In what could be an early Pac-12 title game preview, the 23rd-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils will invade Stanford Stadium to tangle with the fifth-ranked Stanford Cardinal.
In one of the strangest endings to a college football game in recent memory, Arizona State posted a 32-30 win over Wisconsin last time out. The Sun Devils rallied back from an early 14-3 deficit in the contest and clung to a 32-30 lead with under a minute remaining when Wisconsin had the ball at the Arizona State 13-yard line with 18 seconds left. On 1st-and-10, while lined up from the right hash mark, Badger quarterback Joel Stave took the snap and went left to center the ball for a potential game-winning field goal. However, Stave bumped into one of his offensive linemen and dropped the ball but put his hand on the ball to down it at the 25-yard line. The play was eventually ruled dead but the confusion allowed the clock to run out and the Sun Devils to escape with the win. As a result, the Sun Devils are now 2-0 and in the national rankings for the first time this season.
Stanford has taken a more traditional route to its 2-0 start. The Cardinal have picked up wins over San Jose State (34-13) and Army (34-20) by playing their patented tough defense. The Cardinal have not made up any ground in the national rankings though, as they have been No. 5 for the last three weeks. This matchup is the first of three with ranked opponents for the Cardinal in the next five weeks.
"Going to a nine-game schedule you don't get a break." Stanford head coach David Shaw said about facing so many quality opponents this early in the season. "It's tough. Everybody in our conference has a run of five or six games in a row that you look at and say 'Here we go.' To me that's what makes it hard and that's what makes it special."
This game will also be serving as the opener to Pac-12 play for both squads and will be the first meeting since 2010 between them. In that contest, Andrew Luck led the Cardinal to a 17-13 victory in Tempe.
In the offense-heavy Pac-12, the Sun Devils are ranked just seventh in total offense (495.5 ypg) but it is worth noting that that number is among the 30 best in the country. Arizona State finds success thanks to one of the more dynamic offensive rosters in the country with a slew of multi-talented players making plays each week.
At quarterback Taylor Kelly has had a shaky start to the season. After throwing for 300 yards and five touchdowns on 23-of-31 passing in the opener, Kelly completed just 56.9 percent of his pass attempts with no touchdowns and an interception against Wisconsin. Kelly did manage to throw for 352 yards but needs to show more consistency going forward. Kelly has the ability to be a threat on the ground as well, but he has just 49 rushing yards.
When Kelly can get the ball in the hands of the skill position players regularly, the Sun Devils are extremely dangerous. Marion Grice (322 all- purpose yards), Deantre Lewis (141 all-purpose yards) and D.J. Foster (130 all-purpose yards) are all listed as running backs on the depth chart but make plays in all phases. Grice is the leading rusher on the squad and has scored a team-high six touchdowns. No other player on the team has more than one.
"(Grice) has a great gift running the football and he has an interesting style. I mean sometimes I look at him and wondering if he's going full speed because he is going so smooth on his runs," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "He is very tough and very physical and finds that end zone."
In the passing game Foster and Grice have both been utilized heavily, with 19 combined receptions. However, Jaelen Strong (12 receptions, 162 yards, TD) is the more traditional wide receiver and has been able to produce well on the edge.
Outside of the national rankings these teams share, there is another similarity that is not as readily apparent. The Cardinal are known for their defensive prowess but few know how strong the Sun Devils are on that side of the ball. Arizona State ranked second in the Pac-12 in total defense last season and is currently fourth in the league (304 ypg).
The players to watch for the Sun Devils include leading tackler Osahon Irabor (10 tackles, 3.0 TFL) and All-American defensive linemen Will Sutton, who has had a slow start to the season, but led the Pac-12 in tackles for loss (23.5) a year ago.
While Arizona State's offense mirrors the trend of speed and spreading things out, Stanford is still a traditional offensive squad. The Cardinal are averaging a healthy 34 points and 406 yards per game by running a balanced attack. The Cardinal are recording nearly as many yards on the ground (200 ypg) as through the air (206 ypg) each week.
The eruption of Tyler Gaffney has been the story for the Cardinal offense this season. Gaffney has taken over for workhorse Stepfan Taylor, who is now playing for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, and been strong in his first two starts. Gaffney has amassed 236 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries and will be continued to be relied upon heavily.
Another nice revelation for the Cardinal has been the steady play of Kevin Hogan. The junior signal caller has not been asked to be the focus of the offense like other quarterbacks in the country, but he has performed admirably in leading the team to two victories. Hogan has completed 62.2 percent of his pass attempts for 395 yards and five touchdowns, while being intercepted just once.
Hogan's favored target has clearly been Ty Montgomery, who has 10 catches for 211 yards and two scores. No other player on the roster has more than five receptions or 65 yards.
While the offense has been solid, Stanford's defense is what has been winning games for the Cardinal the last two seasons. Nothing has changed this year. Stanford is allowing just 16.5 points and 292 yards per game to its first two opponents. Though it is a small sample size, the Cardinal are currently 15th nationally in total defense. The hallmark for the Cardinal has been stopping the run, which it has done by allowing teams to average just 3.8 yards per carry.
Hard-hitting safety Ed Reynolds (17 tackles, INT) leads the team in tackles through two games, though Shayne Skov (15 tackles) has been making plenty of stops at linebacker. Meanwhile, Trent Murphy has collected two sacks to lead the pass rush.