If the Pac-12 really is defined by its versatility, a notion Washington coach Steve Sarkisian suggested during this week's league-wide teleconference, Arizona State falls on the more volatile end of the spectrum.
“They really make it basketball on grass,” Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said of the Sun Devils' attack.
Stopping an up-tempo grassketball barrage like Arizona State’s is difficult enough with adequate time to prepare, but Stanford is fresh off having to deal with another scheme entirely. It just beat Army, which runs an option attack, and the Knights and Sun Devils' styles seem about as similar as a coffee mug and a tiger. The Cardinal will have to adjust quickly; Arizona State is averaging 495.5 yards through its first two games.
“I love the kids that we have because we can give them a lot of information,” Stanford coach David Shaw said during the Pac-12 teleconference, “and then I use the expression ‘flush it.’ You have to flush last week’s game plan. You have to completely throw it in the garbage, throw it in the toilet and flush it.”
According to Arizona State wide receiver Jaelen Strong, the Sun Devils try to run up to 100 plays a game. They work to shift players in and out while using their tempo to wear opposing defenses down. In many ways, they're playing for the second half. That's when defenders begin to tire out and miss tackles.
Arizona State has balance in all facets of its offense. Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly looks comfortable under the tutelage of coordinator Mike Norvell; Kelly has thrown for 652 yards and five touchdowns through Week 3. Running back Marion Grice found the end zone four times last week against Wisconsin, and Strong has made an immediate impact since transferring from Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif. Eight players have caught three or more passes in Arizona State’s two wins, and recognizing which playmakers to stop will likely be key to Stanford’s defensive success.
“We focus on a simple plan of what we need to do,” Mason said, “from signal-calling to play-calling to substitution pattern of what our menu’s going to be. I try not to let a team’s tempo dictate what our package is going to be. I found out a few years ago you have to have enough ammo to give your guys the opportunity to get lined up and play.”
Weird finishes, plenty of words
For those who still haven’t seen the end of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game from last Saturday, take a look below:
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said the officials “fell short" of handling the situation properly, while Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen fielded almost exclusively questions about the controversial ending in his portion of the Big Ten teleconference. While teams are supposed to focus on preparing for their upcoming opponent, the result of this game spilled well into the next week.
People are still trying to figure out what, exactly, happened.
“From what I saw the quarterback put the ball on the ground at the same time he took a knee,” Strong said. “I thought it was a fumble. Anybody who takes a knee, you hand the ball to the ref, you don’t put it on the ground. Our coaches teach our defense to want takeaways, so when you see the ball on the ground like that, you jump on the ball. So that’s what we did, and what happened after that was out of our control.”
Both Arizona State and Stanford’s offenses seem a lot more complex than they really are. By varying a number of looks, they can make smaller packages of plays seem increasingly extensive.
Shaw explained further in an interview with The MMQB’s Peter King earlier this week.
“I’m going to quote my old boss, Jon Gruden,’’ Shaw said, standing in a tunnel outside the Stanford locker room after the 34-20 win over Army. Shaw was a Raiders quality control coach under Gruden for three years and Rich Gannon’s quarterback coach in his fourth year with Gruden in 2001. “He would say it every single day: ‘What you want to do on offense is present the illusion of sophistication but all in all remain very simple and basic.’ So very often we’ll throw a whole bunch of different stuff at them, but we’re going to run a basic day-one installation play. Something we’ve run thousands of times. Something very, very simple. But for the defense, it looks very complicated. So we want to present these illusions, then run a regular play that we just want to execute right.’’
It's fascinating stuff, but Shaw is a master of downplaying what he has. Keep in mind, this is Stanford. Nothing is ever that simple.
Don’t mess with Will Sutton
Returning Pac-12 defensive player of the year and likely future first-round NFL draft pick Will Sutton put on more than 20 pounds during the offseason in an attempt to become even more challenging to block than before. Yet following a quiet game against Wisconsin, some are questioning whether the added bulk was worth it. Sutton, who racked up 13.5 sacks a year ago, is still getting a lot of attention from the Stanford coaching staff.
“For us, that’s the game.” Shaw said. “The game is up front. The game is run blocking, the game is run defense, the game is pass blocking, the game is pass rushing. That’s where the game is going to be decided. If we can pass block him, which is going to be tough because not many people have with any consistency, we’ll have a chance to complete some passes. If we can’t, he’s going to have a great day.”
To find success, the Cardinal's line must keep Sutton in check. As fans have seen in the past, Sutton has the ability to disrupt offenses and pave the way for other Sun Devils' defenders to make plays.
• Arizona State RB Marion Grice: The Sun Devils are going to score points, but it’s amazing just how many of those come from a running back who isn’t getting the national attention that many other Pac-12 runners are.
“He’s the threat nobody really talks about,” Mason said. “He’s a triple threat himself, and when you put the combination of him and the other tools they have, you have a really well-balanced offense that can make some noise.”
Arizona State coach Todd Graham called Grice a game-breaker, and the running back, on average, finds the end zone more than once every 10 times he touches the football. He has 25 touchdowns in 15 games. Stopping him will be a big factor in whether the Cardinal come away with a win.
• Stanford RB Barry Sanders: Sanders only has one carry so far this season, but the redshirt freshman appears to have a lot of his legendary father’s running ability in him.
“In the one public scrimmage of training camp he caught a few swing passes and looked remarkably like his Hall of Fame dad in making tacklers miss,” San Francisco Chronicle writer Ron Kroichick said. “He’s not going to earn a starting job with Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson around, but Sanders could become a great third-down weapon out of the backfield.”
Stanford’s running back depth is a huge positive in 2013. Once the grind of the season sets in, having a fresh talent like Sanders could make a big difference for Shaw's squad.
• Brad Denny, KTVK 3TV Phoenix: “What was once an inmates-running-the-asylum situation, with ASU leading the nation in penalties in two of the prior three years, has become one of the country's most disciplined programs. [Graham] has vastly improved the recruiting, especially in-state, which has already paid major dividends. Graham has made major efforts in community and former player outreach, and helped bring back a sense of history to the program, most notably with the return to Camp Tontozona for fall camp and the emphasis on embracing the legacy of Pat Tillman. Plus, exceeding expectations and winning eight games and then topping Wisconsin has really helped make him a major fan favorite.”
• Ron Kroichick, San Francisco Chronicle: “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some new wrinkles in the offensive game plan versus ASU -- Stanford is deeper and has more speed at wide receiver this year, and Shaw seems eager to use that speed. Witness the big game for Devon Cajuste versus San Jose State and Michael Rector’s first career catch, and touchdown, against Army.”
The extra point
While Arizona State can put up points on seemingly anyone, Stanford remains the more complete football team. The Cardinal have talent everywhere: in the secondary, on both lines, in the backfield and at quarterback. They’ve far from peaked only two games into the season.
While the Sun Devils should keep the score near the 7.5-point line, Stanford should be able to bring home the win behind a strong running game and disciplined defense.