ASU Offense Prepares for a Stout Challenge

It’s been nearly two weeks since Arizona State put an end to its drought against USC in Los Angeles, now the Sun Devils will look to halt another recent trend against conference foe Stanford as ASU get sets to take on the Cardinal in a re-match of last year’s Pac-12 Championship game on Saturday.

My, what one Hail Mary, err…Jael Mary, pass and a win against division rival USC can do to one’s season. Just three weeks ago, #17 Arizona State (4-1, 2-1) was humbled at home by UCLA without its starting quarterback, Taylor Kelly, and the feeling around Tempe was that of doom and gloom.

However, the Sun Devils responded a week later against USC, winning at the Coliseum for the first time since 1999, thanks in large part to the improved play of junior quarterback Mike Bercovici, and now suddenly find themselves in control of their own destiny once again in the Pac-12 South race in what has already been one of the more unpredictable seasons in college football in quite some time.

Just nine days after suffering one of the program’s most embarrassing defeats at home, the Sun Devils found redemption on the road, in one of the most unlikely places and even more improbable manners.

After struggling to generate much of anything for three and a half quarters against the Trojan defense, Bercovici and the Arizona State offense were able to break through when it mattered most, scoring 20 points in the final four minutes to escape the Coliseum with a 38-34 come from behind win over USC, marking the first time since 1996-97 that Sun Devils had defeated the Trojans in consecutive years.

Bercovici completed 27-45 passes for 510 yards and five touchdowns in the win, becoming the first ASU quarterback to throw for more than 500 yards in a game since Andrew Walter (532 yards) in 2002.

Bercovici also became the first quarterback to ever throw five touchdowns against the Trojans and his 510 yards rank as the second most ever yielded by a USC defense to Joe Theismann’s 526 passing yards in 1970.

The question now for the Sun Devils, as they get set to face #23 Stanford (4-2, 2-1) in another critical conference contest, is who will start at quarterback with Kelly reportedly practicing for the first time this week since injuring his foot against Colorado over a month ago?


A Quarterback...Dilemma?

Arizona State Head Coach Todd Graham has long said that he feels he has the best quarterback combination in the nation with senior Taylor Kelly and his back-up, junior Mike Bercovici.

After watching Bercovici step up in Kelly’s absence, it’s difficult to argue against him.

In his only two career starts, Bercovici completed 69 of his 113 (.610) pass attempts for 998 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions against two of the tougher defenses in the Pac-12.

“Mike’s performed very well,” said junior center Nick Kelly after practice this week. “Honestly, it wasn’t a very big change from Taylor to Mike. I would say if there’s a subtle difference, Mike is more of a pocket passer while TK has the option of using his legs to get the yards or throwing the ball.

“Mike likes to sit in the pocket, which I like a lot because I like keeping a firm pocket for him to make sure he can get the passes off.”

While he passed for 488 yards in his debut against UCLA, Bercovici also threw two interceptions, both of which resulted in touchdowns for the Bruins and only added to ASU’s woes on a night when very little went their way.

But the junior bounced back against USC, playing mistake-free while demonstrating the power of a vertical passing game, helping ignite ASU’s dramatic comeback win on the road two weeks ago.

However, the big news surrounding the Sun Devil offense this week has been the return of Kelly, who after missing three weeks following a foot injury, began practicing once again with the team.

“Having the extra week really helped,” said Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell. “We were able to hold Taylor (out) a little bit last week and let him get a week to get himself ready and prepared for the game.

“Mike’s been taking just about all the reps for the last week, so we’re in a great place. I know right now we’re just going to continue to press through this week and see where Taylor’s at and we’ll be able to tell on Saturday.”

Assuming Kelly is at full strength and cleared to play on Saturday, do Norvell and the Sun Devils go with the veteran or do they continue to ride the hot hand (and arm) of Bercovici?

In 30 career starts, Kelly has won 21 games at ASU but struggled twice last season against Stanford, completing 47-80 (.587) passes for 540 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions in ASU’s two losses to the Cardinal.


Cardinal Defense

No matter which quarterback gets the nod this weekend, the task at hand won’t come easy as Stanford touts not only the best defense in the Pac-12, but one of the top units in the nation.

Through six games this season, the Cardinal rank first in the country in points allowed (10.0 ppg) and second in total defense (238.0 ypg).

“You look at their team and last year I think they lost seven seniors and had a safety who left early and then you pull up the roster this year and they’re better statistically and they have seven seniors,” said Norvell. “It’s a program where, all the guys we’re playing against (this year), we played against last year.

“They’ve been able to play a lot of guys on defense the last few years - even though there are some new starters - so they’re very experienced and they’re guys that play extremely well together. We just have to go out there and execute and play our game, but it’s going to be a great match-up.”

For Arizona State, the challenge starts up front where the Sun Devils will look to re-discover a running game that has gone “MIA” the last two weeks after beginning the season as one of the top rushing attacks in the nation.

