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Arizona Republic: ASU can’t recover from early deficit in loss to Stanford

Arizona Wildcats fans didn’t have a UA football game to watch this weekend, but I hear that the next-best thing might be seeing Arizona State lose. Here’s a story from the Arizona Republic, our Gannett partner, about the Sun Devils’ trip to Stanford …

Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney scores a touchdown during the first quarter. Photo by Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney scores a touchdown during the first quarter. Photo by Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

By Doug Haller

STANFORD, Calif. — On a night they had hoped to use as a coming-out party of sorts, the Arizona State Sun Devils had just one uplifting message as they boarded the team bus: Despite the lob-sided score, they never stopped battling.

In fairness, that is true. No. 23 ASU scored three times in the fourth quarter to make an embarrassing effort look not so embarrassing. But the final push hides the uncomfortable truth, which is the Sun Devils aren’t yet ready to play on a stage so big against an opponent so strong.

Saturday’s 42-28 loss to No. 5 Stanford was sobering for a program that thought it was ready for prime time. There’s certainly no shame in losing here to Stanford — especially in the season’s first month — but the way it all unfolded suggests the gap between these two schools is wide, something that might require multiple seasons to close.

“The ball got rolling against us, and it kind of snowballed,” ASU coach Todd Graham said.

In front of 50,424 at Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal improved to 3-0 and 1-0 in the Pac-12, while the Sun Devils dropped to 2-1 and 0-1. Next week, USC invades Sun Devil Stadium. By then, ASU hopes to have answers. Against Stanford on Saturday, the Sun Devils were overwhelmed in all three phases.

Offensively, ASU has established the run just once this season, and it came in the team scrimmage at Camp Tontozona. Against Stanford — known for its rush defense — the Sun Devils averaged just 2.1 rushing yards per carry. For the season, they’re averaging 2.9.

Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly completed 30 of 55 for 367 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, but much of that production came with the outcome decided. On ASU’s first series, Kelly tried to throw the ball away under pressure, but instead the football flew right into the arms of Stanford defensive end Josh Mauro, who returned it 25 yards to set up a quick touchdown.

Kelly was under pressure most of the night — he was sacked three times — and never found much of a rhythm. The one thing he did well was find sophomore Jaelen Strong, who caught 12 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown. ASU’s first-half possessions: interception, punt, missed field goal, punt, punt, punt, safety. By that time, Stanford led 29-0, and the game was over.

“We couldn’t get anything going in the first half,” Kelly said. “Penalties, dropped balls, misreads, my turnovers. We just got to bounce back.”

Defensively, ASU has had the misfortune of facing two of the nation’s top power-rushing programs. This has helped off-set what the Sun Devils do best, which is attack the quarterback. When junior Carl Bradford sacked Stanford’s Kevin Hogan midway through the third quarter, it was not only his first sack of the season, it was the first for ASU’s starting front seven. Last season, ASU averaged four sacks per game, which ranked second nationally.

“Second year, teams know what we’re capable of and they’re going to obviously game plan for that,” senior linebacker Chris Young said.

Complicating matters: ASU lost sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood in the first half with an apparent leg injury. A week into preseason camp, Graham thought he might have more depth on the defensive line, but it hasn’t developed as expected, and it showed against the Cardinal. Stanford — showing more offensively than it did in opening wins over San Jose State and Army — had rushing plays of 16, 18, 27 and 32 yards. The Cardinal averaged nearly 5 yards per carry, finishing with 257 yards on the ground.

“They’re big boys,” said Young, who posted a game-high 10 tackles. “They lived up to the Stanford hype. They’re big and physical.”

Last but not least, ASU’s special teams are a mess. Consider this: The punt team has given up nine points this season — and not one has come on a punt return. That’s hard to do. On Sept. 14, Wisconsin recovered a bad snap for a touchdown. Saturday, Stanford blocked a punt that freshman Matt Haack chased after and kicked out of the end zone for a safety. Later, Stanford blocked a pooch punt from Kelly.

“You have a hard time winning any games doing that,” Graham said.

ASU, as it has done in the past against good teams, made a late push, but anyone watching Saturday’s game walked away with the same conclusion:

The Sun Devils have a lot of work to do.

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