ASU at Stanford: 5 questions

After a controversial win over Wisconsin last week, No. 23 Arizona State moves on to an even greater challenge this week in No. 5 Stanford.

It will be ASU’s Pac-12 opener and first road game of the season, and it represents the second game of a gauntlet that started with Wisconsin and follows with USC and Notre Dame.

Stanford enters the game mostly untested, having beaten San Jose State and Army. The reigning Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champions have lost at Stanford Stadium just once in the past three seasons and own the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 10 games (behind Ohio State’s 15). Betting lines favor Stanford by between 7.5 and 9 points.

FOXSportsArizona.com’s ASU writer Tyler Lockman and Stanford football insider for TheBootleg.com David Lombardi cover the teams daily and have explored the key components of Saturday’s matchup via five questions. They can be followed on Twitter @TylerLockman and @DavidMLombardi.

1. Taylor Kelly and Kevin Hogan are considered among the top few quarterbacks in the Pac-12. Kelly has more experience, but Hogan has bigger wins. Which team, if either, has the upper hand at the position?

Lockman: I think the two quarterbacks are incredibly close, perhaps even equals, but I have to go with ASU and Kelly in this game. Kelly has started 15 games to Hogan’s seven. Even with Hogan’s experience in the Pac-12 championship game and Rose Bowl, I’m taking Kelly’s volume of experience for now.

Hogan quarterbacks an offense that relies heavily on the run, whereas Kelly tends to get more chances to change games with his arm. We’re seeing more of Hogan as a passer this season, but he hasn’t been tested by an elite defense yet. Kelly also seems to have more tools to work with right now than Hogan. From a new-look receiving corps to tight ends to running backs, Kelly has a host of targets and has used them. That should help ASU’s offense spread the tough Stanford defense out from sideline to sideline.

Another factor to consider: Hogan could be facing the toughest defensive front seven he has as a starter and could be under a good deal of pressure, though the same could be said of Kelly.

Lombardi: This is a tough one to answer since we haven’t gotten to see Hogan play against a top-caliber defense yet this season. I can say that Stanford’s coaches have been very satisfied with his progress toward making the correct pre-snap reads 100 percent of the time. But the Cardinal have not yet unleashed their playbook (Hogan was the team’s leading returning rusher, but that facet of his game isn’t expected to truly show up until Saturday), so it’s really too soon to judge him.

I was very impressed with Kelly against Wisconsin, on the other hand. He threw a few back-shoulder fades down the stretch that were impossible to defend. He is mobile, too. We will see how he holds up against Stanford’s pressure, but if Arizona State’s scheme and line can protect him, I think Kelly has what it takes to make the throws that can beat the Cardinal’s secondary.

In the end, I think the quarterback “upper hand” in this game will come down to which one of the two guys gets the best protection Saturday. These two teams led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss last season, so time to throw will be the determining factor.

2. What’s one thing the team you cover does, on either side, that could create the most problems for its opponent this week?

Lockman: ASU’s offense is more dynamic than ever this season. With junior college transfer Jaelen Strong at receiver, Chris Coyle and De’Marieya Nelson at tight end and the combination of Marion Grice and D.J. Foster in the backfield, ASU’s offense is wide open and should be able to have success by spreading teams out and presenting a variety of looks. If it can do that to Stanford this week, things might get interesting.

The Cardinal obviously have a reputation for very sound defensive play and the ability to stop the spread — they held Oregon to just 14 points last season — but if the Sun Devils can find the right ways to attack it, they’ll put points on the board. In a game with defenses like these two teams have, it might not take too many point to get a win. Stanford obviously handled up-tempo spread teams well last season, but I just get the feeling ASU’s scheme could create some problems.

Lombardi: Stanford’s rushing attack will create the most problems for Arizona State this week. Wisconsin put up some gaudy numbers against The Fork last week (200-plus yards, 7.2 yards per carry), and that offense did so by presenting a creative combination of power run and Melvin Gordon action to the perimeter. Stanford has the personnel to replicate that success. Tyler Gaffney is a talented all-around back, but perimeter weapons like Ty Montgomery and Kelsey Young can certainly be used to laterally diversify the Cardinal attack.

