Arizona State coach Todd Graham has watched film of Stanford's first two games, against San Jose State and Army. He doesn't believe, however, it was terribly revealing. It seemed likely that the Cardinal have plenty of schematic inventory on both sides of the ball that they have yet to reveal.
"I think they've been very basic," Graham said. "Obviously, there's a lot more."
Of course, with Stanford, it's not really about fooling an opponent with scheme, though there's certainly some creativity within its rough-and-tumble ways. Stanford is about lining up and trying to push its opponent backwards. And the Cardinal have been pretty darn good at it for a while.
Summed up Graham, "They are going to bloody your nose, they are going to play great defense, and they are not going to beat themselves."
Stanford has been the quietest of the nation's top-five teams. We've seen Alabama tested, Clemson make a statement, Oregon romp AQ conference foes and Ohio State grab national headlines with QB issues. The Cardinal, meanwhile, had a bye the first weekend then easily handled a San Jose State team that most folks don't realize is led by one of the nation's best quarterbacks. Last week, they were pretty lackluster in a win at Army, a game that was most notable for the collegiality among the teams and fan bases.
Stanford has yet to have a "hello world" moment, to announce itself as a Pac-12 and national title contender -- again. Therefore, a visit from No. 23 Arizona State should provide a strong initial test. This matchup certainly has more spice since the Pac-12 officials threw up on themselves last week at the end of the Sun Devils game against Wisconsin, allowing the Sun Devils to enter the game unbeaten and ranked.
It's also interesting that these teams have not seen each other since 2010, when Stanford and Andrew Luck prevailed in a 17-13 defensive struggle.
Stanford coach David Shaw, after watching the Sun Devils on film, sees a team that is different than old ASU crews. He sees a top-25 squad that plays smart football, which wasn't always the Sun Devils M.O. in the past.
"I'd wager to say maybe even a top-15 team, just as far as having the players and the scheme and the way the guys play, a quarterback who makes plays," Shaw said. "It's a big credit to what they have done there."
Shaw added, "They play as hard as anybody in our conference. I don't know if you said that about the Arizona State team in years past. You say it about these guys. They are going to fight you tooth and nail. They will get after you on both sides of the ball."
So even though you have an up-tempo spread team and a pro-style huddle-up team, the contrast in styles doesn't preclude it from being a physical, mano-a-mano matchup. It should help the Sun Devils that they got a test run of physical, line of scrimmage football last week against the Badgers and proved more than up to the task. The Cardinal, however, are far more talented on both lines than Wisconsin.
Further, Stanford is much better at quarterback. While the Cardinal offense is run first, it also has an improved downfield passing attack with quarterback Kevin Hogan, now a second-year starter.
"We're attempting more downfield, explosive passes than we have the last few years, but that doesn't take anything away from our basic identity as a power, downhill-running team," Shaw said.
While Stanford probably has been sandbagging a bit, that doesn't change the fact its first notion will be overpowering the smaller Sun Devils lines. The Cardinal are about imposing their will, and they will try to do that before they worry about being tricky.
"That's always what we strive for," running back Tyler Gaffney said. "We want people to know how we play. As Coach Shaw says, we're not a team that tries to put up 50 points. We grind. Everybody knows that. We run power for 4 yards a pop, 4 yards a pop, 4 yards a pop."
That approach might not be as fancy as Oregon's, but it undeniably has worked over the past three years while the Cardinal have won 35 games. Arizona State, however, should provide a nice test for whether it will continue to work as well in 2013.