TEMPE, Ariz. — When Todd Graham took over at Arizona State, he had a vision for what he wanted the program to become. On Saturday, he gets an up-close look at that vision.
In No. 5 Stanford, Graham sees what he wants eventually for ASU, and he has made the Cardinal a blueprint for the Sun Devils to follow on their quest for greater position in college football hierarchy.
“If you asked me when I first got here to describe what kind of team I wanted, that’s it,” Graham said. “That’s why I have so much respect for them, and they’re champions, so they deserve respect.”
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All week, Graham has preached a common theme to his players: identity. Stanford knows its identity, Graham says, while ASU is still working to establish its own. Graham knows that will take time, but he doesn’t hide his impatience, admitting he wants “everything to happen yesterday.”
In seeking to emulate Stanford’s recent success, ASU couldn’t aim much higher. The Cardinal have reached three consecutive BCS bowl games and last season won the Pac-12 title and then the Rose Bowl. This year, they have national title aspirations.
“They’re the defending champions, so obviously they’re doing something right,” ASU senior cornerback Osahon Irabor said. “As a team, we want to be where Stanford was at last year.”
But Stanford’s identity is about far more than championships. It’s also about toughness, discipline and intelligence. It’s about outworking opponents and playing mistake-free football.
“Obviously that’s a really challenging school academically, and I think that carries over to their preparation,” Irabor said. “I know they practice hard, and I know they don’t make a lot of mistakes. If you want to win championships and be a good team, you can’t make mistakes either.”
ASU is still prone to mistakes, as numerous moments in last week’s close win over Wisconsin showed, but it remains a point of emphasis. The Sun Devils are still adjusting in many ways to the requirements of the identity they seek. In some of those other areas, though, they are not far away.
ASU has been notably more disciplined under Graham, going from last (120th) in the nation in penalty yards per game in 2011 to eighth last season and this year ranking first in the nation with just 10.0 penalty yards per game on four penalties, none of them defensive. They’ve also stayed truer to what they’re coached to do instead of freelancing their way to costly miscues.
The Sun Devils have also gotten tougher, missing fewer games to injury while emphasizing a physical style of play on both sides of the ball. As for how hard the players work each day, though, Graham believes there are still strides to be made.
“I hope we can get done in two years what I think takes probably three to four years to do,” Graham said. “That’s what they’re doing at Stanford right now, because they’ve already got that program where it’s at, and they win year in and year out.”
But as much as ASU may admire Stanford, none of that will matter when the teams take the field Saturday. ASU The Sun Devils will be looking for their first win in Palo Alto since 2007 and first over a top-five opponent since 1996. A win over an opponent of Stanford’s caliber would be a giant step forward for a program still trying to get over the hump.
Like Wisconsin did, Stanford presents a stiff power-running-game challenge for an ASU rushing defense that was not quite up to the challenge last week. The Badgers racked up 231 rushing yards — the fourth-highest total in a game since Graham arrived — despite all of ASU’s offseason efforts to improve its run defense, though most of it came on plays that reached the perimeter, with the interior power runs being mostly contained.
ASU will also have its hands full with Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, a playmaker with a perfect record as a starter. Hogan drew comparisons to ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly this week for their similar ability to extend plays and beat teams with their legs.
“He’s got pretty good speed outside the pocket, and he makes good reads,” ASU linebacker Chris Young said. “If we don’t get there, he has a chance to make a play.”
Both quarterbacks, though, will likely see a good deal of pressure from two of the nation’s best defensive fronts. Last season, Stanford led the nation in sacks and ranked second in tackles for loss, while ASU led the nation in tackles for loss and ranked second in sacks. Nearly every key front-seven playmaker is back on both sides.
The Stanford defense is perhaps most what Graham wants to emulate. It’s a sound, physical unit that can stop — or at least limit — the spread offense in a conference dominated by it. Last year, Stanford ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense.
“We want to be the best defensive football team in the country,” Graham said. “When people think about Arizona State, I want them to say, ‘Man, those guys play defense.'”
Beating Stanford would go a long way toward equaling Stanford’s success. It would also go a long way toward ASU achieving is lofty goals for this season. ASU wants what Stanford has, and lining up against the team they want to be could be just the motivation the Sun Devils need as they continue establishing their own identity.
“We’re going into their place, and we know they’ve been where we want to be,” sophomore running back D.J. Foster said. “We’ve definitely got step up our game this week.” Follow Tyler Lockman on Twitter