With a solid offensive game plan, Stanford’s massive, athletic offensive line and a cluster of athletic weapons, the Cardinal seemingly have the pieces in place to really fluster the Sun Devils. Of course, a lot of that potential success will hinge on how well Hogan is able to establish a credible passing threat downfield. The Cardinal’s productive tight ends are gone, but receivers Montgomery, Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector present an intriguing matchup for the Arizona State secondary. That battle will go a long way in determining how much success Stanford has on the ground.

3. Stanford has established a reputation as a (or the) defensive power in the Pac-12, and ASU is starting to do the same. Both have some big playmakers. Which defense has the greater impact in this game?

Lockman: Stanford’s defense does. It’s just as aggressive and playmaking as ASU’s but is more polished and deeper. ASU’s defense is still prone to key mistakes that prove costly, as Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon’s 80-yard touchdown run last week showed. Stanford’s defense is also much bigger across the board and should create problems in all phases for ASU’s offense, particularly up front.

The Cardinal being without defensive end Henry Anderson is significant, but their defense has enough depth to help fill the void. Kelly will likely be forced into some tough spots by the pressure Stanford brings, meaning he could be making a lot of decisions on the fly. If Stanford forces that enough, Kelly might eventually make a couple bad decisions that cost ASU.

Stanford also has the run defense to take Grice and Foster out of the game. Though the personnel is different, Stanford held opponents to an average of 97.0 rushing yards per game last season. ASU’s offense is at its best when it has more than one dimension, so losing the run as a viable threat would be significant.

Lombardi: Stanford’s defense is big, strong, physical, deep, and fast — basically all the ingredients needed to once again be one of the top units in the country. They’re hungry to prove the preseason hype true, and this game against Arizona State is the first chance to do so. For that reason, I think that Stanford’s defense has a bigger impact on this game.

To be honest, Arizona State’s unit did not impress me against Wisconsin. The Cardinal’s defense has a tendency to get better over the course of a game, and I think that will be the case as they adapt to the Sun Devils’ offense on Saturday.

No team recorded more sacks and more tackles for loss than Stanford did last year. Todd Graham’s club will have to find a way to neutralize that pressure, and that will be very hard without a premiere running back (the two teams who moved the ball against Stanford last year — Arizona and UCLA — both had top-flight rushers). Kelly will need time to throw intermediate developing routes, because the Cardinal’s physical corners are good at disrupting the shorter timing stuff. Game-planning this must be a headache for Graham, but if he can figure out a way to buy Kelly time, Arizona State will be able to move the ball with some success.

4. Arizona State is obviously the underdog coming in, and Stanford certainly expects to win this game at home. What would mean more to the respective program, a Stanford loss or an ASU win?

Lockman: I believe a win means more to ASU than a loss does to Stanford. Last season, Stanford lost to Washington in Week 4 but still won the conference and a Rose Bowl. A loss to ASU would probably derail Stanford’s hopes of playing for a national championship, but it doesn’t break its season. A win for ASU, though, would lift the Sun Devils into the national spotlight and give them great momentum ahead of games against USC and Notre Dame. It would be ASU’s first victory over a top-10 opponent since 2002 and first over a top-five opponent since beating No. 1 Nebraska in 1996. A loss shouldn’t set Stanford back much, but a win would be a big boost for ASU.

Lombardi: I think a Stanford loss would mean a whole lot more. This is a club with real national title aspirations, and those would go out the window with a loss. ASU, on the other hand, wants that Rose Bowl berth. Though this game is obviously important in that regard, a win is not absolutely mandatory to get to Pasadena.

5. Who is going to win this game, by what score, and why?

Lockman: I could envision an ASU upset, but I’m going with Stanford by a score of 27-20. I don’t think ASU will be able to contain Stanford’s run game enough for the upset. The Sun Devils’ performance against Wisconsin last week showed there are still some holes in that part of the defense. I also think Stanford’s defense will create problem’s for ASU on offense. This could be the greatest challenge ASU’s offensive line faces all season. Kelly will likely be under great pressure, so it will be a test for him. Additionally, I don’t know if the Sun Devils will be able to get their run game going against that group.

Lombardi: Stanford is going to win this game 30-20. The Cardinal will control the tempo at home with their power rushing attack, a similar force to the one Wisconsin used successfully against Arizona State last week. As I mentioned above, the Sun Devils will see some success against Stanford’s defense, but the Cardinal have given up more than 24 points only once since the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2011 season, and I don’t expect that to change this week. David Shaw’s team is hungry to make an early statement in its 2013 national title bid, and a two-score win over the ASU would do just that.