In the latter portion of the 2012 season, Stanford made a switch at quarterback from which the Cardinal have never looked back and have benefitted tremendously.
Kevin Hogan took over for Josh Nunes for the final three regular season games and two postseason contests, setting aside a lack of experience to lead Stanford to the Pac-12 title and a victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
The unquestioned starter for 2013, Hogan entered the season as the field general for a squad positioned as a favorite to repeat as league champion and remain in the national championship picture all season long.
Gutsy and versatile, Hogan has shown a knack for orchestrating victories in big-game environments with his efficiency and bravery. To date in 2013, Hogan has completed 62.2% of his passes for 395 yards with five touchdowns and one interception while tallying 32 net rushing yards. Though Hogan is coming off one of his poorest career performances last week against Army, he has noteworthy experience against ranked teams to enable him to rebound against Arizona State.
With the graduation of the school's all-time leading rusher Stepfan Taylor, Stanford has turned to Tyler Gaffney to carry the torch at running back. Sun Devil football and baseball fans should be familiar with his multi-sport presence—in fact, Gaffney spent the 2012 away from the Cardinal football program while playing minor league baseball.
Through two games Gaffney has shown no rust on the gridiron as he's surpassed 100 yards in each of the first two games and has yet to lose a rushing yard. In total, Gaffney has carried 40 times for 236 yards with three touchdowns while also hauling in three receptions for 43 yards and a score.
Behind Gaffney, veteran rusher Anthony Wilkerson stands as the top reserve and has carried 13 times for 76 yards.
Aside from the loss of Taylor at running back, the Cardinal had multiple other high-profile losses at skill positions including WR Drew Terrell, TE Zach Ertz and TE Levine Toilolo. Those departures left some major question marks in terms of who would step up to catch Hogan's passes, and thus far WR Ty Montgomery has answered the bell with substantial results. Montgomery, an all-league kick returner in 2012, has totaled over half of Stanford's receiving yards (211 of 412) while hauling in a third of the team's receptions (10 of 30) with two of the team's five touchdown catches.
Hogan is a budding star at quarterback and Gaffney has created the framework of a 1,000-plus yard season, but likely none of that would be possible without the outstanding ability of Stanford's offensive line, a unit that has become renowned throughout the college football world as one of the best year-in, year-out.
Few teams in the nation boast as imposing of a combination of interior linemen as Stanford's standout guard pairing of David Yankey and Kevin Danser. Yankey, a Consensus All-American last year, starts at left guard with Danser, a Second-Team All-Pac-12 member in 2012, holds up the right side.
Right tackle Cameron Fleming was an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 member in 2012, while Tempe native Andrus Peat stars at left tackle and has shown the skill set to validate his standing as one of the nation's premier recruits during his tenure at Corona del Sol High School.
Collectively, Stanford's offensive line is a huge contributor to the team's current average of an even 200 rushing yards per game and the fact that the team has suffered only two sacks in two games.
Offense in a Nutshell
Stanford's offense hovers around its stellar front line and its collective ability to protect Kevin Hogan and the Cardinal runners. Tyler Gaffney has a powerful running style and will challenge the Devils up the middle, while Hogan can make ASU pay with weapons such as Ty Montgomery if the Sun Devils load the box too much to limit Stanford's run game.
ASU simply can't over-pursue in a game like this, as Hogan is comfortable throwing on the run or stretching plays for yardage on the ground. Though he has less than a full season as a starter under his belt, Hogan is battle-tested after guiding the Cardinal to wins against Oregon last season, in last year's Pac-12 championship game and also Stanford's Rose Bowl victory on New Year's Day.
Stanford operates out of its usual 3-4 defensive front, with All-America caliber players at every level of the defense.
Ben Gardner (6-4, 277) is will start at one end, but with all-conference end Henry Anderson out of action, the other side figures to be filled by Josh Mauro (6-6, 282). Despite coming off the bench in both contests, Mauro leads all Cardinal defensive linemen ranks fifth overall on the team with 10 tackles. Gardner has registered six tackles, a split of a sack and two quarterback hurries on the year.
The strength of the Cardinal defense is its sensational group of linebackers, guided by OLB Trent Murphy (6-6, 261) and Shayne Skov (6-3, 245) and A.J. Tarpley (6-2, 238) inside. James Vaughters (6-2, 254) starts opposite Trent Murphy at OLB with Blake Leuders (6-5, 260) and Kevin Anderson (6-4, 244) as the primary backups outside.
Skov ranks second on the team with 15 tackles and also has two quarterback hurries, while Murphy has collected a team-best 2.0 sacks among his eight total tackles. Tarpley ranks fourth on the team with 11 total stops and Vaughters has collected seven tackles.
On the year, Carter has totaled nine tackles, while Lyons ranks third on the team with 12 tackles including a tie of the team-high of 3.0 TFLs.
Ed Reynolds (6-2, 206), a definite All-America candidate, starts at free safety with Jordan Richards (5-11, 208) at strong safety. Reynolds, an All-American and First-Team All-Pac-12 member last year, leads Stanford with 17 tackles on the year and has the team's only interception. Richards has collected 10 tackles including two for loss.
