According to the poll that’s been on The Daily Axe homepage for the past week, 89% of readers believe that Arizona State does not pose the greatest threat to Stanford’s potential 11-1 season. The Sun Devils come into this weekend’s game with a mediocre 4-5 record and an even less impressive 2-4 mark in conference play. Arizona State is tied for 7th (and second-to-last) in the PAC-10 standings, and their most impressive win in 2010 came against a struggling Washington team. Of the Sun Devils’ other 3 wins, 2 were victories over FCS teams, and the last was a 42-0 thumping of conference bottom feeder Washington State in Tempe.
But a closer look at this Sun Devil team, and the numbers they’ve posted this year, proves that they will probably give Stanford a good fight. Just three games into the season, ASU traveled to Madison and lost to Wisconsin–the #6 team in the country–by just 1 point. The next week, the Sun Devils led Oregon before falling to the Ducks by 11, Oregon’s smallest margin of victory this season (Stanford lost to Oregon by 21). Last week, USC needed some fourth quarter special teams heroics to knock off the Sun Devils in the Coliseum. ASU has had its bad days, and you won’t see anyone bragging about their 50-17 drubbing at the hands of California. But despite the Sun Devils’ average record and excepting their embarrassing loss to Cal, this team has been in every game it’s played.
In all likelihood, Saturday’s game will not be any exception. Arizona State produces an average of 428 yards and 32 points per game, both of which rank in the country’s top 40. More importantly, ASU has one of the country’s best passing games, with over 308 passing yards per game. Junior quarterback Steven Threet–a Michigan native who played for the Wolverines before deciding that he was better suited to a pro style offense than to Rich Rodriguez’s run-first scheme–has had a breakout season, and is easily the best remaining quarterback on Stanford’s schedule. Threet has thrown for more yards than Andrew Luck has this season (2372 to Luck’s 2213) and both quarterbacks complete over 60% of their passing attempts. Luck still has the edge on Threet, who does not show the same football intelligence or maturity as Luck. While Threet throws touchdowns and interceptions at a roughly 1:1 rate, Luck’s 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions on the year make him nearly 4 times as efficient.
Nonetheless, Stanford’s shaky secondary has proven time and time again that great quarterbacks can pick apart the Cardinal pass defense, and Threet has the goods to have a big game on Saturday. Expect Threet to spread the ball around to a number of receivers. ASU’s most productive receiver, senior Kerry Taylor, only catches about 5 balls per game for around 50 yards. Stanford won’t have the option of keying on any receiver, since Threet likes to target a stable of pass-catchers.
Stanford’s best chance to stop him will be to send the house and get a hit on him every time he drops back to pass. Threet has been sacked 21 times in 2010 (Luck has been sacked 3 times this season and just 9 times in his entire collegiate career) and Arizona State’s offensive line should have difficulty stopping the Stanford rush. Look for the Card to utilize linebacker Chase Thomas as they used him in the Washington game on October 30, when he spent much of his time in the Husky backfield and posted 9 tackles and a sack.
Stanford will also be free to focus on ASU’s passing game because the Sun Devil running game has been largely ineffective. Rushing accounts for less than one third of Arizona State’s offensive production so far, and they likely won’t run the ball more often than usual against Stanford’s strong front seven. Top rusher Deantre Lewis (who shares a hometown with Toby Gerhart) has not had a 100-yard game since October 2, and has not even managed to gain 60 yards rushing in any game during that period. Sophomore Cameron Marshall, who also gets significant carries, hasn’t posted a 100-yard game since the season opener against Portland State. In other words, a big rushing game for the Sun Devils would be a fluke.
We’ve learned that talking about the opposing defense is almost always a waste of time, considering Stanford’s incredibly consistent ability to score. Arizona State’s unit isn’t a push-over, but it isn’t nearly as good as the Arizona defense that allowed 42 points against Stanford last week. Stanford will most likely rely upon the running game, as they have throughout the season. Stepfan Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson should be effective against a somewhat soft Sun Devil defensive line, and Andrew Luck should have no problem exploiting the secondary for some big gains. Stanford won’t score at will, but scoring in the forties looks like a safe bet.