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December 4, 2013

Ask the Expert: Arizona State, Take 2

Cardinal Sports Report spoke with Chris Karpman, publisher of ASUDevils.com, to get the inside scoop on Arizona State in advance of the Pac-12 title game.

Cardinal Sports Report: It's been more than 15 years since Arizona State last played in a Rose Bowl. What's the atmosphere around the program right now, and how boisterous do you expect Sun Devil Stadium to be on Saturday night?

Chris Karpman: This is probably the most excited fans have been since that near-magical 1996 season because it's only the second year of Todd Graham's tenure and the Sun Devils were able to accomplish their 10-2 (8-1) record against a very difficult schedule that ranked among the nation's toughest. ASU won 10 games in the regular season in 2007 but that schedule was a lot easier and it just wasn't as talented a team as this one. As of Wednesday afternoon there were fewer than 10,000 seats remaining and I expect it will sell out or be very close by game time. The Pac-12 management of the game will mitigate some of the home advantage but it'll still be a great atmosphere.

CSR: Though Arizona State made a late charge, Stanford controlled play for most of the Cardinal's 42-28 win at Stanford Stadium earlier this year. In what areas have the Sun Devils improved as a team since that game? Are there any areas in which they've regressed?

CK: That was without question the worst half of football ASU played all season and certainly Stanford's terrific capability had a lot to do with it. But ASU's really expanded its standard play-calling on offense since that game, with more read option off the backside end/to the boundary side of the field, more quarterback designed runs off tackle, more outside zone strength runs with the guards pulling.

Defensively, ASU was missing Jaxon Hood at defensive tackle against Stanford due to injury and played Gannon Conway inside out of position. That didn't work, Conway moved back to end and has flourished and Hood's replacement settled as Davon Coleman, who has maintained the starting spot even when Hood returned. Coleman ended up leading ASU in sacks and having a great season. At linebacker, Stanford was the game where redshrit freshman Salamo Fiso replaced senior Steffon Martin and never looked back. Fiso is a better player against the inside run, which is of course a Stanford strength. In the secondary, junior college transfer Damarious Randall, who was the Pac-12 Player of the Week last week for his 12 tackles and interception return for a touchdown against Arizona, didn't start against Stanford or really emerge as a player until the following week. So ASU has really coalesced and continued to improve on both sides of the ball since the first meeting. There hasn't been an area where they have regressed. Their special teams have been very poor this year outside of true freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez, who has made a school-record 19 field goals in a row. They often give big kickoff returns or punt returns and have had punts blocked, as Stanford knows, but they're even trending better in those areas.

CSR: What was the reaction/takeaways around the program following Stanford/Arizona State's earlier meeting? Do you anticipate the Sun Devils doing anything different schematically or strategically this time around?

CK: Coaches were relatively shocked with how poor the ASU execution was in the first half and how ASU didn't match Stanford's intensity out of the gate. Graham said more than a year ago his template for a successful program in the Pac-12 is Stanford and has expressed a tremendous amount of respect for its staff and approach. He wants his team to be similarly disciplined and intelligent. This is a test to see how far ASU has come. Graham said it's the best team he's coached but that's not a surprise. He also said it's the most improvement one of his teams has ever made in a season. That plus the evolution in ASU's offense and some solidified personnel defensively could make the difference.

CSR: How will Marion Grice's injury impact Arizona State's running game? Which players will fill the void left by his absence, and do anticipate the Sun Devils doing anything different in the running game as a result of the different personnel?

CK: Sophomore D.J. Foster filled in last week admirably with 23 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns in Grice's absence. Foster was a Rivals100 recruit coming out of high school and is very talented. Typically he plays in the slot in some formations with Grice at running back typically. ASU uses more outside zone running with Foster. Like Grice, he's also a very good receiver out of the backfield. He's not as good as a blocker though, which is something to watch, and Grice is a little bigger and more apt to get yards after contact typically.

CSR: Arizona State will win if...

CK: ASU will win if it doesn't turn the football over, avoids special teams miscues and shows some ability to run the ball. The only two games ASU lost this season it struggled to run the ball early and had colossal special teams mistakes early as well as costly turnovers. If it does none of those things at home, it will likely win, if it struggles in two or all three of those areas, it will almost assuredly lose.

CSR: What's your final score prediction and why?

CK: I think we're staring down the barrel of what will be a very well played, moderate scoring game that could break either way late but I'll take ASU 30-27. The Sun Devils have scored 50-plus points in six of 12 games this season including against four Pac-12 teams at home. Stanford's defense is superior to any of those teams and will keep ASU well below it's average but ASU's defense is better than it was when the teams met the first time and quarterback Taylor Kelly is less turnover prone at home, special teams errors seem to be fewer as well.

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