Stanford Recap

An advanced stats analysis of ASU's performance against the Cardinal, and a close look at how and why the Sun Devil offense struggled after scoring three touchdowns to start the game.

Fellow Smart Sun Devils,

We are at the mid-way point of the season, and the Sun Devils sit at 5-1, 3-0 in conference, and alone atop the PAC-12 South Division, a half game ahead of the Utah Utes, who they will take on in Salt Lake City this week. In a weekend full of chaos and upsets, ASU avoided all that and took care of business against unranked Stanford on Friday night, which we will discuss below. Once again, I am changing up the routine, and this newsletter will contain only a recap of the Stanford game. Since it was on Friday night, I’ve had more time to work on the recap, and think it’s best to get it out as soon as possible before everyone’s minds have moved on to Utah. As always, if you are not yet a subscriber, please sign up to get each newsletter in your inbox, and if you like what you read, please share with your friends.

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Stanford Recap

ASU beat the Stanford Cardinal 28-10 on Friday night. They jumped out to an early 21-7 lead, scoring easily on their first three possessions. However, the offense struggled the rest of the way, scoring zero points, but the defense held Stanford to a single field goal in the second half, and returned an interception for a touchdown to provide the final margin.

Here are the traditional stats for the game:

Some things of note: ASU out-gained Stanford slightly, held the Cardinal to 13 rushing yards, and won the turnover battle 3-1. ASU out-gained Stanford on a yards/play basis as well, 6.4 to 5.7. ASU’s pass defense, which had been the strength of the unit, gave up 356 passing yards, but intercepted Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee three times, his first three interceptions of the season.

Advanced Stats Recap

While the performance of the ASU pass defense looked suspect in the traditional stats, EPA tells a different story. Stanford had a negative EPAs for both runs and passes, with an overall EPA/play of almost -.2, which is a defensive performance in the 80th percentile. While the Sun Devils did give up some explosive plays, mostly in the form of chunk passes (but none that were catastrophic), they held Stanford to a success rate of 35.4%, a rate at which it is really difficult to sustain drives. The three interceptions thrown by Stanford cost them over 13 expected points. What we see is a continuation of the bend-but-don’t-break trend for the ASU defense. Stanford had 10 trips into ASU territory, but only scored 10 points. When you’re only successful on about one of every three plays, it’s hard to string together enough first downs to maintain drives into field goal range, much less score touchdowns. Stanford’s dismal success rate and performance in ASU territory was caused in large part to the havoc created by ASU’s defense. The Sun Devils had 8 tackles-for-loss, including five sacks, and had five pass break-ups in addition to the three interceptions. Despite giving up a lot of passing yards, these havoc plays put Stanford in and-long situations frequently enough to disrupt their offensive rhythm and prevent them from scoring points.

On offense, ASU’s EPA/play of .09 was decent, but not great (just over a 60th percentile performance), as was their success rate and explosive play rate. However, there was a large divergence between the offense’s efficiency in their first three drives, on which they easily scored touchdowns, and the final eight (seven if we throw out the single-play possession at the end of the first half), which produced zero points.

The offense really could not have started better. They were really efficient, with a success rate well over 70%, and had several explosive plays, both in the pass game and run game. Things really bogged down starting with the fourth possession, in the middle of the second quarter, which ended with a DeaMonte Trayanum fumble after four straight runs. The remainder of their drives ended: punt/end-of-half/punt/turnover-on-downs/missed FG/punt/end-of-game.

After some film study, there were some patterns in play calling that help explain the lack of production after the first three possessions. Early on, ASU was very balanced on run downs (non-passing situations: first-and-10, second-and-medium, third-and-short), with nine called passes and nine called runs (Jayden Daniels ended up scrambling on three of those called passes), and were very productive on these plays, with a success rate of over 77%. From the fourth possession on, however, the run down play calling was significantly less balanced. Even if we eliminate ASU’s final drive, on which they ran out the clock to end the game, they ran on 75% of run downs, with a success rate of 48% - not bad, but not nearly as productive as earlier in the game. Additionally, this lack of balance started immediately with the fourth possession, which began with four straight runs. While running the ball when you have a lead is generally good football, abandoning balance with just a two-touchdown advantage in the middle of the second quarter is overly conservative. While the ASU defense did their part and didn’t allow Stanford within striking distance, taking the foot off the gas this early in a game could cost them against a more explosive team. I would guess that the overly conservative play calling came at the insistence of Herm Edwards, as Zak Hill has shown a tendency to have more aggressive instincts, but I don’t know for sure.

Despite the obvious decline in production after the third possession, the Sun Devils were close to putting additional points on the board on several occasions. They had a long drive in the third quarter that ended on a failed fourth-and-one conversion attempt at the Stanford 11 yard line, missed a field goal in the fourth quarter on a drive that got inside Stanford’s 20 yard line, and, also in the fourth quarter, had Gordon Porter wide open on a deep pass that would have been a touchdown if not for Jayden Daniels severely under-throwing it, and Porter not reacting well to the short throw (see below).

Questions of the Week

What do you think of ASU’s offensive struggles after the hot start against Stanford? How confident are you feeling about the game at Utah this weekend, and do you think there is a budding rivalry between the Sun Devils and the Utes?

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