While much of America was either going to bed or staying up to discuss how great (or awful) the pass-interference call on Notre Dame really was in its epic game against Florida State, something significant happened in the Pac-12. Arizona State made great use of a bye week and took down Stanford to alter the complexion of both divisions in the league. Yes, the Pac-12 North is still Stanford’s to win if it can prevail in Autzen Stadium, something it has done before. However, the Cardinal have no margin for error in the conference, something that couldn’t have been said a week ago. Arizona State, meanwhile, has given itself a much better chance of emerging from the clutter in the Pac-12 South.
The editors of The Student Section discuss this result, which has certainly shifted the calculus in one half of the Pac-12 if not both.
Is Arizona State’s comfortable victory over Stanford more a product of the Sun Devils’ emerging maturity or the Cardinal’s regression?
As with any great meal, it’s not just a good main course or appetizer that make the final product. It’s the combination. If the main course is great but everything else is mediocre, it’s not a great meal, just a great main course.
So as with this question, it’s some of both that make the final product. Sincere credit should go to Arizona State for getting licked the way it did against UCLA a few weeks ago and bouncing back as the Sun Devils have.
It’s hard to really know who this team is or how good the Sun Devils really are because of the no-Taylor Kelly theme music in the background. When Todd Graham said before the season that this was the best offense he’s ever had, you could assume it was more than just Kelly but didn’t really want to find that out.
The “maturity” part of it comes in the fact that this Sun Devil defense had to go about replacing nine starters and looked every part of that team against UCLA.
The other side of it obviously is Stanford, which used to make a living gutting and demoralizing flashy, high-speed spread offenses like the one at Arizona State.
Stanford’s own need to replace so many elite parts on defense certainly has taken its toll, but an offense that gives little to no help even if the defense was playing better almost makes it a moot point.
The Cardinal don’t run the ball with the bloodless authority they used to, and Kevin Hogan hasn’t really improved to the level where you can just walk him out there and expect that if need be, he’ll win you the game.
More of this is growth about Arizona State, though. If the Sun Devils can blind the oft-wandering eye of Todd Graham, they might be in the national mix on a yearly basis if this stuff keeps up.
Stanford demolished Arizona State twice last season — once in Palo Alto, once in Tempe in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Cardinal won those two games by a composite score of 80-42, and that included a 42-28 win in Palo Alto, a game the Cardinal led, 39-7, after three quarters. If you take away the three garbage touchdowns scored by ASU in the fourth quarter in Palo Alto, Stanford won seven quarters against the Sun Devils by a composite score of 77-21.
As you’ll see in Terry’s answer below, Stanford’s defense is still… Stanford’s defense, playing up to the standards David Shaw sets for his program. The Cardinal defended ASU relatively well — not perfectly, but certainly enough to win. Arizona State mounted one sustained touchdown drive, “sustained” being defined in this case as having to drive at least more than half the field. What really decided this game: Stanford muffed a punt and fumbled on a kickoff return. Arizona State used two short fields to get its other touchdown and one of four field goals. That’s 10 points in a 16-point game. Stanford has been sloppy all season long — it’s what the Cardinal have become. With Kevin Hogan regressing and no Tyler Gaffney there to bail him out, Shaw’s still-baffling and largely conservative game strategies have been exposed in ways previous seasons didn’t do.
By all means, give Todd Graham credit for having Arizona State ready after a bye week. Much more vigorously and emphatically, one should credit Graham for getting so much out of backup quarterback Mike Bercovici this season. In particular, one should credit Graham to the heavens in the land of the Sun Devils for getting Bercovici to play clean, turnover-free football against an elite Stanford defense, less than one month after his turnover-plagued debut against UCLA. The amount of progress Bercovici has made in such a short period of time is a testament to the quarterback himself, but also the coach that had him ready to play in a moment of great consequence.
Consider this game 40 percent the result of Arizona State’s resilience and preparedness; it’s 60 percent the result of Stanford’s failures — mostly the botched kick returns, partly Kevin Hogan’s regression, and partly David Shaw’s lack of answers on offense, rolled into one.
Contrary to what many in the media are saying, Stanford is not regressing. Sure, the team is 4-3 with a 2-2 mark in Pac-12 play. However, it’s worth noting that the team is ranked third nationally in passing defense (153 yards per game), second in total defense (254.9 yards per game), and second scoring defense (12.3 points per game).
That hardly sounds like a team that’s having a miserable season as some have suggested. In fact, Stanford can actually win the Pac-12 North as long as it wins out.
Since when did representing your division and playing in the conference championship game equal “regression?”
It doesn’t, which is why Arizona State deserves all of the credit for Saturday night’s victory. Mike Bercovici turned in another strong performance, throwing for 245 yards against the Cardinal secondary – the second highest total they allowed this season. More impressively, the Sun Devils had their best outing of the season, limiting the Cardinal’s vaunted running game to just 76 yards.
Only Washington (2012) and Notre Dame (2014) have held Stanford to fewer yards on the ground during David Shaw’s extremely successful tenure.
With numbers like that, it’s time to start looking at Arizona State as a legitimate national championship contender. If the Devils should win out – a big if considering the brutal Pac-12 schedule plus Notre Dame – it’s tough to see them missing out on a shot to play for all the marbles.