Usua Ananam (5-10, 175) is listed as the team's top nickel back with Ronnie Harris (5-10, 174) behind him. Ananam is expected to see ample action Saturday due to injuries at cornerback and ASU's fast offensive pace. Ananam has yet to register a tackle in 2013 but has posted a pair of pass deflections.
Arizona native Devon Carrington (6-1, 204) is listed as a second-team member at both free safety and cornerback, while fellow Arizonan Zach Hoffpauir (6-0, 193) is labeled as the team's third strong safety. Kyle Olugbode (6-1, 205) also adds depth at safety. Carrington ranks second on the team in tackles among reserves with five.
Defense in a Nutshell
In all, the Stanford defense is a potent unit on both the Pac-12 and national levels. A year ago the Cardinal finished fifth in the FBS in rush defense, second in tackles-for-loss (behind ASU) and first nationally in sacks (one spot ahead of ASU). Eight players return from that lineup that earned first-team, second-team or honorable mention All-Pac-12 recognition a year ago, giving the defense a fierce combination of ability and experience.
The Cardinal front seven is especially prominent, guided by the senior efforts of Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Perhaps the greatest task of the day will be for the Sun Devil line to protect the backfield against Stanford's attacking front. If ASU can make that a reality, Sun Devil QB Taylor Kelly can find opportunities in the pass game.
Special Teams Preview
A Second-Team All-Pac-12 member in 2011 and an Honorable Mention selection last year, Jordan Williamson remains one of the league's better placekickers and is of to a very solid start, having connected on 4-of-5 attempts thus far. Williamson's only miss was from 52 yards and three of his four made field goals came between 40-48 yards. He has also has made all eight PAT attempts and handles kickoffs for the Cardinal.
After seeing split duty in 2012, Ben Rhyne is Stanford's top punter this season but has had limited opportunities through two games with only two total punts for a 48.5-yard average.
Ty Montgomery, an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 returner in 2012, is Stanford's top kick returner and boasts a 27.2-yard average on four returns this season. Kodi Whitfield has Stanford's only registered punt return of the year, which he ran back 25 yards.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
Protect the Line
Stanford's defense—especially its front seven—is as fierce and talented as ASU will face all season.
Through two games, ASU's offensive line cannot be categorized as "dominant", so the effort level and focus must increase Saturday to keep one of the nation's best defensive fronts at bay. If ASU is unable to hold firm at the point of attack, Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and company can quickly occupy the backfield and make life difficult for the likes of Taylor Kelly and Marion Grice.
Turn the Page
It's a strange notion to hope that a team can move on from an emotional win, but the nature of ASU's victory over Wisconsin makes it something that could resonate for days and potentially distract preparation for Stanford.
It is intelligent of Todd Graham and his staff to restrict Sun Devil players from discussing the controversial finish with the media this week as it essentially forces his team to avoid public thought of the past and only look toward the immediate future.
However, despite a lack of public commentary it remains to be seen if any emotional hangover existed this week that will affect ASU against Stanford.
When playing a top-five team, windows of opportunity figure to be limited at best, forcing ASU to play a near perfect game to give itself a chance of a major upset victory.
The Sun Devils have continued to showcase exemplary discipline in terms of greatly minimizing penalties, but errors such as dropped passes and turnovers including last week's punting gaffe and an interception thrown in Wisconsin territory simply will not fly Saturday in Palo Alto.
Taylor Kelly figures to be under frequent duress, so his decisions must be crisp, and the Devils as a whole must be mentally focused to a near flawless level for ASU to exit the weekend still undefeated.
Though other games on ASU's slate are getting more attention and hype, it is safe to say that this weekend's matchup will include the most highly ranked opponent the Sun Devils will face in the regular season.
History against highly rated teams does not favor the Sun Devils as ASU has not defeated a top-10 team since beating Oregon in 2002, while the Devils haven't taken down a top-five squad since the legendary upset of top-ranked Nebraska in 1996. In all, ASU has only 13 road wins over top-25 teams in program history, making Saturday a game of massive magnitude to the Sun Devil program as a whole.
A win Saturday would require the best team effort seen from ASU in several years as the Devils absolutely must be perfectly disciplined in all areas and execute with maximum efficiency.
If ASU can properly ride the wave of momentum after last weekend's thrilling victory, the talent is there for the Sun Devils to pull a major upset.
Stanford LB Trent Murphy played for Phoenix (Ariz.) Brophy Prep, as did ASU WR Frederick Gammage and K Alex Garoutte. Murphy's sister, Kayli, played basketball at ASU.
Stanford S Zach Hoffpauir (Peoria Centennial High School), LB Blake Martinez (Tucson Canyon del Oro High School) and WR Keanu Nelson (Tucson Sabino High School), OL Andrus Peat (Tempe Corona del Sol High School) and DL Alex Yazdi (Cave Creek Cactus Shadows High School) also are Arizona natives.