TEMPE — Arizona State almost has to play better on special teams in its rematch against Stanford.
Punting has stabilized since Alex Garoutte took over the job, kicker Zane Gonzalez is challenging for the NCAA freshman record for most field goals, and coverage teams are mostly holding their own.
But Stanford historically outplays ASU on special teams and is enough of a threat in that phase for coach Todd Graham to repeatedly insist on the need for improvement in Saturday’s Pac-12 Championship Game over the first meeting Sept.21.
“Special teams is obviously a key factor, as Coach has expressed many times,” Garoutte said Wednesday. “It’s definitely a big focus for us. We’ve been putting more emphasis on it this week.”
That emphasis has been 10 extra minutes per special teams unit per day.
Stanford leads the nation in kickoff returns and is tied for fifth in blocked punts (while not having one of its punts blocked). The Cardinal also is the Pac-12 leader in kickoff-return defense (No. 11 nationally), and Ty Montgomery is No. 2 in the country with a 31.3-yard kickoff-return average.
Conversely, some of ASU’s lower national rankings are on special teams. The Devils are tied for No. 111 in blocked punts allowed and No. 122 in net punting. Both of the blocked punts the Sun Devils allowed were in a 42-28 loss at Stanford, although one those was an attempt by quarterback Taylor Kelly on an offensive play. The other was with freshman Matt Haack punting.
“They did a great job with their guys coming through and attacking our shield,” ASU special teams coach Joe Lorig said. “It wasn’t a scheme thing. Our shield got lazy and didn’t attack, so they blocked the punt for a safety (capping a disastrous 29-0 first half for the Sun Devils). If you look at the totality of the game, our protection was OK. It’s not like it was catastrophic, ‘What’s wrong with our punt protection?’
“We had a freshman punter that wasn’t quite as ready as we hoped he’d be, so we made the decision to go with Alex. He showed us he can roll punt and traditional punt, which makes it hard on people to have a game plan for that.
“You’ve got to be sound in your schemes (or risk being beat on a fake, which ASU pulled off twice at Washington State). It helps to make people be honest with you.”
Garoutte also records touchbacks on 62.9 percent of his kickoffs, a weapon when it comes to limiting Montgomery, who had a 100-yard kickoff return against Utah and a school-record 204 total kickoff-return yards vs. Washington.
“They have the best kick returner in America,” Lorig said. “The biggest concern is making sure you get good hang time on your kicks to let you get down and cover the field. Our kids are excited about that challenge. They know how good he is. Last time he took one to the 50 against us. That was kind of his coming-out party.”
Graham suggested ASU could use more starters on special teams Saturday. De’Marieya Nelson, even with an increased offensive role, still will be counted on as a special-teams force. He forced and recovered a fumble on a kickoff against Arizona last week.
Gonzalez has made 18 consecutive field-goal attempts and 22 overall, three shy of the national freshman record set by UCLA’s Kai Forbath in 2007.
As of Wednesday afternoon, approximately 10,000 tickets were available at 71,706-seat Sun Devil Stadium for the 5:45 p.m. Saturday game to decide who represents the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl.
Tickets can be purchased online at sundeviltickets.com, via phone at 480-965-5333 or at the stadium ticket office.