In the third season under the newly revised Pac-12 Conference, No. 23 ASU takes on No. 5 Stanford for the first time on Saturday in a critical game with Pac-12 implications at stake.
ASU coach Todd Graham has said over the week that he has a high amount of respect for the Cardinal, but what is it about this team that he sees as an inspiration to win championships?
The State Press spoke with The Stanford Daily sports editor Do-Hyoung Park on ASU-Stanford and the state of the Cardinal as it looks to repeat as Pac-12 champions.
The State Press: Even though Stanford won the Pac-12 title last year, what’s different about the Cardinal this year, and is Stanford better or worse?
Do-Hyoung Park: One of the main differences between last year’s Stanford team and this year’s team is the evolution of the offense. Stanford has been, and will be for the forseeable future, a power run-first, physical attack. Last year, we had Stepfan Taylor as our primary back and his toughness, poise and leadership were huge for the team in establishing that power running game in every game the Cardinal played. However, what stopped the offense last year from being as effective as it could have been was the lack of a deep threat downfield to keep defenses honest. Kevin Hogan, as a new quarterback, thrived mainly on the shorter passes to his tight ends in the middle of the field and relied on his scrambling ability to pick up yards when needed and keep himself on his feet.
This year, that legitimate downfield threat has emerged in receivers Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kodi Whitfield — among others — and Hogan did a lot of work over the offseason to improve his arm strength, chemistry with receivers and leadership of the offense. Stanford is notorious for having a large and complex playbook, and Hogan actually beat the demanding latter half of the 2012 schedule with only a limited knowledge of the playbook. This season, however, Hogan is more confident in the pocket and in his command of the offense and is stepping into throws with more authority. He is still making some questionable decisions, but the early returns on the improved passing game have been promising, to say the very least. Although the offense has yet to be tested by a defense the caliber of ASU’s unit, the emergence of Stanford’s passing game, along with Hogan’s improvements under center, make this offense better than last year’s unit.
Because of that alone, I think that this Stanford team has the potential to be a lot better than last year’s Pac-12 Champion team, especially because we return almost our entire defense of last season and our special teams — particularly our field goal unit — has looked much more consistent to start the season.
Another big difference in the team between last year and this year is in the expectations and the hype. Last year was expected to be a rebuilding year after the departure of Andrew Luck and Stanford really surprised the nation by remaining a national powerhouse. This year, though, all eyes are on the Cardinal and people are fully expecting the team to make another BCS bowl run. I’m sure most of our opponents have us circled on their schedule and because of that, every team will be bringing their absolute best against the Cardinal. This may be a better team than last year’s, but much more is being expected of it.
SP: What did you take away from Stanford’s first two games of the season against San Jose State and Army?
DP: I feel like one thing that’s really caught my eye is a new dimension in our offense in that we’re really starting to use our wide receivers as deep threats downfield. Last year, Hogan rarely used his wide receivers to take shots downfield and instead piloted “Stanford-like” drives that were rush-oriented, more methodical and clock-controlling. But this year, Hogan’s playbook is expanding and the play-calling is getting more aggressive. Our scoring drives are getting quicker and the wide receivers have emerged as legitimate threats.
On the defensive side, I think our defense has work to do in terms of stopping drives. They’ve done very well in terms of not giving up the big plays, but in both games we’ve played so far — against David Fales and San Jose State’s passing offense and Army’s triple option — opposing offenses were able to keep drives alive and drive downfield consistently. Our front seven couldn’t keep up with Army’s speed and couldn’t get off blocks in the way that we saw in the second half of last season. I don’t think the defense is in mid-season form yet.
SP: Has the Cardinal ever went up against a defensive tackle like Will Sutton?
DP: I don’t think the Cardinal has gone against a defensive tackle the caliber of Will Sutton in recent history. The only others that I can think of would be Utah’s Star Lotulelei and Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III, but Stanford didn’t play Utah while Lotulelei was manning the line and I don’t think anybody outside of Jadeveon Clowney rivaled Sutton’s performance last season. His ability to shed blockers and get into the backfield is absolutely explosive and I think the Stanford offensive line will face its first true test of the season as it tries to keep Sutton from getting to Kevin Hogan.
SP: People say Wisconsin and Stanford are awfully similar to each other, only Stanford is more talented. Do you agree with this?
DP: Wisconsin is an incredibly talented team that went neck-and-neck with us in the Rose Bowl last year. The Badgers and Cardinal are definitely two very similar teams in the way that they approach both sides of the ball. I do think that Stanford’s defensive players are stronger and faster than their Wisconsin counterparts (lots of credit to strength and conditioning coach Shannon Turley), which I think does make the Cardinal’s a more talented unit. We saw Stanford’s defense going toe-for-toe with Oregon’s offense in terms of speed in last year’s matchup and I fully believe that they’ve only improved in that regard over the offseason.
In terms of the offenses, I think the teams match up fairly evenly at the skill positions but the offensive line of Stanford has an edge. Stanford will likely be able to rush up the middle more effectively against ASU due to the size of the offensive linemen on The Farm, as opposed to Wisconsin’s being forced to utilize the perimeter run to a greater extent — with success — with Melvin Gordon after being stopped up the middle consistently.
SP: What’s your outlook on Stanford for the rest of the season?
DP: I think that this is one of the most complete Stanford teams that has ever walked on The Farm. That being said, there are so many challenges on our schedule, with Washington, UCLA and Oregon at home being the big hurdles. We do get all three at home, but I think our tendency to play close games will come hurt us and a slip-up will yield a loss to one of those teams. We’ll learn a lot about our defense from our game against ASU on Saturday, but if they look good I think it’s very possible that we beat Oregon and once again win the Pac-12 North, especially with OSU becoming less of a factor. I think we’ll get past ASU/UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship and another Rose Bowl berth is realistic. With my fingers crossed, though, I’m hoping that the dominos fall in our favor and we get to play in Pasadena for the final BCS title.
SP: What do you think will be the final score of the game?
DP: I’m going to go ahead and say Stanford 27, ASU 17. The Sun Devils will keep it close throughout, but Stanford’s improved offense and the pressure to Taylor Kelly will keep the Sun Devils from pulling ahead.
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