On offense, clearly the most name worthy player is quarterback Andrew Luck, who in only his second year at Stanford has gotten a decisive reputation as one of college football's most efficient passers.
To date in 2010, the redshirt sophomore has accumulated 2,219 passing yards at a scorching 67.8-percent clip, with 22 touchdowns to only six interceptions -- all adding up to a superb efficiency rating of 163.56. Even without bulldozing back Toby Gerhart, Luck and Stanford's offense as a whole strategically uses its power running game to both bait and overwhelm opponents, allowing Luck to later open fire in the pass game. As if Luck's acumen in the pocket wasn't enough, his immeasurable pro potential is boosted by his mobility as he has netted 370 rushing yards with three touchdowns, making him Stanford's second-leading rusher. Also, standing as a testament to Luck's maneuverability and intelligence in addition to the dominance of the Cardinal offensive line, Stanford passers on the year have only been sacked a total of three times through nine games -- a nearly unheard of statistic at this point in the season.
With Gerhart's departure, sophomore Stepfan Taylor has emerged as the next great back for the Cardinal, on his way to a 1,000-yard season with 810 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns through nine games. Also a factor in the pass game, Taylor has hauled in 20 receptions on the year for 228 yards and one score.
Behind Taylor at running back is a trio of athletes that have contributed throughout the course of the season consisting of true freshman Anthony Wilkerson (46 carries, 248 yards, two touchdowns), sophomore dual-sport athlete Tyler Gaffney (44 carries, 217 yards, four touchdowns) who also starts on Stanford's baseball team, and redshirt freshman Usua Amanam (27 carries, 126 yards).
Walk-on Andrew Stutz, a Scottsdale native, has seen action in a pair of games, totaling two carries for six yards with one touchdown.
Of course, anyone that has seen Stanford over the past few years recognizes the long-haired, gloveless, genius assassin named Owen Marecic who this year decided that smashing facemasks and bruising egos at fullback wasn't enough and added starting inside linebacker duties to his resume.
Offensively, Marecic doesn't get a ton of time with the ball (22 total touches, 98 yards and two rushing touchdowns), but ask any linebacker or would-be tackler in the Pac-10 and they'll testify to crushing impact he has on a game. Marecic is a high-energy, high-effort, throw-back that in many cases makes a greater mark on a game's outcome when he doesn't touch the ball than he does.
In addition to a stable of top-notch backs and the presence of the uncaged beast Marecic, Stanford intelligently uses multiple-tight end sets and several scenarios of offensive linemen dressed as fullbacks or tight ends to further fortify the Cardinal's front-end run blocking schemes.
In all, the bounty of ballers in Stanford's backfield enables the Cardinal to average 223.0 rushing yards per game with 25 touchdowns on the ground thus far.
Owusu (24 catches, 394 yards, three touchdowns), one of the nation's premier kick returners, was limited during the first few games of the season but has caught fire of late. Baldwin (team-highs of 36 catches, 508 yards and six touchdowns) admirably filled Owusu's void early in the year and has continued his contributions as Stanford's top receiving target, while Whalen (24 catches, 276 yards, two touchdowns) has been a solid force in the pass game as well.
Few teams in the Pac-10 use tight ends as frequently and as effectively as Stanford does, guided by Coby Fleener (20 catches, 250 yards, four touchdowns) and former Notre Dame transfer Konrad Reuland (13 catches, 151 yards, one touchdown). Both players are factors to contribute whether the play call keeps the ball on the ground or takes it to the air, and if the Cardinal bookworms viewed film of the Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State games, they noticed a sizeable opportunity for tight ends to outperform ASU's defensive efforts.
Simply put, Stanford is spoiled when it comes to its offensive line; not only has the unit overpowered every opponent thus far and allowed a measly three sacks, the group has had unscathed continuity as the same five have started all nine games this year.
