The idea of identity came up a lot this week when Stanford’s David Shaw and ASU’s Todd Graham were talking about Saturday’s matchup between the ranked teams.
No. 5 Stanford already has its identity: physical, power football that Graham said “will bloody your nose.”
No. 23 Arizona State wants that same identity. And while the offensive and defensive schemes of the schools may differ, both are rooted in the same principal philosophies: run the football, stop the run, protect your quarterback and get to the other guy's.
“The way they run their program is very similar to what we’re trying to establish,” Graham said.
Therefore, you don’t need to read between the lines to know that's where this game will be won and lost -- between the lines.
“It’s not what will be highlighted throughout the week, but for us that’s the game,” Shaw said. “The game is upfront. The game is run blocking. The game is run defense. The game is pass blocking. The game is pass rushing. That’s where the game is going to be decided. If we can pass-block [ASU’s Will Sutton], which is going to be tough because not many people have with any consistency, we’ll have a chance to complete some passes. If we can’t, he’s going to have a great day. We need to be able to establish the run, that’s our identity. That’s who we are. If their front seven can slow us down, it’s going to be a long day for us. That’s the key matchup for the entire game for us.”
Over the last two seasons, both teams rank in the top four among AQ schools in sacks and sack percentage. Both have recorded at least 55 sacks, about one every 12 times a quarterback drops back, but they’ve done it different ways. Per ESPN Stats and Info, Stanford leads the country with 45 sacks over the last two years when sending four or fewer pass rushers. Conversely, ASU leads the country with 29 sacks when sending five or more -- meaning the Sun Devils like to blitz, a lot.
That will be key as they try to crack some of the ins and outs of Stanford’s scheme.
“They are as unique and dynamic as any of the spread and no-huddle teams in our league,” Graham said. “What they do with tight ends, groupings, spacings, formations and motions and shifts. The quarterback checks almost every play. They are really a well-coached football team.”
Headlining the battle on the lines will be Sutton, last year’s Morris Trophy winner for the league’s top defensive lineman. And Stanford guard David Yankey, last year’s Morris Trophy winner given to the league’s top offensive lineman. On the flip side, Stanford will make getting to ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly a top priority.
“The thing that sticks out to me -- we didn’t play them last year but we watched a lot of cross-over film -- his desire comes through and his competitive nature comes through,” Shaw said of Kelly. “He’s phenomenal at bouncing back from a negative play or whatever it is. Watching film, you can just tell he’s got that mentality that he’s a fighter. Guys like that, you learn to respect them.”
And for those who believe in week-to-week trends, ASU will be facing a power running team for the second straight week. Graham said he felt like his defense “dominated” the line of scrimmage, but they gave up the bulk of their rushing yard to Wisconsin on sweeps. The fact that ASU gets to see another power team might play to its advantage.
“We usually like playing someone the week after they play a spread offense team,” Shaw said. “But back-to-back two weeks against teams that will play with multiple tight ends on the field and fullbacks and have a power running game and accent that with play-action pass and different things. I think it does help them stay in the same mode. It won’t be the exact same game plan, but they’ll stay in the same mode for two weeks in a row which should help them.”