All right, let's start with the obvious question. ASU seems to have turned it up a notch since they trailed 39-7 at Stanford in the fourth quarter. What has been the most significant change in the Sun Devils' play?
Hod Rabino, Devils Digest: There was so much made of the "gauntlet" part of ASU's schedule, which was the four-game stretch that included games versus Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC, and at Notre Dame that would test the Sun Devils early in the season and provide a possible prelude to the rest of the season. In the first three quarters of the Stanford game, I think that even the most optimistic Sun Devil fan thought that this contest proved that ASU cannot, at least not yet, compete with the big boys and maybe the promising 2013 season was going to be just another mediocre year in Tempe.
But one thing I saw during the 2012 season was a team that was less talented than the current one, and one that had a no-quit attitude. The way they fought back in Palo Alto, forcing the Cardinal to bring back their starters into the game, proved to many that follow the program that maybe this squad is poised to have a special season. Players will tell you that the team truly came together during that fourth quarter and realized that they had to play as one unit and exercise the discipline the coaches instilled in them to no end and play up their potential.
So I see the loss in September as both a humbling kick in the butt but also an epiphany of sorts for the players of what is needed to beat a quality opponent and the realization that ASU has sufficient resources to do so.
Stanford's win earlier this season was in Palo Alto. This game, though, is in Tempe. The statistics indicate that the Sun Devils are significantly better at home (14 more points per game scored, 10 fewer points per game allowed). Why the massive discrepancy?
Hod Rabino: You usually would expect a younger team to have such a discrepancy between home field and away games, but this is a team that has just placed 11 upperclassmen on the first and second All-Pac 12 teams, so that's not the answer. I can't even honestly say that Sun Devil Stadium has been extremely rowdy on a consistent basis, because fans here seem more hung up about WHO ASU plays, not HOW ASU plays.
So the pragmatic answer here is that perhaps this team, for good and for bad, lets the elements of the stadium location really affect their play. Luckily for the Sun Devils, they are undefeated at home and while most of their road performances haven't been all that spectacular they have been good enough for a 10-2 mark.
Will Sutton was not very effective when Arizona State played Stanford back in September. Has he played his way into shape, or has something else fueled his resurgence on that ASU defensive line?
Hod Rabino: Funny you mention that because on Monday Sutton had a press conference following the announcement of his second straight Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award, and he did talk about that topic exactly. He said that his weight gain and seemingly declining skills have been greatly exaggerated. He added that he was receiving plenty of double teams to prove that he wasn't the player who greatly regressed as many suggested. When Sutton was facing less physical offensive lines than those of Wisconsin, Stanford and Notre Dame, he played much better. Furthermore, opponents who were double teaming Sutton were feeling the wrath of Carl Bradford who has been solid the last several weeks, as well as emerging lineman such as Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway.
In the last few weeks Sutton has been looking more and more as the 2012 Consensus All-American player, but I'm very curious to see if he can truly have a good outing versus a physical Cardinal offensive line that was quite the challenge for him the first time around.
ASU running back Marion Grice will miss this game on Saturday. The Sun Devils struggled to run against Stanford during the first meeting. How do they hope to have ground success now that they'll be missing Grice?
Hod Rabino: The play of D.J. Foster last week gives him and the entire offense the confidence that they can have a good rushing attack in Grice's absence. Tight end De'Marieya Nelson was looked upon since fall camp as physical option to run the ball and his number was called a lot, and with great success, versus Arizona. So I feel that ASU has a very capable 1-2 punch at running back. Either way, the offensive line will have to have their game of their life and not get pushed around by Stanford's front seven like they were in the first game. That group, more than the individual running backs, will dictate the running game's success more than anything.
The Sun Devils' defense is known to be very aggressive. Stanford neutralized ASU's blitzes back in September. The Cardinal are still completely healthy on the offensive side of the ball. What do you think Arizona State can change this time around to see more defensive success against Kevin Hogan, Tyler Gaffney, and co.?
Hod Rabino: Any aggressive defense, including ASU, generally has a high risk-high reward scheme, and the Sun Devils' style of play by and large served them well against their opponents this year. Stanford was obviously an exception, but I thought losing the battle of the trenches rather than over-pursuing, etc. was more of an issue. So the way I look at it this is really more a question of can the Sun Devils match the physicality of Stanford and keep their composure and discipline against the Cardinal. They will probably have to have some personnel changes, and perhaps some scheme changes, to ensure success this time around, but again they have to be stronger at the point of attack or else it will be September 21st all over again.
How do you feel ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly has progressed over the course of the season? How has his rapport with big receiver Jaelen Strong improved?
Hod Rabino: I felt that he has progressed quite a bit since Stanford game and thought he was very deserving of his second team All-Pac 12 selection. Aside from Marcus Mariota, I feel that Kelly is the best true dual threat quarterback. Now, I still believe that aside from his great mobility and being able to pick up a lot of yardage with his feet, that he isn't the deftest of passers and still struggles with his progressions. Additionally, he isn't the type of signal caller who can normally win a game attempting 45 passes or more and the results this season back that up. So he is a quarterback that very much needs a strong running game to flourish and against a defense such as Stanford's that is easier said than done.
The fact that nearly a third of his passing yards have gone to Jaelen Strong speaks volumes to the chemistry both have. Strong is a physical and fast for his size receiver that has perfected the over the shoulder fade catch, a play that he and Kelly connected on several times this season. So this is definitely one of the best quarterback-wide receiver connections in the Pac-12 and if ASU were to win on Saturday it would be hard to envision such a result without a few good plays from Kelly to Strong.
Be sure to follow Hod Rabino for ASU insights on Twitter @DevilsDigest.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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