Both Arizona State and Stanford went into their bye weeks on low notes, dropping Pac-12 Conference games. But as they return from the break with a Thursday night showdown in Tempe, events of the past weekend open paths for each to contend in their respective divisions.
Oregon's win over Washington gives Stanford a straight shot back to the Pac-12 Championship Game for the fifth time since 2012: Win out, and the Cardinal are in. While they limped into the bye week — figuratively and literally — the return of running back Bryce Love to the lineup bolsters Stanford ahead of the season's second half.
Arizona State had a cup of coffee in the Top 25 with a 2-0 start but went 1-3 after upsetting Michigan State. Despite that, the wide-open nature of the Pac-12 South leaves a potential road to Santa Clara for the Sun Devils, who still face divisional counterparts USC and Utah. The margin for error is virtually nonexistent, however.
Stanford at Arizona State
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 18 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Stanford -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Getting Love back into the mix
When Bryce Love exited the Sept. 29 game at Notre Dame, the Cardinal trailed the Fighting Irish by just a score. Notre Dame rolled off 14 unanswered points as Stanford failed to mount any offense.
Playing without the 2017 All-American and Heisman finalist a week later vs. Utah, the Cardinal rushed for just 42 yards and committed four turnovers in a blowout loss.
Even before the injury, Love's 2018 statistics were well below his lofty 2017 numbers — which included a 301-yard, three-touchdown performance against Arizona State — but the threat of Love breaking off one of his patented big plays opened the passing game for opportunities. Love's effectiveness returning from a long layoff will dictate how defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales approaches the Cardinal.
San Diego State, where Gonzales was an assistant a season ago and which plays the same 3-3-5, held Love in check — but gave up more than 200 yards receiving to Stanford wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside.
2. Arizona State's passing game
The bye week arrived at the ideal time for Arizona State. Quarterback Manny Wilkins and wide receiver N'Keal Harry both sustained injuries in the Oct. 6 loss at Colorado, but according to the Arizona Republic, should both return against Stanford. The duo's effectiveness against the Stanford defense will be a potentially game-changing storyline.
The veteran Wilkins has been solid in 2018, most notably throwing just one interception all season. However, Harry — who entered the season as the most ballyhooed wide receiver in the Pac-12 — has put up modest numbers. He has just one game with 100 or more receiving yards, and that came in Week 1 against UTSA.
Defenses have keyed in on Harry, which offensive coordinator Rob Likens has used to establish Eno Benjamin and the run game. It's been effective: Benjamin ranks sixth in the nation with a shade below 120 rushing yards per game. But the Sun Devils have not been as dangerous with the pass this season as they were a season ago.
3. Explosive plays
As Arizona State learned a season ago, Stanford's offense thrives on long-yardage plays. The change in coaching staff and influx of new talent, like linebacker Merlin Robertson, have helped improve the Sun Devils' defense against explosive plays. They rank No. 18 in the nation in plays of 30 yards or more surrendered, and fifth in 40-yard or more plays allowed.
Stanford has an impressive 35 plays for 20-plus yards, but only six that have gone for 40 or more. Arizona State can withstand surrendering a few of those 20-yarders; it's allowing the Cardinal to hit on those 30-to-40-yarders that can be the difference.
Despite the middling 3-3 record, Arizona State has exceeded expectations in Herm Edwards' first season as head coach. The Sun Devils play with a much more physical style on defense than in recent seasons, which has kept them close even in defeat. All three of Arizona State's losses have come by a touchdown or less.
Don't be surprised if that trend continues Thursday night in Tempe.
Some in the national college football conversation wrote off Stanford after back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Utah, but Love's absence played a key part in both outcomes. His return to the lineup this week promises to rejuvenate the offense, and by extension, the Cardinal defense. What's more, Arizona State's own inconsistency on the offensive end — the Sun Devils have failed to score more than 21 points in all but two games — bodes well for the Stanford defense getting back on track.