Exorcising Road Demons
This 2013 Stanford team has excelled statistically -- except for when it has come to offensive performance on the road. Red zone struggles have directly inflicted Stanford's two losses away from home this season, and they've spelled an unsatisfying end to the team's national title chances. On Saturday, though, the Farm Boys have one chance to assuage their prior disappointment. The demons of the road that have tormented Stanford during this 2013 regular season will challenge them one last time in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
If the Cardinal offense can overcome its recent tortured road past against Arizona State, David Shaw's program will likely punch a ticket to its second consecutive Rose Bowl, and a significant moment of truth will fall in the Cardinal's favor. The task, though, appears daunting. The Sun Devils are particularly dangerous at home, and their average 29-point margin of victory there suggests that Saturday's contest won't be a repeat of the September 21 cakewalk, a game in which Stanford led 39-7 in the fourth quarter on its way to convincing win.
"It's tough, playing on the road, in this conference in particular," Shaw said. "It's going to be loud. The crowd's going to be into it. [Arizona State] feeds off of that, especially on third down. They get off the ball and rush the passer... High school, college, or the NFL: You play better at home. Everybody does. We just have to find a way to win at the end."
That's exactly what Stanford failed to do in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles earlier this season. Glaring missed opportunities have highlighted this offense's road drop-off: The Cardinal, who rank first nationally in red zone scoring percentage at home (they've registered points on all 29 of their trips inside the 20 yard line), have scored only about 69 percent of the time in similar situations on the road. That production gap resembles a tumble off a cliff, as Stanford's road red zone numbers check in near the bottom of the country at 109th place. The team's third down conversion rate also drops significantly from 58 percent at home to just about 48 percent on the road.
Night and Day, Home and Away: 2013 Stanford Offense
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Shaw believes his offense hasn't maintained necessary composure in critical spots on the road. Fullback Ryan Hewitt says that lack of execution has been an issue. The Cardinal's playcalling on the road has come into question, as the team's firm commitment to the standard power run game seemed to waver during the critical junctures that went sour. A short blocked field goal at USC, of course, has also damaged Stanford's road production numbers.
Shaw's club will have to overcome all of these struggles to beat a surging Arizona State squad in what promises to be a raucous atmosphere inside Sun Devil Stadium Saturday night. Students have been camping, scratching, and clawing for their chance to buy tickets for the game since this past weekend. They're expected to provide a formidable reinforcement for the home team, which has played spectacular football in the Desert so far this year. Stanford's rugged unit dominated at the point of attack against the Sun Devils back in September and will likely have to repeat that feat again to gain control of Saturday's contest.
Home and Away: 2013 Arizona State Performance
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Mauro Back in Action
Stanford's bid to again control the line of scrimmage received a significant boost Tuesday when defensive end Josh Mauro (leg) returned to practice a day ahead of schedule. The senior, who missed last weekend's win over Notre Dame because of an injury suffered in practice, was not expected to be ready to return until Wednesday. Mauro's presence is especially important for the Cardinal: He registered a tone-setting interception in the first game against Arizona State, and Stanford's thinness along the defensive front with Ben Gardner already out certainly showed against Notre Dame. Since the Farm Boys' pass rush was not nearly as potent as usual, defensive coordinator Derek Mason was forced to blitz aggressively with Shayne Skov against the Irish.
Well-timed blitzes will again be necessary, but taking too many chances against the Sun Devils can put the Cardinal into a precarious position this weekend. ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly has the mobility to buy extra time to throw, and physical receiver Jaelen Strong has feasted on single coverage so far this season. With Mauro healthy, though, the Stanford defense has a legitimate shot to maintain the remarkable consistency up front that's spearheaded this team's run to the title game.
"We have a lot of seniors on our defense," Shaw said. "These guys have played a lot of football. Road environments don't faze them."
Home and Away: Stanford Defense Traveling Well
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Seven players on the Stanford roster hail from the state of Arizona. Defensive stalwart Trent Murphy, who grew up in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, is thrilled to be playing at Sun Devil Stadium for the first time in his career. Three of Murphy's sisters attended Arizona State. One of them played basketball there and is currently a graduate assistant coach for the program.
Linebacker Blake Martinez grew up in Tucson, where he attended the same high school as Arizona standout running back Ka'Deem Carey, a player who is very responsible for Stanford's appearance in this Pac-12 title game. With the Cardinal needing the Wildcats to upset Oregon to win the Pac-12 North two weeks ago, Martinez sent Carey a text message asking for help.
"I got you bro, just wait," Carey responded.
Shortly thereafter, he rushed for 208 yards on 43 carries to lead a 42-16 upset win over the Ducks, and the Cardinal had second life in their quest for the Rose Bowl.
Shaw also has roots of his own in Arizona. His father Willie was the defensive backs coach at ASU from 1980-1984. So Stanford's current head coach spent a good chunk of his childhood (third grade to seventh grade) near Sun Devil Stadium. Shaw fondly recalls sneaking into ASU basketball games during those years.
- Stanford and Arizona State, the two teams squaring off for the conference title, both landed a league-best six players on the Pac-12 First Team. LG David Yankey, LB Trent Murphy, LB Shayne Skov, FS Ed Reynolds, DE Ben Gardner and KR Ty Montgomery represented the Cardinal on the starting unit, while ASU defensive lineman Will Sutton won the Defensive Player of the Year award for the second straight season. To the surprise of many, he beat out Murphy, the Pac-12's statistical juggernaut, for the award. "I would say that it's a little bit of a disappointment," Shaw admitted. "But I'll never say anything bad about Sutton because I think he's a great football player."
- Coaches voted Gardner to the team despite the fact that he missed the last month of the regular season with a torn pectoral muscle. Shaw noted that No. 49 commands much respect around the Pac-12.
- Shaw was most surprised that left tackle Andrus Peat was left off the First Team. He qualified for the second unit instead along with RT Cam Fleming, WR Ty Montgomery, RB Tyler Gaffney and C Khalil Wilkes. Stanford also had several players receive honorable mentions from the conference: DE Henry Anderson, CB Alex Carter, RG Kevin Danser, DE Josh Mauro, P Ben Rhyne, SS Jordan Richards, and LB A.J. Tarpley. All five starting Cardinal offensive linemen, in fact, were honored. That's a huge testament to the work of offensive coordinator and position coach Mike Bloomgren.
- Stanford has been focusing on preparing for a bevy of Arizona State blitzes this week. Before the game in September, Shaw noted that the Sun Devils "bring every blitz known to man." The Cardinal did well in protection on that day, but ASU has since diversified its pressure schemes. "I know they'll have something special for us," Shaw said. "They've got it all. External blitzes, internal blitzes. They hit it fast."
- Shaw also noted that it feels as if Stanford's win over the Sun Devils came last season. "You feel older as a team now than you did earlier in the year," he said. "Both teams are settling into who they are... We have to treat it as a new team, a new game."
- Arizona State running back Marion Grice (ankle), who joined Gaffney on the Pac-12 Second Team, will miss the game.
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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