TEMPE, Ariz. — When Arizona State fell behind Stanford by 29 points before halftime in September, it was hard to imagine the Sun Devils later winning the Pac-12 South and getting a rematch against the Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship game.
Yet, here we are.
A flawed team when it last faced Stanford, No. 11 ASU believes it made the necessary changes to win the second time around, and have convinced many external observers of such as well.
“We’re so much different,” running back D.J. Foster said Tuesday. “We’ve been through a lot since that first game. We kind of took that as a lesson. They whipped our butts. But we’ve gotten better every week since then, and we’ve learned a lot.”
Winners of seven straight games and owners of a 7-0 record at Sun Devil Stadium, the site of Saturday’s Pac-12 title game, the Sun Devils seem to have made many forget how easily the Cardinal dispatched them early in the season. Many prognosticators project ASU as Saturday’s winner.
Perhaps that is because Stanford has since lost two road games, to Utah and USC. Perhaps it’s because ASU has since beat USC, Washington, UCLA and Arizona — in mostly dominant fashion. Or maybe it’s a combination, and the fact ASU appears to have an enormous home-field advantage.
Either way, there is strong evidence the Sun Devils are a much different team than they were in September. A better team. ASU coach Todd Graham and his players this week addressed what changed. It came down to a few major points:
“More than anything else I think this team has improved in the fact that our players are leading the team,” Graham said. “You can’t win a championship without that.”
Graham cited players on both sides are now coming to the sidelines and giving input on play calling. On two key fourth-down stops against Arizona last week, Graham said defensive tackle Will Sutton decided what ASU should run. On offense, quarterback Taylor Kelly has grown exponentially in ASU’s zone read, which has become far more effective.
“These guys really understand the system and know the system is designed for them, and they participate in the system,” Graham said.
But the change in leadership is much more than leading through performance.
Two weeks ago, as ASU held a slim 38-33 late in the fourth quarter against UCLA, Sutton and Kelly led efforts on the sidelines to keep players energized despite exhaustion.
It was a stark contrast to what Sutton described as a “flat” atmosphere back at Stanford Stadium.
“It was kind of too late,” Sutton said. “The spark didn’t hit us until the fourth quarter.”
The improve leadership, Graham says, had everything to do with maturity. After the Stanford loss and another tough loss to Notre Dame two weeks later, something seemed to click. Since ASU’s dominant win over Washington, the Sun Devils have been a different team.
“You have to have talent,” Graham said. “There’s no question about that. But that’s the last thing you ought to focus on because what wins game is discipline and the unit actually playing as one. These guys have bought into that and we’ve had great leadership. That’s the biggest area of improvement and what gives me a lot of confidence with this team.”
Ask any player or coach about ASU’s shortcomings in the Stanford loss and they almost invariably point to special teams.
“I’ll tell you, we better have improved a whole bunch in special teams because that was not a very good outing for our special teams unit,” Graham said. “And they are the best team in the conference on special teams, so that’s going to be, I think, the No. 1 battle this Saturday. We have to win special teams.”
The Sun Devils quite clearly lost the special teams battle to Stanford last time. They had two punts blocked, a missed field goal from 45 yards and allowed Stanford an average starting field position of its 44-yard line — all in the first half. Graham called kicking game mistakes “catastrophic.”
ASU had poor return coverage against UCLA two weeks ago but made significant strides overall in special teams. The punting game is stabilized, with former place kicker Alex Garoutte getting the job done well enough and providing a surprise boost at times. Zane Gonzalez made every field goal he attempted since the 45-yard miss.
Kick coverage was better as well, as the Sun Devils climbed to fourth in the Pac-12 in kickoff coverage, with a net average of 41 return yards per game.
“We’ve improved dramatically in (special teams),” Graham said. “We’ve had some outstanding play.”
The physical Cardinal front held ASU to 50 rushing yards last time. When ASU can’t get its rushing attack going the rest of the offense suffers. In ASU’s other loss, to Notre Dame, it ran for 65 yards.
Through the Notre Dame loss, ASU had averaged 130.0 rushing yards per game. In the seven games since, ASU averaged 229.1 rushing yards per game.
Kelly became a rushing threat again, running for 308 yards and eight touchdowns during ASU’s seven-game winning streak compared to 129 yards and no touchdowns in the first five games. Marion Grice also turned it on, but that’s where this improvement hits a snag: ASU will be without Grice on Saturday due to a leg injury.
Foster filled in nicely against Arizona, rushing for a career-high 124 yards and two touchdowns. But Arizona is not Stanford. The Cardinal own the nation’s third best run defense, at 87.3 rushing yards allowed per game.
“D.J. Foster is a tremendous young man, tremendous athlete,” offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “At practice last week he had a different look in his eye. He knew it was his time and there were a lot of people counting on him.”
ASU will need another big day from Foster this week, and also will use H-back De’Marieya Nelson, who had 35 yards on eight carries last week.
In the scheme sense, this is the big area. ASU allowed Stanford to run for 240 yards and gave up an average of 182.8 rushing yards through the first five games. Only Sacramento State and Notre Dame were held to less than 200 rushing yards.
ASU allowed 98.8 rushing yards per game since, including minus-5 yards against Washington –which had then-national rushing leader Bishop Sankey — and 2 yards against Washington State. The improvement took the Sun Devils from 86th nationally in run defense to 27th.
“I think the improvements have just been by settling in some of the newcomers,” Graham said. “We had a new sam linebacker, a new spur (linebacker), a new free safety. So a lot of the things happening were perimeter things and issues with alignments and assignments that got fixed.”
This will be ASU’s toughest test since the last time it met Stanford, in large part due to the Cardinal’s big physical offensive line, but the Sun Devils’ run defense is no doubt improved since September.
“Our front seven really, really takes pride in stopping the run,” safety Alden Darby said. “Even the secondary, we like coming up and making tackles and big plays on the run. The whole defense is just taking more pride in stopping the run.”