Arizona State's chances for victory over Stanford were in doubt early in the first quarter when sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood limped off the field.
A loss was almost a certainty when he came out in the second half on crutches.
ASU coachTodd Graham said several times in camp he expected to have an improved defensive line but that became in doubt more recently. He said junior defensive tackle Marcus Hardison needed to step up in the 3-technique spot behind senior defensive tackle Will Sutton, and sophomore tackle Mo Latu needed to lose weight and get in shape to be able to contribute.
The Stanford offensive line showed Saturday the bigger concern right now is Hood's backup.
The Cardinal offense came into the game with the mindset to run the ball up the middle like it does against every team.
When Hood went down and senior defensive tackle Jake Sheffield came in, Stanford immediately ran straight at Sheffield at the 1-technique.
And it worked.
By the end of the first half Stanford racked up 130 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.
Sheffield was not the only one to blame. The Stanford offensive line could run the ball wherever it wanted to because of cohesive team blocking.
For example, when senior running back Anthony Wilkerson scored on a 12-yard touchdown run, ASU senior linebacker Chris Young was completely engulfed by a Stanford blocker on the perimeter. Wilkerson only had to dodge one tackle and he was in the end zone.
Sheffield definitely sticks out because Stanford ran the ball up the middle so much. The Stanford center and guards were able to move Sheffield easily in the direction they wanted and therefore control the A gap.
The tide did not change until the third quarter when sophomore defensive tackle Mo Latu got his chance.
Although he did not make a huge impact on the statistics sheet with only one tackle, he was able to slow down the Stanford running game. The Stanford center and guards could not totally manipulate his 6-foot-3, 380 pound frame.
"[Losing Hood] did set us back quite a bit," Graham said. "I did think Mo [Latu] came in late in the second half and played well. We've got to get him shape."
Latu plugged the A gap and gave the ASU linebackers a chance to shut down the run. The Cardinal was still able to put up 110 rushing yards in the second half but the difference between Sheffield and Latu was night and day.
Graham was right to be so concerned with the depth at defensive line. Hood's injury showed how weak the team is at the 1-technique. After Hardison's poor showing against Wisconsin, the ASU coaches didn't use him at the position, or anywhere on the defensive front.
If junior devil linebacker [db]Carl Bradford gets injured the coaching staff would be looking at options of true freshman Chans Cox or third down speed rusher specialist senior Junior Onyeali.
Graham said Hood tweaked his hamstring and does not know anything more at this time.
For the second straight week key mistakes on special teams greatly cost the Sun Devils. The Sun Devils suffered two block punts that Stanford turned into points.
With only 14 seconds left in the first half freshman punter Matt Haack could not get the ball off in time and a Stanford player pushed ASU's Davon Coleman into the ball. Haack was able to find it and kick it into the back of his own zone causing a safety.
Then with a couple minutes left in the third quarter, quarterback Taylor Kelly's pooch punt was blocked by a Stanford defender running free.
Stanford scored a touchdown the next play on a 16-yard run by senior running back Tyler Gaffney.
Graham said it's hard to win games making special teams errors.
"These special teams issues have been issues for a couple weeks now and we've got to go to work to get those things corrected," Graham said. "The punt game has been an issue."
Besides the punt blocks Graham was not happy with the kickoff coverage. The Stanford kick return averaged 23 yards per return and junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery had a 50-yard return.
Graham was disappointed because the team's kickoff coverage had looked strong leading up to this game.
"We started off the first half, I think they had the ball on the 50, on the 20 [and] on the 40," Graham said. "I mean you just can't play a team like that."
Offense struggles up front
At the start of the game, the momentum was actually on ASU's side. The defensive had stopped the Stanford offense and held it to a missed field goal.
The offense came out and started driving down the field with some consistency.
Then the Stanford defense called a tricky blitz play in which junior linebacker James Vaughters stunted inside.
The stunt threw off sophomore right guard Vi Teofilo and Vaughters got inside leverage, blew by Teofilo and hit Kelly, who tired to throw it away but instead put it right in the hands of Stanford senior Josh Mauro. Kelly said he was trying to avoid the sack by getting rid of the ball but couldn't get enough on the throw.
"We couldn't get much going offensively," Graham said. "Their defense, you've got to give them credit. I don't know how many times they sacked our quarterback, but they hit him almost every play. We did not protect our quarterback."
The Cardinal offense scored on the issuing drive and went on to score 22 unanswered points.
That was the story for the rest of the night. The Stanford defensive line was able to control the line of scrimmage and suffocated the ASU offense's run game. The offense only put up 50 total rushing yards and gave up three sacks.
Strong silver lining
If there is any positives to take away from the game for ASU it would be the individual performance of sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong.
In the beginning of the game, only Strong was consistently making plays. He started off the game catching the first three balls thrown to him.
It was preview of what was to come. Strong finished the game with 12 catches, 168 yards and one touchdown grab. He said he could have done more.
"I had a lot of plays I should have made as well," Strong said. "I could have had probably more yards, and I could have probably helped my team out a lot more than I did. At the end of the day, I'm just thinking about the loss."
Even though Strong's success might be encouraging it is also alarming. Strong was ASU's only true wide receiver with more than one catch. The only other target for Kelly was sophomore running back D.J. Foster who had eight catches for 80 yards.
Drop balls continued to be a plague for the Sun Devils. Sophomore Richard Smith dropped his first pass thrown to him after he had at least three drops last week.
Drops even came from the Sun Devils sure-handed running backs. Foster had one drop and it would have been a first down. Senior Marion Grice dropped a pass which caused the Sun Devils to turn the ball over on downs early in the third quarter.
"We had some drops," Graham said. "We had a critical fourth down drop. That could have been another seven points on that drive and we got the turnover."
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell tried to shake things up towards the end of the game and give Kelly a new weapon.
True freshman wide receiver Cameron Smith got on the field for the first time Saturday late in the fourth quarter. His pure speed and route running ability were on display when he got in front of a Stanford defender on a post route.
The safety was able to catch up and break up the pass but Cameron Smith showed he can beat a Pac-12 defender when given the chance. A couple plays later Cameron Smith caught a 30-yard strike from Kelly.
Junior hybrid linebacker/end Carl Bradford said the entire preseason he wanted to improve defending the run. When the rest of his team struggled to stop the Stanford ground attack Bradford stepped up.
Bradford recorded seven total tackles, six of which were solo tackles. On three of the tackles Bradford pulled down a Stanford runner for no gain.
What Bradford does best is pressure the quarterback and coming into the game he had not sacked an opposing quarterback though he'd had several near misses.
Bradford looked the old Bradford Saturday with one sack, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries.
No quarterback hurry was more influential than the pressure he put on Stanford junior quarterback Kevin Hogan early in the third quarter.
Bradford came around the middle on a devil backer stunt, saw an opening up the middle and exploded up field to get a free shot on Hogan. Hogan quickly released the ball with a charging Bradford in his face and threw it directly to ASU senior cornerback Robert Nelson for an interception.
The Sun Devils were not able to score on the issuing drive but the interception caused by Bradford breathed life into the emotionally drained team.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Salamo Fiso was not in the game long. When he was he made an impact.
Fiso got on the field toward the end of the fourth quarter, had four tackles and one and half tackles for loss.
When Hogan had a 27-yard run off a play-action naked bootleg to seal the victory for the Cardinal, Fiso seemed to be the only ASU defender who read the play correctly.
It was surprising not see Fiso in the game earlier, as starting senior SAM linebacker Steffon Martin had just one tackle on the evening. Fiso showed against Wisconsin he can play with physical, run-based teams and Graham said he considered him like another starter.