Devils up the middle behind Tyler Gaffney before beating them to the outside with well-designed Kelsey Young and Ty Montgomery outside sweeps. Control of the rushing battle meant a grip on the game's tempo, and that established a playaction passing comfort level that Kevin Hogan enjoyed throughout the contest.
Arizona State firmly believes that its run defense has improved over the course of the season (statistically, it has), but archrival Arizona's success in the Territorial Cup just last week indicates that Stanford, too, can open holes in this one with its star-studded offensive line. Gaffney also happens to be peaking at the right time, so there's every reason to believe the Cardinal can pound their way to success again if they employ appropriate offensive balance.
Take Away the Run
The Sun Devils are undefeated this season when they rush for over 100 yards in a game. They're winless when they don't reach the century mark. The two opponents that have held ASU under 100 yards have been the two most physical ones on their schedule: Stanford (50 yards) and Notre Dame (65 yards).
Granted, neither of those teams faced the Sun Devils in Tempe. The Cardinal, though, have been remarkably consistent defensively this year, regardless of location. There's more evidence that Todd Graham's club is not particularly comfortable facing a bruising defensive front seven: Stanford posted 10 tackles for loss against ASU in the teams' first meeting this year. Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro will both be available Saturday, so there's also reason to believe that the Cardinal can continue partying in the backfield this weekend.
Perhaps most importantly, Arizona State running back Marion Grice, the Pac-12 leader in touchdowns and all-purpose yards, will miss this title game with an ankle injury. Even with Grice playing, the Sun Devils were only able to muster 2.7 yards per carry against Stanford the first time around. Now, they face the tall task of finding rushing productivity from D.J. Foster, who has moved from his slot receiver position to the backfield. If the Stanford front can bottle up Foster, the pass rush will be able to focus on delivering disciplined pressure against mobile quarterback Taylor Kelly.
That, of course, can go a long way in limiting six-foot-three Jaelen Strong, ASU's one prolific receiver (69 catches, 1067 yards). He hauled in 12 catches for 168 yards in the September meeting, but the Cardinal were able to neutralize the Sun Devils' other downfield threats.
The flipside: A successful ASU ground game can help uncork other offensive weapons (Chris Coyle, Richard Smith, De'Marieya Nelson), and that's something that would create a storm that the Cardinal would have difficulty weathering.
Play the Game on Your Terms: Set Up Kevin Hogan
In their four most impressive offensive performances this season, Stanford has rushed the ball significantly more often than in its other contests. The games against Arizona State (49 carries), UCLA (50 carries), Oregon (66 carries), and Notre Dame (51 carries) all featured a firm commitment to the club's bread and butter: the power running game. It's no surprise that Kevin Hogan was effective in all of those contests, as the passing game typically flourishes whenever the run forms the strong spine of the attack. In those situations, play fakes have often helped spring talented receivers into open space downfield.
Stanford's poor performances on the road have featured significantly less running. The Utah loss saw a season-low 29 carries, while the defeat at USC featured only 35 rushes. In another game of offensive struggles at Oregon State, the Cardinal ran the ball only 33 times. History shows that the Farm Boys must show a 50-carry kind of commitment to ensure that they control the tempo of a game against a good team. That type of commitment allows Stanford to play the game on its own terms, and it sets Hogan up for success with his arm and his legs. As I've said several times before, he's not Peyton Manning. Hogan is, however, a gamer that can make plays in space and burn a defense that's over-committing to the run with his arm.
That being said, he absolutely must avoid overthrows like the one that caused a Notre Dame interception last week. Arizona State leads the Pac-12 with 21 interceptions, and they will happily feast on those types of Stanford mistakes.
Furthermore, successful ground-and-pound will be doubly important for Stanford in this one because of ASU's propensity to blitz. The Sun Devils are a "boom-or-bust" defense that thrives off home energy: The Fork's aggressive blitzing strategy has again put them near the top of the nation in sacks, interceptions, and forced three-and-outs, but it has also made them susceptible to the big play. If Gaffney does have a productive night, Stanford can keep the Sun Devils on their heels. That will set the table for Hogan and his improving intermediate passing game.
Handle the Road
At home, Stanford's offense has almost always nailed its necessary keys to victory. On the road, they've strayed away from their winning formula. We've discussed these struggles at length already, but it's worth repeating here: Stanford must exorcise its road offensive demons to win on Saturday.
Other Important Tidbits
- Arizona State kicker Zane Gonzalez is 22-of-25 on field goal tries this year. His last miss came in September against Stanford.
- The Sun Devils are the worst punting team in the Pac-12, averaging only 31.9 yards per punt. If this turns into a battle of dueling three-and-outs, Stanford may be able to win the field position battle simply because of this punting edge.
- Hogan must be particularly careful when throwing in cornerback Robert Nelson's direction. He leads the Pac-12 with six interceptions this year.
- Don't look now, but Arizona State is the least penalized team in the Pac-12. They also lead the league in turnover margin (+1.08/game). That figure has nearly doubled during games at Sun Devil Stadium, so the Cardinal would obviously be wise to avoid making mistakes that have fueled ASU at home this year.
By The Numbers
Stanford Offense: Home and Away
||3rd Down Efficiency
||Red Zone Scoring Efficiency
||RZ TD %
Arizona State Offense: Home and Away
||3rd Down Efficiency
||Red Zone Scoring Efficiency
||RZ TD %
Stanford Defense: Home and Away
||3rd Down Conversion Defense
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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