Arizona State (4-0; 1-0), which ranks first in the Pac-10 in pass defense, pass efficiency defense and scoring defense, and tied for first in total defense, figures to get its stiffest test of the season on at least one side of the football when it travel on the road for the first time to play at Stanford (1-2; 0-2) on Saturday.
First-year coach Jim Harbaugh has revitalized the Cardinal offense, which features senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander and the Pac-10's all-purpose leader in total yards, running back Anthony Kimble.
"They're young at a lot of areas, but they're very solid, very well-coached," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said, when asked about the Cardinal at his Monday press conference. "Probably the biggest change is offensively. Coach Harbaugh has brought in an offense where they're throwing the football a lot."
In fact, Ostrander is on pace to pass for over 3,300 yards which is more than legendary John Elway was able to accomplish in any single season at the school, and second only to Steve Stenstronm's 3,627 yards in 1993.
The Cardinal played nationally ranked Oregon tough at home for much of their game last Saturday, leading 31-24 at halftime, before losing 55-31 when the Ducks turned up the defensive intensity in the second half. Stanford scored 28 points in the second quarter of that game, capitalizing on three Oregon lost fumbles.
Featuring a solid group of wide receivers that includes senior Mark Bradford, who had nine receptions for 185 yards and two touchdowns the last time these two teams played in Palo Alto, in 2005, Stanford has a very respectable passing attack, even though it is averaging just 6.3 yards per passing attempt.
In addition to Bradford, who has 13 catches for 134 yards and one touchdown in three games this season, the Cardinal features 6-foot-3 sophomore Richard Sherman, who leads the team with 14 receptions for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and 6-foot-7 senior Evan Moore, with 11 catches for 151 yards.
Sherman and Bradford are potential big play threats while Moore is a possession receiver who creates mismatches due to his size.
In Kimbel, Stanford has a versatile talent who, at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, can run between the tackles, or be a threat catching the ball out of the backfield. He's carried the ball 49 times for 268 yards and three touchdowns and also has 10 catches for 47 yards.
Kimbel's 5.5 yards per carry (and Stanford's team average of 4.4 yards per carry) is very respectable, especially considering the team hasn't come close to those numbers in any of the last five season. The fact that he is fourth in the nation with 220.7 all purpose yards is a bit misleading however, as 115.7 yards per game of that has comes on 16 kickoff returns. It's a lot of kickoff returns because Stanford has given up a lot of points.
The Cardinal figures to be significantly hurt with both their run game and pass protection in this game by the loss of junior left tackle Allen Smith to a patella injury. Smith as been the team's best and most consistent offensive line and he's responsible for the backside protection of Ostrander.
It's even a bigger loss because Stanford's defense is suspect at best, and if it can't score a lot of points against opponents in the explosive Pac-10, it's going to be hard pressed to win many games.
Stanford is 10th in the Pac-10 in total defense, allowing 458.7 yards per game, including an average of over 600 yards per game against Pac-10 foes UCLA and Oregon. It ranks 10th in rush defense, 8th in pass defense and 9th in scoring defense, allowing 33.3 points per game, and that includes its shutout performance over mutual ASU opponent San Jose State.
Against a balanced ASU offense that has not turned the ball over a lot, especially by fumble, that's likely to be a problem.
Erickson has showed that he's well committed to establishing the run, and indeed, beating opponents with a relentless approach to the ground game whenever possible. The Sun Devils rank first in the Pac-10 with 100 first-downs, and first in time out possession (fifth in the nation) at 33:12 minutes per game.
The Sun Devils also rank first in the Pac-10 in red zone offense, scoring on 16 of 17 trips (94.1%) with 12 touchdowns.
Stanford proved last Saturday it was susceptible to giving up big plays, when Oregon scored four touchdowns on plays over 30 yards from scrimmage. Against an Oregon State defense far superior to Stanford, the Sun Devils had four touchdown plays that were over 40 yards from scrimmage.
Putting it all together, it's clear that there is a strong likelihood that Stanford's only chance to beat ASU is to score a lot of points, because it's almost certain to give up a lot of scores baring an unusually high number of turnovers or some other unexpected development such as an injury to quarterback Rudy Carpenter or another key player.
The problem for Stanford is that the Sun Devils lead the Pac-10 and are tied for 14th in scoring defense, allowing 15.5 points per game. The Cardinal may have the best offense ASU has played to this point in the season, but it's hard to believe they'll be able to score three times as many points as the average ASU opponent to this point. And that's probably about what it will need to win.
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