Tempe, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) - In a rematch of last season's Pac-12 Conference championship game, the 23rd-ranked Stanford Cardinal pay a visit to the 17th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils.
These teams actually met twice last season, once in the regular season and then again to determine the league champion. Stanford cruised to victories in both contests, with a 42-28 triumph in September and a 38-14 rout in December. The Cardinal have won the last four matchups, but the Sun Devils lead the all- time series, 16-13.
Stanford showed just how impressive its defense is last Friday against Washington State. The Cardinal limited the Cougars, who had more than 800 total yards the previous week, to 266 yards en route to a 34-17 victory. The win allowed Stanford to bounce back from a 17-14 road loss to Notre Dame and improve to 4-2, with the two losses coming by a combined six points.
Arizona State rebounded with a victory in its last outing as well. Following a 62-27 embarrassment at home against UCLA, the Sun Devils stunned USC on a last-second Hail Mary to secure their fourth win of the season. They were idle last weekend, giving them plenty of time to rest and prepare for another shot at redemption this Saturday.
"Any team in this league can win; the key is focusing on the components and getting better," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "It is so hard to sustain that throughout the whole season. That is why it takes such an enormous amount of energy, focus and discipline."
It is very clear what is holding Stanford back this season; its offense. More specifically, its red zone offense. The Cardinal are next-to-last in the Pac-12 in total yards (389.2 ypg) and dead last in points per game (26.3). They are also last in the league in red zone conversion percentage (.679). No other team in the conference is below 80 percent.
It has been difficult for the Cardinal to punch into the end zone because of a lack of a feature back. Neither Remound Wright (278 yards, two TDs) or Barry Sanders (235 yards) have really separated themselves, with neither averaging more than 60 yards per game. Wright did have a strong game against Washington State (98 yards, TD), but he needs to continue that type of play.
"Remound came in and was the hammer for us, broke a couple of tackles, ran extremely hard. If you run the ball well, play action and boots now actually have some meaning," Stanford head coach David Shaw said. "And that's the thing, when we're doing what we're supposed to do offensively, we got a lot of weapons, a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things."
Kevin Hogan also needs to play like he did against Washington State more often. The Stanford quarterback threw for 284 yards and three scores on 23- of-35 passing, easily his most productive effort of the season. Overall, he has tossed 11 scoring strikes to go with 1,325 yards and four interceptions.
Ty Montgomery is far and away the top receiving threat for the Cardinal, even though he is averaging less than 10 yards per reception. Montgomery leads the team in receptions (37) and receiving yards (359), while tied with Devon Cajuste with three touchdown receptions. Cajuste (18 receptions, 243 yards) and Austin Hooper (16 receptions, 202 yards, TD) are the only other players with more than 10 catches.
It is unfortunate that Stanford's offense has struggled because the defense has been absolutely incredible. The Cardinal lead the nation in scoring defense (10 ppg) and rank second behind Louisville in total defense (238 ypg). They also are tops in the Pac-12 in third down conversion allowance (.292).
The Stanford defense will certainly have its hands full against one of the most potent offenses in the conference. Arizona State ranks second only to Arizona in total offense (556.8 ypg), and comes in third in scoring (41.2 ppg).
The offense has had to adapt to a new quarterback as well, with Mike Bercovici stepping in when Taylor Kelly was lost for the season with an injury. Bercovici has been impressive in his first two starts, especially against USC. In that contest, he threw for five touchdowns and 510 yards on 27-of-45 passing, while avoiding any interceptions. His 191.9 efficiency rating in the game was better than any of Kelly's in the first three games.
Jaelen Strong was the hero against USC, hauling in three touchdown passes, including the miraculous game-winner. He has really excelled with Bercovici under center, with back-to-back weeks of at least 10 receptions and 140 yards. Overall, he has 614 yards and five touchdowns on 41 catches.
While Bercovici and Strong were racking up the yards against USC, D.J. Foster really struggled, finishing with a season-low 13 yards on 10 carries. It was the second game in a row in which Foster tallied 30 yards or less on the ground. He had at least 140 in each of the first three games and still has impressive marks (553 yards, five TDs) on the season. Foster has also accumulated 280 yards and two scores on 21 receptions.
Arizona State had one of the better defensive units in the Pac-12 last season, but that has not carried over into the 2014 campaign. The Sun Devils are letting up 31.4 points and more than 450 yards per game, ranking in the bottom half of the league in each category.