ASU defense, special teams steal show in win over Stanford
TEMPE, Ariz. — Call it a case of stolen identity: Arizona State beat Stanford at its own game.
Facing the team Sun Devils coach Todd Graham billed as the Pac-12’s best on defense and special teams, the No. 17 Sun Devils dominated both phases to topple the two-time defending Pac-12 champions in a win that should be considered an upset despite Stanford’s No. 23 ranking.
"People came in tonight talking about their defense, left talking about ours," Graham said. "Came in talking about their special teams, left talking about ours."
It was supposed to be an offensive struggle for ASU (5-1, 3-1 Pac-12) as it faced Stanford’s vaunted defense, which entered the night ranked No. 1 nationally in terms of scoring and No. 2 overall.
Instead, ASU’s young, inexperienced defense — which started the night ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in both categories — stole the show. The Sun Devils shut down the Cardinal like no team has this season.
Granted, the Cardinal offense has had its issues this year, but ASU held Stanford scoreless in the first half, something last accomplished 87 games ago in 2007. The 69 yards ASU allowed in the half was its second-lowest under Graham.
Simply put: The defense came up big. Real big.
It was less than a month ago this same group gave up 62 points and 582 yards to UCLA. It couldn’t have looked any more different on Saturday.
"We’ve just been building up each week, just getting better and better each week," senior safety Damarious Randall said. "We just kind of finally all put it together."
Added junior cornerback Lloyd Carrington: "It’s just taking the time to perfect our craft. We came out here playing with a chip on our shoulder."
ASU held Stanford (4-3, 2-2) to 288 total yards, keeping it under 300 for just the second time this season (Notre Dame allowed 205 yards). It forced four 3-and-outs, including on Stanford’s first two series, after only forcing one in the last two games.
With an extra week to prepare, Graham concocted a new game plan for the team that handily beat the Sun Devils twice last season. It included starting 360-pound defensive tackle Mo Latu for the first time this season and moving hard-hitting linebacker Antonio Longino to the weak side.
It worked, as ASU shut down Stanford’s run game to the tune of 76 yards, tallied 12 tackles for loss (four sacks) and forced Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan into 20 incomplete passes.
"We just went with a bigger lineup, a more physical lineup to try to take some stress off the back end," Graham said. "I think sometimes you try to put a square peg in a round hole. It’s hard when you’re old. You get old, it’s hard to change. I like doing things a certain way. And really I started questioning it a little bit about ‘Maybe I’m doing too much," and really Lloyd and some of the other guys just said, ‘Coach, let’s just do what we do.’"
As stunning as the defensive performance was — it would be hard to find one better in such a big game since Graham arrived — it may not have mattered if not for ASU’s best special teams performance of the season.
Twice ASU took the ball away from Stanford on returns, first in the second quarter when Randall forced heralded return man Ty Montgomery to fumble a booming punt and again in the fourth quarter with less than four minutes left when freshman Deandre Scott forced a fumble on a kickoff.
ASU kicker Zane Gonzalez made 4 of 5 field goal attempts, the longest from 47 yards. Punter Matt Haack averaged 45 yards per kick. QB Mike Bercovici pinned Stanford at its own 1-yard line late in the game with a pooch punt. And senior Kyle Middlebrooks again gave ASU life in the return game.
"It’s probably the best that we’ve played as a whole (on special teams)," Graham said. "I told them we’ve got to have 100 percent ball security, we did that. I told them we’ve got to win special teams, we did that.
"There was not anything that we didn’t dominate tonight, so that was gratifying."
That included offense, as much as defense and special teams might have defined the game. ASU’s offense was not the explosive unit it typically is but still scored more points on Stanford than any team has this season.
Stanford had not allowed any of its previous six opponents to score more than 17 points. It held all but one team less than 300 yards. ASU racked up 356 yards, just shy of Notre Dame’s 370 against the Cardinal.
Bercovici, making his third start in place of senior Taylor Kelly, led the unit with impressive poise and efficiency, completing 23 of 33 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown, even perhaps well enough to force ASU to keep him involved once Kelly returns from a foot injury.
"He played phenomenal," Graham said. "That’s a real defense. That’s one of the best defenses in the country, and we systematically moved the football (and) controlled the line of scrimmage."
Ten of the Sun Devils’ points came after the turnovers they forced on returns.
"It wasn’t just the offense that produced all those points," Bercovici said. "It was a collective effort — special teams and defense."
With as volatile as the Pac-12 has been this season, it’s hard to say with much certainty what ASU’s win over Stanford means for its chances of repeating as South division champions. There is much football left to be played, but it seems reasonable to say the Sun Devils are the new frontrunners in the South, at least for a week.
Perhaps more important is what the win means for ASU’s progress. The defense clearly took a huge step, and the team as a whole played with a confidence not previously seen, enough to vanquish a demon that haunted since even before last December’s Pac-12 title game played on the same field.
"The phrase that we have used is, taking that crown from them," Bercovici said. "We respect them as an opponent. They are once of the most disciplined, smartest, toughest opponents in the conference. They proved this over the last two years.
"We had a salty taste in our mouth when we walked down the tunnel last December when it didn’t go our way. The crown is ours now."
Bercovici — No longer is Berocvici the turnover-prone quarterback he appeared to be. He has hardly come close to turning the ball over in two games after doing so three times in his first start. Through those three starts, Bercovici is 92-for-146 passing for 1,243 yards.
Longino — The second-year junior college transfer had perhaps his best game as a Sun Devil in his first start at will. He led the team with eight tackles (one for loss) and played a key role in ASU’s physicality up front.