Let’s get this out of the way early: The Stanford Cardinal are good. Jim Harbaugh’s team is not ranked in the top 10 by chance; they have earned the No. 6 ranking in the BCS standings.
With that being said, the Arizona State Sun Devils match up pretty well with the physical Cardinal.
Yes, Stanford’s offense is equipped with Heisman trophy hopeful Andrew Luck, but in recent weeks the Sun Devil’s front seven has turned up the heat in the pocket.
ASU sacked Matt Barkley last Saturday four times, all of which came in the second half. The week before, against Washington State, the Sun Devils recorded five sacks.
Although the Cardinal offensive line is not as poor as Washington State’s, the toughness up front for Stanford has proved to outweigh the talent of USC’s line.
However, the Sun Devils' strength this season has been run defense. Granted, USC did run for 187 yards last Saturday, but in the Sun Devil’s defense, the Trojans carried the ball 43 times.
You can bet Jim Harbaugh is going to hand the ball off upwards of 35 times Saturday night. Last season in Palo Alto, Stanford ran for 237 yards on 46 carries.
Although, the man who carried Stanford to a 33-14 victory last year was Toby Gerhart, and he is in the NFL right now.
However, Luck still is Stanford’s signal caller. Luck threw for 236 yards last year against the Sun Devils, and to keep his name in the running for the Heisman, another big performance against ASU will be necessary.
But like I said, the defensive pressure ASU has displayed in recent weeks has to be encouraging. Nine sacks in two games isn’t a fluke.
The pressure on opposing quarterbacks the last two weeks has been directly resulting in offensive production. With ASU forcing two interceptions against USC’s Matt Barkley and three turnovers the week before against Washington State, the pressure must continue.
Defensive ends Junior Onyeali and Jamarr Jarrett have been impact players on the defensive line to go with the stout run stopping tandem inside.
Although against Stanford, another level of production will be desired.
Starting defensive end James Brooks exited last week’s game against USC in the third quarter with a concussion. If ASU has to play without Brooks, Onyeali and Jarrett will play an even larger role.
Pressuring the quarterback and containing Stanford’s dominant running game will not be easy in the least bit, but the difference will be at the quarterback position.
Stanford has the highly touted Andrew Luck. He has been a hot commodity in the Pac-10 conference since he took his first snaps in 2009.
Now, the talk is that Luck will be a guaranteed top 10 pick in NFL’s spring draft. Well, that is if the redshirt sophomore decides to leave school early.
Obviously, if Stanford is lining up a future NFL quarterback in the backfield, the Sun Devils will direct their focus on him.
Luck not only has the arm to beat teams in the passing game, but he has also had three games this season when he rushed for over 60 yards on the ground.
Not many people give credit for Luck’s ability to run, but as the leader of the Stanford offense, he does whatever is necessary to win.
Stanford doesn’t exactly have the high-flying, up-tempo running attack that Oregon does, but the Cardinal have been efficient with Luck and Stepfan Taylor carrying the football.
But don’t forget, this is the conference of passing offenses and plenty of points. Stanford is fifth in the country in scoring, averaging over 42 points a game.
Although the Cardinal ground game gets most of the attention, if Luck is a Heisman candidate, his receivers have to be pretty good too.
Led by three seniors and one junior, the wide receivers and tight end for Stanford are just as deadly as the running game.
Luck’s passing efficiency is best in the Pac-10, and wide receivers Doug Baldwin and Chris Owusu are the contributors to help inflate that number.
Stanford has not been tested much this season, not because of poor competition, but due to the overpowering, physical nature of Jim Harbaugh’s squad.
In the Cardinal’s non-conference slate, Notre Dame and Wake Forest did not exactly resemble elite programs this season, but Stanford still took care of business in a very controlling and demanding fashion.
Even just last week, against the 15th ranked Arizona Wildcats, Stanford rolled to a 42-17 victory at home.
Stanford’s only loss came against the No. 1 team in the country, the Oregon Ducks. The Cardinals, like ASU, jumped out to an early lead, only to see it disappear in a flash.
The Ducks ended up running away with a 52-31 victory. Harbaugh’s team turned the ball over three times and committed nine penalties in the 21-point loss.
For ASU, that score has to encourage you. The Sun Devils and Ducks run a similar style of offense, except for Oregon’s increased pace.
To be honest, ASU is a "poor man's" Oregon. Even on defense, Oregon and ASU like to make plays on defense, and sometimes the Sun Devils get beat. At Oregon, their safeties make sure the play is made.
Oregon has playmakers at every level, from the defensive line, to the secondary. Everyone can make a play at the most crucial time.
For ASU, that role has been limited to Omar Bolden. Lately, LeQuan Lewis has come up with a few game-changing plays, but for ASU to have a chance, an unsung hero will have to make a crucial interception, or force a bone-jarring fumble recovery.
In recent weeks, the offense for ASU has been hot or cold. Against Cal, the offense never made it to Berkley. Against the last-place Washington State Cougars, ASU lit up the scoreboard with 42 points.
Last Saturday at USC, the offense had flashes of a balanced, spread offense attack. USC defensively, looked to be caught off guard in the second half, and ASU miscues ended any hope of an upset.
To open the second half, ASU drove the length of the field, only to throw a pick-six in the redzone. The Sun Devils finished the game with 398 yards, and as Dennis Erickson pointed out, ASU should have picked up more.
Erickson and offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone had a gutsy gameplan early against USC, with the double pass that was orchestrated on the first play from scrimmage, but after that early success, the Sun Devils kept testing USC in the air.
Although admittedly so, Erickson stated, “the Sun Devils probably should have handed the ball off more.”
ASU running back Cameron Marshall rushed for 56 yards, but averaged over six yards a carry. The same was true with Deantre Lewis, who totaled 55 yards and almost five yards a play.
Although a fast paced offensive attack like Oregon has proved to be the Achilles’ heel not only for Stanford, but also for the rest of the conference; the opposite might be the Sun Devils best option.
The coaching staff noticed the success on the ground against a talented USC defense. So, run the football more, instead of forcing Steven Threet into tough decisions under pressure.
ASU’s success back in 2007 was due to a powerful running game and a “good enough” play-action passing attack.
With the Sun Devil offense, play-action is the key to success. Stanford’s defense will respect the run, if early play calls indicate such a commitment.
Both running backs Marshall and Lewis will need a big day for the passing game to have success.
Recently, T.J. Simpson and Gerell Robinson have been Threet’s go-to receivers, but if ASU wants to make a national statement against Stanford, big-play receivers Mike Willie and Kerry Taylor will have to play a big role.
Simpson has yet to haul in a touchdown catch this season, but has had plenty of opportunities, most notably against Wisconsin and Oregon State. This week against Stanford, Simpson will finally break that drought.
The key, as it seems to be each and every week with ASU, will be ball security. The Sun Devils nearly escaped from the L.A. Coliseum with a victory even after throwing a pick-six, a last second interception, and countless special teams miscues.
At home, the Sun Devils have played with a comfort level and confidence that is necessary to pull off “unthinkable” upsets. Sun Devil Stadium has not seen a major upset in a long, long time.
Not many believed ASU could beat Oregon, but it was closer than the experts predicted. Heck, Oregon punted 11 times, but the Sun Devils turned the ball over seven times.
Sooner or later, the Sun Devils will have a complete four-quarter performance against a team that is not from the state of Washington.
Saturday night against the pro-style offensive attack of Stanford, the Sun Devils will be the more athletic team for the first time in awhile.
The question will be, can the Sun Devils compete with the physicality of Stanford?