ASU hopes to learn from previous failings against Stanford

Arizona State's defense knows it can't allow big plays -- like the Cardinal's 35-, 42- and 79-yard completions in last year's Pac-12 Championship Game -- if it wants to beat Stanford on Saturday.

Mark J. Rebilas/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. — When asked earlier this week about Arizona State’s two losses to Stanford last season, coach Todd Graham replied playfully.

"Well, I’ve been trying to forget about them, but you just brought it up," Graham joked.

Though he made light of the moment, Graham certainly knows the Sun Devils’ previous failures against Stanford provide a road map to success this time around. In preparing for the No. 23 Cardinal, ASU can look to its previous games against them and ask: What went wrong?

"It was very difficult for us last year," Graham said. "We were playing our best football. We’d just come off a win over Arizona, who’d just beat Oregon. We were playing really well, and that was tough to handle. We were one game away from being in the Rose Bowl."

Being that close only makes ASU want a win over Stanford more. Stanford is the team ASU measures itself against when judging itself as a true contender for the Pac-12.

Players and coaches weren’t eager to rehash the losses, but it’s clear they all learned from them. Ahead of Saturday’s game, we took a look back at what happened in the team’s last two meetings.

This game was not as close as the final score reflected. It was less a two-touchdown game than it was a complete disaster from the start. Graham actually called it "an absolute disaster" afterward.

"Bottom line they just dominated in every way that they could," Graham said then. "We played as bad as we could play in every area."

Stanford, then No. 5, quickly made it clear that ASU was not ready to play on its level. The issues began on special teams, as the Sun Devils allowed Ty Montgomery to take the opening kickoff to the 50-yard line. ASU managed to hold Stanford to a field goal, which it missed, but then the tailspin began.

On ASU’s first offensive drive, quarterback Taylor Kelly tried to avoid a sack by throwing an ill-advised pass that Stanford intercepted, leading to a quick score. Things snowballed from there. ASU’s defense couldn’t stop Stanford, and its offense couldn’t produce anything. It’s only drive of 30 yards or more the rest of the half ended with a missed field goal.

More Sun Devils

On top of those issues, ASU committed three first half penalties for 30 yards, showing an uncharacteristic lack of discipline. By halftime, ASU was down 29-0.

"We can’t come out and shoot ourselves in the foot," offensive tackle Jamil Douglas said. "Stanford’s not going to make a lot of mistakes. They’re disciplined and well-coached, so you have to match them and be even better."

ASU’s offensive line was paramount among its issues. The line couldn’t handle Stanford’s physical, experienced defensive line, and Kelly’s performance suffered. The defensive line struggled to make an impact as well, especially after nose tackle Jaxon Hood left with a leg injury, hampering its ability to stop Stanford’s run game.

"They dominated the line of scrimmage," Graham said.

ASU looked like a different team in the second half, in part because Stanford took its foot off the gas and played reserves. There were encouraging signs, but ASU had still been humbled by the defending Pac-12 champions and a team it thought it could beat.

When Stanford came to Tempe for the Pac-12 title game, it saw a different ASU team. The Sun Devils had a season’s worth of experience and came in on a seven-game winning streak.

And still, ASU seemed powerless to prevent Stanford players from waving roses and hoisting the Pac-12 championship trophy on the field at Sun Devil Stadium.

A few of the same issues haunted the Sun Devils again, namely their inability to stop the run. Tyler Gaffney gouged ASU’s defense for 133 yards and three touchdowns and Stanford finished with 240 rushing yards.

Gallery

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan had one of his best games of the season, passing for 277 yards and a touchdown on just 12 completions. Hogan hurt ASU with big plays, connecting on passes of 35, 42 and 79 yards.

Gaffney also burned the Sun Devils with a big play on Stanford’s second play from scrimmage, a 69-yard touchdown run.

"We said all week not to let them make big plays, and we didn’t do that," safety Alden Darby said after the game. "We gave up three bombs to let them score, and that set the tone."

ASU quickly evened the score before special teams problems reared their head once again. Montgomery ran a kickoff return 39 yards to set Stanford up near midfield for a 60-yard touchdown drive.

Five minutes into the second quarter, Stanford had built a commanding 28-7 lead. ASU would only score once more. It was another humbling defeat, one that again showed ASU wasn’t ready for that stage.

"They had been there before, and we hadn’t," Hood said. "I think we were way too hyped. We were overhyped for that type of game especially."

ASU did have at least one positive takeaway from the game: D.J. Foster’s 51-yard touchdown run, which gives the offense belief it can move the chains this year.

"It’s exciting to know that we can really move the ball on them," quarterback Mike Bercovici said. "There’s no reason (to think) ‘Oh, they’re big up front, we can’t run. No way.’ We proved -that we can do it. It’s just let’s get ahead this time and not play catch-up."

D.J. Foster’s 51-yard touchdown run last year gives the Sun Devils reason to believe they can move the chains against the physical Cardinal.

This year’s matchup can only be compared to last year’s game so much, as both teams have experienced great turnover, particularly on defense.

"Obviously you learn from those (games), but there’s a lot of differences, too, because there’s a lot of different matchups," Graham said. "But it’s still the same systems against each other."

But as big picture concepts go, ASU can draw plenty from those games this Saturday. All week, Graham has stressed special teams, ball security and discipline.

Graham says he hasn’t used ASU’s two losses to Stanford last season as motivation for this year’s game, saying the only motivation they need is a Pac-12 championship. But the players don’t need Graham to remind them of their shortcomings to be motivated this time around. They’re plenty motivated on their own.

"If any team leaves a salty taste in our mouth it’s them," Bercovici said. "They took it away from us last year."

Added Douglas: "The people that were actually in those games last year, we understand how much of a damper that was on our season last year. So I think guys are pretty motivated about it and excited to play them."

Follow Tyler Lockman on Twitter