It’s almost here. Arizona State football fans have been waiting anxiously since the final gun of last week’s Territorial Cup Game. The battle for the Pac-12 Championship kicks off tomorrow night at 5:45 pm MT at Sun Devil Stadium. Suffice it to say, the implications for the Sun Devil football program couldn’t be greater.
For this huge showdown between ASU and Stanford, there are some keys to victory for the Sun Devils:
1) Vary the Packages
As smart as the Cardinal players are, you can never underestimate the value of throwing something different or unexpected at a team. Stanford undoubtedly believes that ASU will try to spread it out and throw often, not daring to run the ball right at them. And that’s true: the Sun Devils should, indeed, try to take advantage of their weapons on the outside with multiple receiver sets.
But I liked some of the looks ASU put out last week with multiple tight end formations. In fact, that might turn out to be an excellent option for offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. Going “double tight” or even a single tight end with an H-back on the opposite wing forces the defense to widen out. It stretches the box from about nine yards to about 13 yards. That may not seem like much, but it can be an advantage for a running back who is looking for a running lane. Most of all, it will probably “flatten out” the second level of the Stanford defense, putting middle linebacker Shane Skov on an island to make the right read and make the tackle all by himself. And ASU can still pass out of this formation, using either play action or the straight drop variety.
Having Coyle, Rogers and Nelson on the field to block in the run game might be a viable option against the stout Stanford front seven.
2) Stay with the Back Shoulder Fade
This is an easy one. The back shoulder fade is very frustrating for defenses. ASU QB Taylor Kelly was almost perfect throwing this route last week against Arizona. Jaelen Strong is the obvious target on such plays, but it can also be used with wide receivers Kevin Ozier and Rick Smith, as well as tight end De’Marieya Nelson.
3) Load the Box on Defense
Coach Todd Graham may choose not to make wholesale changes on defense. This is a sensible approach. Lately, the Sun Devil defense has been playing exceptionally well. But you should always have a Plan B. Moreover, the Stanford offense is quite a different animal than anybody else in the conference.
I don’t believe the “nickel” defense will work against the Cardinal like it has the past couple games. Coach Graham has to be ready to put more defenders up to the line of scrimmage and play man-to-man coverage. He might even change some personnel by “going big” with a short yardage/goal line defense on first and second downs, as opposed to just fourth and short.
Bottom line, ASU cannot allow the Stanford offense to push them around. If the Sun Devils cannot hold their ground and force QB Kevin Hogan and Co. to move the ball in other ways, they will probably lose the game.
4) Discipline on Special Teams
This is critical. Special teams were the main culprit in ASU’s loss to Stanford two months ago. The Sun Devils cannot have any major blunders in the kicking game. In addition, their kickoff and punt coverage units cannot allow Stanford to have great starting field position like they did in the first meeting. The coverage teams must have the discipline to stay in their lanes, stay true to their landmarks, take the proper pursuit angles with proper speed, and, of course, they must tackle well.
These “musts” in the kicking game are gained through repetition and discipline.
5) Play with Rage
Okay, “rage” might be a strong word. Call it passion, determination, purpose or any other superlative. But the Sun Devils need to play with the focused anger that makes football the greatest team sport. This will have to come from within. It has to be born from the embarrassment of Sept. 21 in Palo Alto. It has to be a product of the absolute hunger for a championship.
Every Sun Devil player on every snap must play with a chip on his shoulder that continually shouts, “we owe them!” ASU must let that hunger, rage, and passion fuel them to a Rose Bowl berth.