When the No. 23 Arizona State Sun Devils and No. 5 Stanford Cardinal square off tonight at Stanford Stadium, the ghosts of 2008 will be looming in the air like a thick, eerie fog drifting over Palo Alto from San Francisco Bay.
Winning the Pac 12 opener is obviously both teams’ top priority, as it will launch the winner into conference play with a ton of confidence. But a strong performance in the conference opener doesn’t always signal continued success in the league – just ask the 2008 Sun Devils.
It’s no secret this game will play a pivotal role in the Pac-12 race and will give us our first real opportunity to gauge Stanford’s national title credentials, but you’re probably wondering: what does 2008 have to do with tonight’s game? It marks the genesis of two diametrically opposed trends in Stanford and Arizona State football that come to a head tonight.
Stanford has grown accustomed to being a not-so-welcoming host to ranked conference opponents. In games against their first ranked Pac 12 opponent at home, the Cardinal are 4-0 the last four seasons. The last time Stanford lost such a game was way back in 2008. The opponent – No. 15 Arizona State.
The 41-17 loss sent Stanford into a tailspin, losing six of its final 10 games to finish 5-7. And though they won big over Stanford, things didn’t go any better for the Sun Devils in 2008.
ASU promptly followed the impressive win by losing in overtime the following week to unranked UNLV 23-20. And the Sun Devils would continue to lose for five more weeks in a row that season, dropping out of the polls and joining Stanford with a 5-7 record.
Tonight, Arizona State looks to regain something that’s been missing since that September night in 2008 – its road mojo. The Sun Devils have only won two road games against ranked opponents since then – Arizona in 2010 and 2012. Beating the fifth-ranked Cardinal would help Sparky recharge his trident away from home.
The Cardinal, on the other hand, have enjoyed a much more successful trend against ranked opponents at home. Since losing to ASU in 2008, Stanford has won every home game except two against ranked opponents.
Furthermore, the Cardinal has won 10 straight at home against all opponents, while ASU has lost five straight road openers. Stanford is also 2-0 against the Sun Devils. The Cardinal would no doubt love to extend all those trends tonight. Only one of these two trends, ASU’s road woes against or Stanford’s home success against ranked teams, can prevail tonight. Which trend ultimately continues depends on a couple of key matchups:
ASU QB Taylor Kelly’s arm vs. Stanford’s seventh-ranked pass defense
Against Wisconsin’s then second-ranked defense last week, Kelly had career highs in completions (29), attempts (51) and yards passing (352), a nod to his abilities and ASU’s arsenal of athletic offensive weapons. Kelly is a force to be reckoned with, as he is already building on what accomplished last season, setting school records for completion percentage (67.1) and touchdown passes in a season (29).
And Stanford hasn’t faced a passing attack that comes close to matching what the Sun Devils can do. The Cardinal’s ability to slow down the Sun Devils’ potent passing attack and prove their ranking against the pass is not heavily inflated, will be a key for them tonight. On the other hand, Arizona State will need Kelly to continue making plays in the passing game to pull off the upset.
Stanford’s run game vs. ASU’s defense
Stanford QB Kevin Hogan has played pretty well so far in his second year as the starter, but Arizona State has been strong in pass defense and should offer a pretty complicated test. The question is how much Stanford will have to pass. ASU ranks 77th in rushing defense, but a lot of that has to do with the damage Wisconsin’s jet-sweep master Melvin Gordon did last week.
While Gordon was rushing 15 times for 193 yards, running back James White was gaining only 45 yards in 12 carries. If Stanford is able to hammer out first downs on the ground, then play-action passing could open up. But if the Cardinal are seeing a lot of second-and-eights as opposed to second-and-fives, the advantage shifts in favor of the Sun Devils.