STANFORD, Calif. — In Todd Graham’s mind, it’s simple.
Stanford has an identity. Arizona State doesn’t.
Don’t misunderstand, the second-year ASU coach said. The Sun Devils are getting there. But Stanford is a model of efficiency. It doesn’t make mistakes. It doesn’t beat itself.
ASU’s task today is to try to beat the Cardinal at its own game. Stanford is No. 5 in the country, winners of 10 in a row dating to last season. The Cardinal has played in three consecutive BCS bowl games. It is the defending Pac-12 champion.
“You look at their conference games from last year, they always have a significant plan,” Graham said. “They have a definite identity. They’re going to line up, and they’re going to run the power, and they’re going to run it right at you. They’re going to pound it, and they’re patient. They have no problem with their defense winning the game.”
For ASU, this is simply the next test. The No. 23 Sun Devils (2-0) are coming off a mistake-filled effort over then-No. 20 Wisconsin, but here’s the thing: They still won, putting them in The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in nearly two years. That gives them confidence heading to Stanford Stadium, a place they haven’t visited since 2009.
It’s been even longer since ASU defeated a top-10 team.
In fact, try nearly 11 years. On Oct. 19, 2002, the Sun Devils defeated No. 6 Oregon 45-42 in Eugene, Ore. Since then, they’re 0-18, a streak that’s run two coaches out of town.
Dirk Koetter and Dennis Erickson failed to lift the program to a higher level. Now it’s Graham’s turn, and he’s not patient.
“I want everything to happen yesterday,” he said. “I can tell you: I think we’re close. There’s no doubt in my mind that this team can compete for a championship, but there’s also no doubt in my mind that there’s not anybody on our schedule that can’t beat us. That’s just the nature of the business.”
Stanford’s philosophy of power rushing and physical defense started under Jim Harbaugh, who coached the Cardinal from 2007 to 2010. Usually, a coaching change brings transition, but once Harbaugh left for the NFL, nothing at Stanford changed. Even with two Heisman Trophy finalists — running back Toby Gerhart and quarterback Andrew Luck — coming and going, the Cardinal still rolled.
“That’s what makes it so impressive,” said T.J. Rushing, a graduate assistant at ASU who played at Stanford from 2002 to 2005. “Everyone has flashes when they have a great player like with a Luck or Gerhart, but the continuity they have and their ability to sustain it, that means they have a great program.”
Stanford went 35-5 the past three years, a stretch that includes the final Harbaugh season and two years under current coach David Shaw. This season, the Cardinal is 2-0, opening with wins over San Jose State and Army.
“It was a definite advantage for us that we had an identity (under Harbaugh), but I think we also have to realize that our identity is going to shift every year subtly,” Shaw said. “The general identity doesn’t really change, but as you can see from our first two games this year, we’re using our receivers a lot more. We’re attempting more down-field passes — more explosive passes — than we have in the past, but that doesn’t take anything away from our basic identity as a power, physical, down-hill rushing team.”
Graham’s goal is to follow the same blueprint, molding the program in a specific way. When people think about ASU, he wants them to say, “Man, those guys play defense.” He thinks it’s the best way to run a successful program.
Shaw sees progress. He said the Sun Devils play as hard as anyone in the Pac-12, “and I don’t know if you’d say that about Arizona State teams in the past.”
ASU’s next step: eliminating mistakes. The Sun Devils got away with several against Wisconsin. They won’t against Stanford.
“Stanford knows who they are, and nothing will deter them from that,” said Charles Davis, a Fox Sports analyst working today’s game. “Arizona State is still working on that just because you have to have that evidence for all the things you want. They got some big evidence last week against Wisconsin. Now they need to keep stockpiling that evidence.”