In its first three games ASU averaged an astounding 304.3 yards on the ground but has seen that production wither to just 84.5 yards in the team’s last two outings.

“I think the number one thing going into this game is you have to establish the run,” said Norvell. “If you can establish the run and force them to have to bring another hat down, it really opens up things for you down the field. But if you’re not able to do that and you have to sit back and drop back 50-60 times, it makes it tough.

“We’ve got to be able to establish the run and take what they give us out there on the perimeter.”

Running the ball won’t come easy against Stanford though. Entering the week, opponents are averaging just 99.8 rushing yards per game against the Cardinal (ninth nationally).

Stanford features a stout defensive line that has shown the ability to control the point of attack, creating gaps for its linebackers to penetrate and thwart many an offensive attack.

“They’re very disciplined,” said Kelly. “In the scheme they run, they have to be disciplined in order to stop the run and get people penetrated to get the sacks. As an offensive line, we look to stop the penetrator to allow Berco or Taylor to get the ball off in time to get those touchdowns.”

Stanford’s front seven is led by the linebacker duo of Blake Martinez and A.J. Tarpley. Martinez, a junior, leads the Cardinal with 45 tackles and one interception on the season while the senior Tarpley has posted 41 tackles and a team-high 4.5 tackles for a loss to go along with two sacks and one interception.

“They use their hands well when they blitz,” said Kelly. “When they bring the house, they won’t just run into you or bull rush you. They understand that we’re o-linemen, we’re big guys, so they won’t bull rush. They use their hands to get off blocks and get to the quarterback.”

“They’re good linebackers,” added tight end Kody Kohl. “I don’t think they’re the best that we’ve played against but they’re tough and they’ll get their job done. We just have to beat them to the point.”


No Fly Zone

As stingy as Stanford has been against the run this season, they’ve been just as impressive defending against the pass.

Led by cornerbacks Alex Johnson Jr. and Wayne Lyons, the Cardinal are allowing just 138.2 passing yards per contest which ranks as the fourth fewest in the nation.

“They’re big cornerbacks,” said freshman wide receiver Ellis Jefferson. “I think both weigh 200 pounds, so that’s different than most the Pac-12 and we’ve played against some solid cornerbacks. And then (Hoffpauir), we’ve just got to attack him.

“They’re the same Stanford. They’ve got the same cornerbacks and I’m pretty sure they’ve got the same safeties, or at least one of them. Like Coach Graham says, we’ve got to be smarter and more disciplined than them.”

Regardless of the quarterback, ASU still boasts one of the top passing offenses in the country, averaging 340.4 yards per game through the air, and a talented group of wide receivers that are beginning to find their rhythm in ASU’s fast-paced offense.

Led by Jaelen Strong, who’s averaging a conference-best 122.8 receiving yards per game this season, the Sun Devils feature seven receivers with at least five catches on the year, providing both Kelly and Bercovici with a variety of options in the aerial attack.

“I’ve been really pleased with that group,” said Norvell. “I think we’ve got some young guys who have shown that they can be very dependable and counted on in clutch situations.

“You look at the game last week; you got Cameron Smith who made a big play and Gary Chambers. Guys who weren’t big names coming into the season that are making big plays and impacting game, and that’s something that excites you as a coach. Hopefully we’ll be able to see that growth throughout the season.”

One challenge for the Sun Devil wide receivers on Saturday will be finding space for explosive plays against the Cardinal. ASU currently ranks ninth in the nation with 12 plays of 40 or more yards and 26th in plays of 20 or more yards with 35 for the year.

If ASU can create and take advantage of their opportunities on offense, they may be able to produce scoring chances against a Stanford defense that has only allowed seven touchdowns on the year, all of which have come within the red zone.

“Stanford is very, very disciplined, but we’ve watched a lot of film and seen a lot holes in their defense, so we’re going to attack those holes,” said Jefferson. “Our number one key to victory is watching film. That’s how we’re going to beat them.

“We can’t make mental errors and we can’t turn the ball over. Like Coach Graham said, turnover ratio is going to determine who wins the game.”

“We’ve noticed a lot of the time when we don’t move the ball, it’s self-inflicted,” added Bercovici. “Credit to the defense, they’ve done a great job for the last couple of weeks, but we know if we do what we need to do, we’re going to keep going.

“We’re going to make explosive plays and as you see, we have a very high capability of being explosive this year. And then owning the football and not turning the football over, converting on third down; we can easily get up to the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s whatever it may be.”

The Sun Devils lead the all-time series against the Cardinal 16-13 but Stanford has won the last four meetings. Saturday’s showdown will kick-off at 7:30 p.m. PT and will mark the third consecutive meeting between Arizona State and Stanford in which both teams have been ranked in the AP-Top 25 and ASU’s third straight game against an AP Top 25 opponent this season, which hasn’t occurred since 2000.

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