ASU vs. Stanford game preview

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ASU RB Marion Grice leads the nation with 6 touchdowns. By Christian Petersen ASU RB Marion Grice leads the nation with 6 touchdowns. By Christian Petersen

No. 23 Arizona State (2-0, 0-0) at No. 5 Stanford (2-0, 0-0)

Kickoff: 4:00 p.m. PST / 7:00 p.m. EST

Location: Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, CA

Point Spread: Stanford -6

TV/Radio: FOX / 92.3 FM

Weather Forecast: Low 70s, mostly cloudy, 20% chance of rain

Series History: This is the first meeting between the two Pac-12 schools since 2010. ASU leads the series 16-11. Stanford won the last match-up 17-13. ASU is just 1-5 in Palo Alto since 2000.

Fun Fact of the Week: ASU running back Marion Grice leads the nation in scoring with 36 points from his six touchdowns.

ASU on Offense: The Sun Devils catch a break in that Stanford runs a similar 3-4 defensive scheme as Wisconsin. The only problem is, the Cardinal do it much better.

Stanford led the nation is sacks (one spot ahead of ASU) and finished second in tackles-for-loss (behind ASU), and they bring pressure early, often, and from everywhere.

The key battle will be the ASU offensive line versus Stanford's front seven. The Sun Devils will need to establish their running game, and while yards may be at a premium, they need to churn away so as not to become one-dimensional, allowing the Cardinal pass rushers to get dialed in. 

Marion Grice will carry the load for the ground game, with D.J. Foster mixed in. The line has struggled in opening holes so far this year, and with a stout defensive front led by end Ben Gardner, it won't be easy. Stanford's linebackers have great range and tackling ability, so look for some more tight end blocking from ASU this week.

ASU struggled running ball last week against Wisconsin, so the passing game will likely be key for the Sun Devils to remain in the game. Taylor Kelly showed great heart in shaking off a slow start to lead a fourth quarter comeback win. He still shows signs of struggling under pressure, and with outside linebacker Trent Murphy leading the formidable pass rush, keeping Kelly out of trouble is paramount. 

If he does have time, he should be able to make some plays downfield. Wide receiver Jaelen Strong is becoming a true No. 1 target, and his size (6-foot-4) and speed will pose problems for the Cardinal secondary. Tight end Chris Coyle may be blanketed underneath, so fellow tight end De'Marieya Nelson could be in line for some targets. As usual, Grice and Foster will be among Kelly's top targets, and if they can be fed the ball in space, they should be able to make some plays. All-American-caliber safety Ed Reynolds will be prowling deep for Stanford, so Kelly must be vigilant of his presence on every snap.

At the end of the day, the winner in the trenches will likely win the game. If ASU can limit the pressure of the Stanford defense and get Grice, Foster, Coyle, and Strong to the second level and deeper, they should be able to put points up on the board. However, if they can't get their ground game on track and allow Kelly to be pressured, the game has the potential to get out of hand quickly.

Key Match-ups:

  • RB Marion Grice vs. LB Shayne Skov: Grice has quietly become one of the premier backs in the Pac-12, and ASU will need their top horse to carry the load against a tough Cardinal run defense led by Skov. The dynamic senior flies to the ball and brings down ballcarriers with the best of them.
  • Offensive line vs. Stanford Pass Rush: The Cardinal have a fearsome pass rush that, much like ASU, brings pressure from all angles. The Sun Devils must be disciplined, stout, and smart in reading the blitzes and keeping Kelly upright.
  • QB Taylor Kelly vs FS Ed Reynolds: Kelly will need a big day passing to beat Stanford, and the Cardinal secondary has one of the nation's top players in Reynolds. The free safety is a menace all over the field, and is a true ballhawk who can swoop in for a game-changing interception.

ASU on Defense: Much like on the other side of the ball, what ASU's defense will face on Saturday in Stanford shares strong similarities to what the Sun Devils faced against Wisconsin: A massive and strong offensive line blocking for a run-first attack.

The only problem is, Stanford is better. 

Stanford's line is anchored by All-American guard David Yankey. He is a dominating presence along the interior, and the battles he will have with ASU's All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton will be tremendous viewing. Sutton should again command extra attention from Stanford's blocking schemes, which means that linemates Jaxon Hood, Gannon Conway, and Carl Bradford will need to step up. Bradford, who showed signs of resuming his playmaking ways last week, will be crucial in trying to smash through the Cardinal line.

