Know Your Foe: Stanford

It seems as if the 2014 Cardinal squad is your classic bag of mixed goods, but how will all those factors materialize on the field when they visit Sun Devil Stadium Saturday night? The’s Mark Devaughn answers Sparky’s Huddle members’ questions on Stanford

At a current record of 4-2, is this season so far being considered as underachieving year or were there warning signs coming into 2014?

Devaughn: Most concerns heading into the season existed on defense. It seemed a given the unit would struggle to replace so many key players lost to the NFL. Stanford’s late run to last year’s Pac-12 title gave rise to an anticipation of what could be accomplished on the offensive side this season, especially with a more experienced Kevin Hogan armed with so many returning receiving threats.

The offense’s misdeeds throw the “underachiever” label on the 2014 campaign. When your defense allows just 10 points and under 240 total yards per-game, your record should be better than 4-2. We’re not talking about those comically one-sided Desert Swarm Arizona teams (Dan White, really?). Capable talents exist throughout the offense. Ty Montgomery’s skills as a receiver and a return man make him an unprecedented talent on The Farm. David Shaw deserves much credit for building on what Jim Harbaugh accomplished. But he and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren can be blamed for some curious/stubborn/odd game plans over the last several years. Without a vaunted power run game of years past, they’ve struggled to engineer a consistent attack.

On that note, how is this year’s team compared to last year’s? What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this squad?

Devaughn: It’s been an eventful season already. The nature of the victories has veered from expected blowouts (UC Davis, Army) to sighs of relief (Washington, Washington State). Only one starter, star left tackle and Tempe native Andrus Peat, returned to an offensive line that lost four starters to the NFL. The club still waits for someone to emerge from a crowded field of running backs as the guy. Hogan averages seven more attempts per-game than a year ago.

Pessimists point to a surge in penalties (61 yards per-game compared to 44 last year) and unforced errors (four turnovers already in the red zone). Optimists see the emergence of young players like multi-talented running back Christian McCaffrey, linebackers Peter Kalambayi and Blake Martinez, in addition to a new generation of stud tight ends. For better and worse, there exists a different vibe compared to the feeling after last year’s meeting in Sun Devil Stadium.

Stanford has lost two close games already: the USC loss where they outplayed the Trojans but didn't do well in the red zone, and the Notre Dame game where they left a tight end uncovered in the back corner of the end zone. Is there cause to worry that in a close game, they no longer have the ability to "close it out"?

Devaughn: A highlight film of impressive efforts dating back to 2012 lets the defense off the hook on this one. The group earns the right to be trusted with a late lead. I count 12 games in the post-Andrew Luck era where an opponent held possession late in the fourth quarter or overtime with chance to tie or take the lead, but ultimately was held scoreless. This reverses a trend seemingly as old as Stanford football itself. Outcomes like the Notre Dame game (and 1982 and 1994 last-second losses Sun Devil Stadium, as you might recall) used to be the norm.

While seemingly able to move the ball at will at times, the Stanford offense has seen a wide variety of uncharacteristic mental errors on offense this season. What would you attribute that to?

Devaughn: Such is the mystery of 2014. A chop block on tailback Remound Wright nullified the go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter of the USC game. Was he not receptive to the proper blocking technique, or just not instructed of it? I blame an extended stretch of errors and misfires on the offensive staff. Hogan threw 36 passes at Notre Dame – more than a few slipping through his receivers’ grasp – in a steady rain. He took command against Washington State, but one expects more from a player of his experience level. Any regression on his part calls into question the hiring of Tavita Pritchard as quarterbacks coach. A guy whose own playing career ended just five years ago may not be suitable yet as a QB guru at the Pac-12 level.

How healthy is quarterback Kevin Hogan? Do you expect him to be at full strength or is his injury still lingering?

Devaughn: The injury news came out of nowhere last week, but he sure looked healthy and able (three touchdown passes, no turnovers) against Washington State. Health shouldn’t be an issue for him Saturday night.

The Stanford defense is giving up just 10 points per game. What are the main reasons for this group playing at even a higher level than last year?

Devaughn: On one hand, the schedule (UC Davis, Army) has a little something to do with it. The remainder of the season, namely the efforts against ASU, Oregon and UCLA, will say a lot more. But their collective effort has been amazing. Key players like linemen David Parry and Henry Anderson have stayed healthy and elevated their efforts.

Credit new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, who took over when Derek Mason left that post for the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. He leads a fundamentally sound group. Rarely do you see the arm tackles or other poor techniques plaguing today’s era. They boast experience at key positions. Anderson and Parry are both fifth-year seniors. Corners Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons own 42 career starts between them.

New faces have stepped right in to fill the voids. The aforementioned Martinez tallied 24 tackles in the first three games and intercepted Connor Halliday last week. Kalamabayi has 4.5 sacks. In a secondary that lost Ed Reynolds and saw Kodi Whitfield move from wide receiver, Zach Hoffpauir of Glendale does the yeoman’s work.

With so many younger players on defense is there any conditioning concern against an up tempo offense?

Devaughn: The Cardinal takes pride in both its pain threshold and the ability instill its will on an opponent. They held their own against USC in nearly 90-degree heat. A week removed from running over 100 plays against Fresno State, the Trojans completed only one pass over 15 yards against Stanford. We all know Washington State’s fondness for the pass, and Connor Halliday delivers the ball as quickly as any Pac-12 slinger. The Cardinal beat up a Cougar team two weeks removed from giving Oregon all it could handle.

Receiver Devon Cajuste was banged up pretty hard late in the game against WSU. What is his status for the ASU game?

Devaughn: He’s out with a reported concussion. Stanford doesn’t make injury details public. This could end up being a big loss. He’s a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses, in addition to being a good blocker. Starting linebacker James Vaughters and tight end Austin Hooper are nursing injuries and may play.

What would give ASU a better edge on offense, against the run or pass defense of Stanford and why?

Devaughn: Another really good question. If Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici can improvise and make plays on the fly like Everett Golson of Notre Dame did, then it would be through the pass. But no opponent has enjoyed a better individual effort so far than Buck Allen (154 yards and a touchdown) of USC. I’d have to give the slight edge to the run game for that reason. I’d cast my lot behind D.J. Foster over a gimpy Kelly or inexperienced Bercovici.

What are your keys to the game and score prediction?

Devaughn: ASU should aim to do more than pick up the pace. The Sun Devils won’t win this game unless they display balance on offense. Only when the attack contains something of a running threat – Allen, LaMichael James, Ka’Deem Carey, Joseph “Sticky Fingers” Randle of Oklahoma State in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl – does Stanford prove vulnerable to the spread offense. Is Foster ready to carry the load?

Stanford is only as good as its offense. The Cardinal’s chances will depend on which Kevin Hogan shows up in Tempe. The Pac-12 title game of 2013 aside, his roughest games by far in his career have come on the road. I don’t see any good reason to pick the Sun Devils, but they’re way overdue for a quality win as a home underdog. What the heck, ASU 24-21.

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