Stanford shows ASU still has much work to do

All week, Arizona State talked about wanting to mold an identity like Stanford’s, making this week’s opponent a model for sustained success.

By posting 29 points and pitching out a shutout in the first half, the fifth-ranked Cardinals quickly showed the Sun Devils that they have a long way to go and went on to a 42-28 win despite ASU’s second-half rally.

“The first half was obviously embarrassing,” Graham told reporters after the game. “We didn’t have our guys ready to play, we did not come out ready to play. That’s about as disastrous of a first half as you can possibly have.”

Graham was not being hyperbolic. Just about everything that could go wrong for No. 23 ASU (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) in the first half did. Quarterback Taylor Kelly threw an interception that led to a touchdown. Stanford gained 130 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood left injured. And freshman Matt Haack had a punt blocked for a safety just before the Sun Devils went to the locker room.

“I apologized to the players after the game, because we let them down as a coaching staff,” Graham said. “We didn’t have them ready. And you’ve got to give them credit, too. That staff on the other side is really special.”

Entering the game, there were some who wondered just how good Stanford actually was after having only beaten San Jose State and Army. The Cardinal erased any doubt about their lofty ranking almost immediately, scoring on three of their first four drives.  

Led by Kevin Hogan’s sharp quarterbacking and Tyler Gaffney’s effective running, Stanford roughed up ASU’s well-respected defense. The Cardinal defense, meanwhile, handed the Sun Devils their first first-half shutout in 16 games under Graham and first overall since 2009.

It was ASU’s mistakes in the first half that differentiated it most from the defending Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champions. ASU players noted Stanford’s knack for playing mistake-free football and knew they’d need to do the same, but clearly, they have not reached that point.

After ASU’s defense held Stanford to a missed field goal on its first drive, Kelly threw an off-balance pass to avoid a sack but put the ball right in Stanford defensive end Josh Mauro’s hands, setting up a 17-yard scoring drive. The Sun Devils committed three first-half penalties for 30 yards, 10 more than they had accumulated in their previous two games combined.

Things only got worse from there, and ASU looked painfully overmatched. If there’s any way to spin the first 30 minutes positively, it’s that ASU is almost certainly not as bad as it looked, but rather Stanford — a team with national championship aspirations — is just that good.

Further, ASU came out in the second half with no sign of quit. Whether it was Graham getting players adjusted and fired up or Stanford taking its foot off the gas, the Sun Devils were a different team in the second half. Albeit against the Cardinal’s backups for much of the half, ASU outscored Stanford 28-10 after halftime, coming within 11 points with just over six minutes remaining.

Certainly, the Sun Devils are not satisfied with a moral victory via an admirable rally, but the second-half performance should serve to re-establish the team’s confidence for next week’s big Pac-12 South matchup against USC.

Encouraging, too, should be the continued emergence of receiver Jaelen Strong. The junior college transfer further solidified his place as ASU’s No. 1 receiver by reeling in 12 receptions for 168 yards and a touchdown. Linebacker Carl Bradford was also impressive, notching seven tackles, a sack and two quarterback hurries.

But come Sunday, the Sun Devils will be looking at all they must do to get things right before the Trojans come to Tempe.

“We’ve got to regroup, got to get these mistakes corrected, because you’re going to have a hard time winning any games playing like that,” Graham said.

There’s plenty to work on.

ASU’s offensive line got abused by Stanford’s dominant defensive front most of the day, leaving Kelly little time to work. Stanford’s offensive line won the battle at the line of scrimmage as well, keeping ASU’s own talented front away from Hogan, who finished 11 of 17 for 151 yards and two touchdowns. On top of that, Hood left the field on crutches, possibly leaving ASU in a bad spot at a thin position.

Then there’s ASU’s run defense, which allowed 240 yards, nine more than it did against Wisconsin last week. ASU’s defense got burned on long runs of 27 yards and 32 yards. On the other side, ASU couldn’t establish the run game for a third straight week, finishing with just 50 yards on the ground, the lowest single-game rushing total of Graham’s tenure.

Many expected ASU to play Stanford close, yet the final score does not reflect how dominant the Cardinal were. That said, blowout or not, a loss was not altogether unexpected. Of the Sun Devils’ tough four game stretch that started against Wisconsin and finishes with USC and Notre Dame, Saturday’s game against Stanford seemed the least likely opportunity for an ASU win.

Ultimately, the notion of ASU earning its first win over a top-five opponent since 1996 may have been a bit premature. The Sun Devils still have much progress to make before they achieve the level of sustained success Stanford has. They’ve chosen a solid blueprint, but 15 games under Graham has not been enough time to replicate such a polished, sound and dominant operation.

Perhaps ASU will be a bit closer by early December, when the teams could meet again in the Pac-12 championship game, but for now, Stanford remains a cut above.