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has yet to lose a game since he took over as starter, and that includes the Rose Bowl. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound junior is a capable and improving passer with great poise and command of the offense, and he is a danger as a runner should ASU lose contain. His emergence has helped Stanford a more balanced offense, and he has completed over 62-percent of his throws so far with five touchdowns and just one interception. The Sun Devil pass rush will need to knock Hogan around, as he can be deadly if he finds a rhythm. 

Despite Hogan's play, Stanford is still a run first team, and with over 53% of the team's carries this year, Tyler Gaffney is the likely ballcarrier. He has 40 of the team's 75 runs this year for 236 yards and all three of the team's rushing scores. Gaffney is a powerful runner at 226-pounds, and ASU's tackling must be better than it was a week ago. Backup Anthony Wilkerson, at 214 pounds, is also a strong runner, but with a bit more speed than Gaffney.

ASU's defensive line did a great job of shutting down Wisconsin's power running game last week, and will need an encore once again. Stanford doesn't have the speed backs to get outside like Stanford, so look for better pursuit angles from linebackers Chris Young, Salamo Fiso, and Steffon Martin this week.

Third downs will be key. Stanford is currently second in the nation in third down conversions, making converting over 69-percent on the year. Given their run game and their skill on third down, they are capable of very long drives and leaving ASU's offense on the sidelines for prolonged stretches.

While their wide receivers are not overly impressive, Stanford's group can make plays if too much focus is put on stopping the run game. Ty Montgomery is Hogan's No. 1 target, with his 10 catches for 211 yards easily topping the team. He has good size at 6-foot-2 and sure hands, but this is a match-up that should favor ASU's top cornerback Osahon Irabor. Fellow starter wide receiver David Cajuste is converted tight end and another big target at 6-foot-4, and could create match-up problems. The Cardinal have not featured the tight ends in their passing game much this year, with Luke Kaumatale and Charlie Hopkins having just one short reception each. However, both are over 6-foot-6 and will be tricky redzone targets. 

Key Match-ups:

  • DT Will Sutton vs. G David Yankey: This battle between two All-Americans will highlight the game. Sutton has yet to post the stats he did last year, but he is still a terror on the interior. If he can get by Yankey and disrupt the flow of the Stanford offense, it will go a long way towards ASU's upset bid.
  • LB Chris Young vs. RB Tyler Gaffney: Stanford is built on the run, and when they do, it's likely going to Gaffney, who has 40 of the team's 75 runs this year. A bullish 226-pounder, he will be seeing a lot of Young, who will be key in shutting down the Cardinal ground game.
  • CB Osahon Irabor vs. WR Ty Montgomery: Stanford is a running team, but they are very capable of making plays in the passing game. Montgomery is a talented 6-foot-2 target whose 10 receptions are a full third of the team total. Irabor was the MVP last week, and will need to make sure Montgomery doesn't get behind him.

Special Teams: The Sun Devil return game has yet to get on track, but with Grice handling kickoffs and Robert Nelson on punts, they are a danger to take it to the house on every touch.

ASU kicker Zane Gonzalez made both of his attempts against Wisconsin and now stands at 4-of-6 on the year. He still has yet to hit from distance, but he has range up to 50 yards. Alex Garoutte remains excellent on kickoffs, putting 13 of his 17 kicks back for touchbacks. Punter Dom Vizzare has yet to show off a consistent kicking leg, and needs to pick up his game.

The team kickoff coverage has been excellent, but the punt team has allowed over 11 yards per return, ranking 91st in the nation. 

Montgomery has been excellent for Stanford on kickoff returns, averaging over 27 yards-per-return. Speedy Kodi Whitfield took the only returned punt for Stanford this year 25 yards. 

Cardinal kicker Jordan Williamson has put a shaky 2012 behind him so far, making four of his five kicks, including one from 47 and another from 48 yards. His only miss came from 50. Punter Ben Rhyne has a very strong leg, but due to Stanford's offensive success, he has just two boots on the year.

ASU's To Do List:

  • Avoid turnovers
  • Keep Stanford pass rush off Kelly
  • Don't give up on the run
  • Limit Cardinal run game

What it all means: To score the program's first win against a top 5 team since Nebraska in 1996, ASU must be close to perfect. They can not afford to make any of the blunders that plagued them against Wisconsin, and even if they do, it will still be an uphill battle. Stanford operates with tremendous discipline and they will be hard pressed to make any mistakes. If ASU can force the Cardinal into some mistakes, they have a chance, but right now, it looks like Stanford should come out with a close win at home.

Prediction: Stanford 27-24