From left-to-right, sophomore Jonathan Martin starts at left tackle with senior Andrew Phillips beside him at left guard. Senior Chase Beeler, a one-time Oklahoma Sooner, is one of the nation's best centers, while sophomore left guard David DeCastro is a budding superstar. Right tackle Derek Hall, a fifth-year senior, is a first-year starter but has shown no signs of being unfit for his first-string status.
Andrew Luck may need to go to the courthouse soon to legally change his last name because a player of his credentials is not coincidentally successful. His field leadership and decision-making abilities are sensational and his game is far from one-dimensional.
No back, receiver or tight end is going to vie for All-America honors this year, but the Cardinal has tremendous depth at every spot and if ASU keys in specifically on stopping one, there are many others that can make the Sun Devils pay.
To boil it down to one word, 'discipline' will be the name of the game for ASU versus the Cardinal. Luck and his teammates won't make several mistakes, so the Devils can ill-afford to make many of their own. ASU must be assignment sound; must avoid lapses in tackling and coverage and above all not give Stanford free grass by way of defensive penalties.
For the Sun Devils to survive, ASU will have to play its most focused and spirited game of the season and avoid the untimely and costly mistakes that have demoralized the team on several occasions this year.
Following the NFL trend that is trickling down more and more to the collegiate ranks, Stanford switched to a 3-4 defensive front over the offseason and the transition has been a very good one.
Senior Brian Bulcke (20 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and junior Matt Masifilo (21 tackles, 3.5 TFL) occupy the two end positions, with redshirt freshmen Ben Gardner (two tackles, two TFL, one sack) and Josh Mauro (seven tackles) as the primary reserves.
The 'X-factor' in any 3-4 defense is the linebacker alignment, and the Cardinal 'backers bring a host of ability on every down to help torment opposing offenses.
Much like his sophomore counterpart for ASU, inside linebacker Shayne Skov (team-high 55 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) has Vontaze Burfict-like potential and has shown signs of being a complete terror roaming the defense, and Skov is joined in the starting lineup by every-down wild man and two-way starter Owen Marecic (32 tackles, 3.5 TFL, team-high two interceptions).
Junior Thomas Keiser (32 tackles, team-high 7.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks, previously one of the conference's elite sack artists from the defensive end position, assumes an outside linebacker role but still is highly disruptive, while sophomore Chase Thomas (46 tackles, team-high 7.0 TFL, team-high 5.0 sacks) has similar qualities and the pair gives Stanford a few fully-loaded snipers able to bull their way into the backfield.
The linebacker depth consists of senior Chike Amajoyi (14 tackles) and junior Max Bergen (18 tackles, one TFL) at inside linebacker and sophomore Alex Debniak (15 tackles) and true freshman Blake Lueders (three tackles, one TFL) at outside linebacker.
In the secondary, senior Richard Sherman (38 tackles, team-high two interceptions) and junior Johnson Bademosi (35 tackles, one interception) have claimed starting spots, backed by redshirt freshman Terrence Brown (four tackles), sophomore Arizonan Harold Bernard (nine tackles) and true freshman Barry Browning (six tackles).
Strong safety Delano Howell (48 tackles, team-high two interceptions) has turned himself into one of the most frequent tacklers among defensive backs over the past few years, and he is joined on the first-team by junior free safety Michael Thomas (34 tackles, 4.5 TFL).
Former wide receiver Austin Yancy (16 tackles, one interception) is the top contingent to Howell at strong safety, while fellow senior Taylor Skaufel (34 tackles, one interception) sees ample activity as a reserve free safety.
True freshman safety Devon Carrington, a Chandler native and one of Arizona's top prospects last year, has appeared in six games as a reserve with five total tackles.
Stanford's 3-4 defense is in attack mode all day, all night and the Devils must be prepared for it. Scarily enough, the last team that primarily operates from a three-man front (California) hit the jackpot against ASU, so the Sun Devils hopefully learned from that humbling experience.
The ferocity and pressing abilities of the four primary linebackers can quickly make life Hell for the Devils, so the onus of responsibility is on ASU's protection schemes to nullify the advances of Keiser, Thomas and their buddies.
