Talk about fan loyalty…
Arizona State‘s 38-34 football win over USC that ended with a heart-stopping Hail Mary pass as time expired has apparently gone a long way toward erasing the memory of the game before that when the Sun Devils literally collapsed in an embarrassing 62-27 beat-down at the hands of the UCLA Bruins – at home, no less.
Case in point: The lines on the ASU campus began forming Sunday night, as students anxious to get their tickets for Saturday’s game with Stanford began staking out their spot at “Camp Fargo”, the area along the outside concourse at Wells Fargo Arena, almost a week before the 7:30 pm kick-off.
And the vigil began days before most students had even returned to campus from Fall Break.
“We have Stanford coming in, a very good, very well-coached team, but I am really confident in my guys,” said third-year head coach Todd Graham at this week’s press conference to discuss the game with the media. “We have continued to get better, and we will continue to improve. We are excited about this week, with the opportunity to go out and compete against Stanford.”
And, obviously, there are still fans out there that are just as excited.
The game with the No. 23-ranked Cardinal gives No. 17 ASU (4-1, 2-1) an opportunity to break a four-game losing streak to the California visitors. In addition, there is a revenge motive for the Sun Devils, who were beaten by Stanford, 38-14, in last year’s Pac-12 Championship game.
This will be the third game in a row that the Devils will face a nationally-ranked team. But it will be the first of the three when their starting quarterback could be back under center.
Taylor Kelly injured his foot in a game against Colorado, but will have had 35 days to recover before Saturday’s game with Stanford since ASU has had the advantage of a bye week since playing USC.
But redshirt junior Mike Bercovici proved a capable substitute for the two games Taylor was out. Despite losing to UCLA in a huge setback at home, he set a couple of new school records with 42 completions in 68 attempts, finishing with 488 yards passing. And the last game, against USC, he engineered three touchdown drives in the final 3:53 minutes and capped it off with a 46-yard Hail Mary pass to Jaelen Strong as time expired to complete one of the most thrilling comeback wins in program history.
Despite that, Graham has made it clear that Kelly will return to his starting role if he is healthy enough to play. He began working out at practices last Thursday and continued to get limited work-outs this week as the coaches evaluate his progress. Graham has indicated he will likely get into Saturday’s game, which is being televised on ESPN, but it may not be in a starting role.
While Bercovici brings much to the table, he isn’t the runner that Kelly is and that allows defenses to focus more heavily on the running backs like D.J. Foster, who averaged 170 yards a game prior to Kelly’s injury, but has been held to a total of just 43 yards in the last two games. Kelly is actually the team’s second-leading rusher.
All of ASU’s 12 rushing touchdowns came in the first three game and while Kelly has been on the sidelines, the Devils have dropped from averaging 304 yards rushing to 84.5 the last two. And to make matters worse, Stanford is the third-best team in the conference at stopping the run, allowing just 125 yards per game.
“Taylor has a lot of experience,” says Graham in explaining the subtle differences in the two quarterbacks. “He is able to move the down markers in very different ways. Whether it’s with his legs, with the run game, or just making great decisions. I believe that (Bercovici) is just a great extension of him. Obviously, he brings a lot to it with his ability to create a rhythm passing game.
“They complement each other very well.”
Unfortunately for Devils fans, the run game isn’t the only thing that needs to be addressed before Saturday. They have allowed a kick-off to be returned for a touchdown in each of the last two games and are now 115th in the nation in return coverage. They’re allowing almost 25 yards per kick-off return and an average of almost 19 per punt return.
And Stanford is one of the stingiest Division I programs in the country, giving up an average of just 10 points a game to opponents.
Graham says the other keys to a win Saturday are being able to control the football and win the battle up front. “They (the Cardinal) are the most disciplined team that we have played,” admits Graham. “They won’t get many stupid penalties.”
But he notes that that’s typical of the kind of competition he expects in the Pac-12: “Each week is a challenge; that’s why it’s called the Pac-12 Conference. Every week brings new match-ups and different systems.
“What makes them (Stanford) a challenge is that they are one of the best teams in the league, one of the best prepared, and one of the most disciplined.
“They are not going to beat themselves.”
(Photo: ASU Athletics)