I’m sure most Arizona State fans are pretty upset or at least confounded by the Sun Devils’ loss to Stanford. I am as well. But I’m not as worried as you might think. Believe it or not, I don’t think ASU played as poorly as it seemed. Yes, they had moments where they looked terrible. Yes, they have some more things to work on. But there were parts of this game where ASU actually looked pretty good, even better than Stanford.
People will want to blame the Sun Devil defense for Saturday’s defeat, but consider this: Stanford scored five touchdowns, ASU scored four. On two of Stanford’s TD drives, they started from the ASU 16 yard line (following an interception and a blocked pooch punt). That’s a tall order to stop Stanford with such a short field.
The first order of business to talk about is the line of scrimmage. The standard reaction that most pundits are putting out there is “ASU got manhandled up front on both sides of the ball.” Not true. The vaunted Stanford power running attack between the tackles did not really hurt ASU. If you actually watch the “run fits” against Stanford’s I formation, you’d see that ASU did a decent job in that area. Its D line did not get pushed backwards. With the exception of a few plays, there were no holes for the Cardinal running back. Instead, the RB was “spilled” to the outside. That’s usually a good thing. But ASU failed to consistently bring down Gaffney or Wilkerson when they bounced it outside. These were the constant 4-6 yard gains that chewed up ASU.
More worrisome for me is that Stanford did damage in space with their skill players. That was a surprise. On the Cardinal’s third possession, they went 90 yards for a touchdown. The bulk of that yardage came on two plays — a reverse that gained 40 yards and a post route over the middle that went for 30. Even their first TD on the short field was a 14-yard hitch route where Ty Montgomery made a move and easily jogged into the end zone. This is a concern. ASU was supposed to be more athletic.
If Stanford used skill players to hurt the Sun Devils in space, what will UCLA do? The Bruins make a living out there. ASU has to get better covering people and pursuing/tackling in the open. It almost seems as if Coach Todd Graham’s squad spent so much time working on stopping the power running game, they may have overlooked some other assignments, like staying home and spying a reverse, or adjusting to different formations with various personnel groupings.
All in all, though, the ASU defense didn’t play terribly. Keep in mind, they had two goal line stands in this game, forcing Stanford to settle for field goals, not including the opening drive where the Cardinal missed a field goal. Goal line stands don’t occur if the defense is getting “pushed around.”
As for the ASU offense, again, not as bad as it seemed on Saturday. Dropped passes hurt for a second week, but there’s really nothing coaches can do about them, except bench people. The Sun Devil offense performs catching drills every day; it just couldn’t get a rhythm going in Palo Alto. Three-and-outs followed by bad punts ruined the first half. I think Taylor Kelly’s interception on ASU’s first drive made the offense tighten up a little bit.
The Sun Devils have to find a way to stay loose and confident. Again, coaching has something to do with that. Yes, the run game was nowhere in the first half. True, the offensive line struggled early with protection. But this was Stanford, after all — the fifth-ranked team in the country. There’s going to be breakdowns in the blocking scheme. You can’t win every play!
In addition, I’m looking for one more receiver to take some of the attention away from Jaelen Strong. Talk about a guy that ASU sorely needed. Strong might be the best wide receiver in the conference. His fourth down grab towards the end of the game was spectacular.
I won’t spend time commenting on special teams. Right now, the kicking game is not good and has to be corrected. Every part of it.
Overall, the Sun Devils had more total yards than Stanford and scored one less TD with about 10 minutes less possession time. They just waited too long to get started.
For me, it was just painfully obvious that Stanford showed up ready to play and ASU did not. Whether it was the big stage, the first road game, the first day game, the rain in pregame, or any other little nuance — something influenced the Sun Devils’ mental preparation by kickoff. Honestly, nobody really knows how to get 18 to 21-year-olds focused. But this game was the opposite of what we have come to expect from Todd Graham-coached teams. They are beating themselves. Penalties, dropped passes, blocked punts…this sloppy play is a reflection of mental preparation.
More than anything, Saturday’s game was a demonstration of the established champion versus the up and comer. Winners know how to channel the excitement/emotion/expectations of a big game. They make plays when they absolutely have to. The hockey announcer in the 1980 Olympics put it best when he said, “It’s one thing to be a talented, up-and-coming team. It’s quite another thing to be good.”
College football is more mental than some people realize. Your attitude and focus during the week’s preparation, the ability to focus and adjust on game day and maintaining confidence are all mental skills. Those mental skills have to be taught and practiced just like anything else.
In closing, Stanford was a little better than many of us thought they were. And Arizona State is not as good as local fans had hoped. But I don’t really believe Stanford is that much better than ASU. They just came out ready to play and ASU did not. However, the Sun Devils are still a good team. They still have plenty to play for. I believe the talent and coaching are there. I think coach Graham will make his coaches and players go over every detail thoroughly and not let this happen again.
On to USC…