Furthermore challenging for ASU is Fua's ability to crash the pocket, creating a need for intent blocking focus to be placed on the big-bodied nose tackle, theoretically creating holes for the ‘backers to rattle Steven Threet's cage early and often.
Just as the Sun Devil defense needs to be assignment-sound, the offense cannot afford to suffer a lack of focus and execution. All five linemen must cohesively keep Threet upright, and the receivers in the spread formation will need to effectively find openings when they emerge.
Additionally, if ASU's running backs can do their best impression of a polygraph and keep Stanford brutally honest all game, the Sun Devils' chances will exponentially increase.
Special Teams Preview
In the kicking game, placekicker Nate Whitaker has been red hot all year, converting 13-of-14 attempts, with his only miss being a 40-yarder against Washington. Whitaker also handles kickoffs, while punter Daniel Zychlinski has only punted 20 times this season –not that he has been hurt, Stanford just moves the ball that well – and averages 42.8 yards with three over 50 yards and seven inside the 20-yard line.
Though he hasn't exploded in the fashion he did as an All-American returns specialist in 2009, Chris Owusu averages 24.7 yards on 17 kickoff returns, while Usua Amanam chips in an average of 25.4 yards on 10 returns.
Doug Baldwin and Arizona native Drew Terrell have split duty on punt returns, with each fielding seven punts. Of the pair, Terrell boasts the higher average (9.1 yards to Baldwin's 5.3).
On paper, it appears that ASU is overmatched in this exchanged; however the odds-makers and recent history may lead to beliefs that the Devils can be more competitive than outside observers expect.
The task in front of the Sun Devils is far from easy – in fact, ASU could use a player named "Luck" more than Stanford needs a charm of good faith.
Each of the final three games is crucial to ASU's postseason ambitions; a clean sweep is mandatory for certain bowl eligibility, while a crapshoot chance involving petitions and a lack of bowl-eligible teams in the conference may enable a 6-6 Sun Devil squad to go bowling in 2010.
ASU may not need a flawless performance for the pitchfork squad to pull off a shocker, but the Devils undoubtedly will need their most efficient and grounded performance of 2010 to do so.
Just as Stanford relies on its linebackers for a multi-dimensional pass rush, ASU will need to use its entire front seven to disrupt Luck and force him to make uncharacteristically poor decisions.
Lineup Notes and Injury News
• After Thursday's practice ASU head coach Dennis Erickson announced that he didn't expect running back Kyle Middlebrooks (ankle) to play on Saturday.
Five Questions: ASU vs. Stanford
• How can ASU respond after yet another heartbreaking loss?
• What answer can ASU provide to Stanford's power running game and attacking 3-4 defense?
• Will the must-win sense of urgency motivate or rattle the Sun Devils?
• Can ASU be as competitive with Stanford as it has been with the other high-ranked opponents this year?
• Can Thomas Weber rebound from another frustrating performance?
• Stanford safety Devon Carrington and wide receiver Drew Terrell are Arizona natives and attended Chandler Hamilton High School, as did ASU's Anthony Jones, Gerald Munns, Colin Parker, Gerell Robinson and Kerry Taylor.
• Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt attended Denver (Colo.) Mullen High School, as did ASU defensive end Junior Onyeali.
• Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy is an Arizona native and attended Phoenix Brophy Prep, as did ASU's Mike Callaghan. Murphy's sister, Kayli, was a former letterwinner for ASU's women's basketball team.
• Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu attended Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian High School, as did ASU tight end Christopher Coyle and recent verbal commit Dillon van der Wal.
• Stanford quarterback Robbie Picazo attended Rancho Santa Margarita (Calif.) Tesoro High School; as did ASU offensive linemen Sil Ajawara and Evan Finkenberg, as well as current verbal commit Sean O'Grady.
• Stanford running back Andrew Stutz is an Arizona native and attended Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep.