STANFORD -- Stanford faces its first significant test of the season Saturday when No. 23 Arizona State visits in the teams' first meeting in three years.
Fortunately for the Cardinal, it has a cheat sheet to help prepare for the high-speed Sun Devils.
Because Stanford's old-school style is unlike any other team in the Pac-12, the Cardinal often has difficulty anticipating how opponents will react to its playbook -- game film provides little or no insight.
But this week, the game film is invaluable. Arizona State just played Stanford's twin: Wisconsin.
Like Stanford, the Badgers use a physical running game with heavyweight formations that emphasize fullbacks and tight ends. Both offenses are the antithesis of the spread option attack that dominates college football -- a point hammered home last winter in Stanford's grinding, low-scoring Rose Bowl victory over the Badgers.
By breaking down the film of Arizona State's victory over Wisconsin last week, the fifth-ranked Cardinal can gain invaluable insight into the Sun Devils' plans to counteract various plays and alignments.
"We're watching film, and we never see a tight end or fullback on the field, and we don't know how (opponents) will play us," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "I know (the Sun Devils) will make changes, but at least we have a basis of how they will line up periodically."
Arizona State edged the Badgers 32-30 in a controversial finish -- the Pac-12 officials didn't allow Wisconsin to attempt a winning field goal before time expired -- but the outcome meant far less to Shaw and his staff than the participants' execution.
The Sun Devils struggled in short-yardage situations against Wisconsin's stout defensive line, with drives stalling at the 2-, 3- and 17-yard lines. That doesn't bode well for Arizona State's ability to gain tough yards Saturday against one of the top defenses in the nation.
"It will definitely help," Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy said of the Arizona State-Wisconsin game film. "I feel like we just played Wisconsin. We know how physical ASU is, because we know how physical Wisconsin is."
The Badgers were successful on the ground against Arizona State, with approximately half of their 231 rushing yards coming on perimeter runs. Don't be surprised if Stanford uses tailbacks Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson in similar fashion until the Sun Devils prove they can stop the speed sweeps.
The Sun Devils possess a cheat sheet of their own, with the slugfest against Wisconsin giving them a feel for what they will experience in Stanford Stadium. In theory, they won't suffer the systemic shock that often afflicts Pac-12 teams when encountering Stanford's unique style.
"It also helps (Arizona State) to stay in the same mode for two weeks straight as far as game planning," Shaw said.
But leveling the tactical playing field places more focus on personnel -- on talent. That is to Stanford's advantage.
"We played the Big Ten champs last week, and we play the Pac-12 champs this week," Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said. "They're similar. But Stanford's a lot better."
Staff writer Elliott Almond contributed to this report. For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at 408-920-5716.