Stanford Preview

It is often said that the true measure of a sports team is not so much how it performs in present competition, but how it reacts to past performances. Saturday's Pacific-10 conference football matchup between the Arizona State Sun Devils (4-5, 1-4) and the Stanford Cardinal (3-4, 1-4) at Stanford Stadium thus will provide fans of both teams the opportunity to see how much their respective teams have matured so far throughout this 2003 campaign.

The Stanford Cardinal, coming off a somewhat surprising but doubtless refreshing 21-14 victory over UCLA last week, have a prime chance to translate their home victory over the Bruins into something a little more substantial with a win against the Sun Devils from Tempe, AZ. Can the young Card gain just the right amount of confidence from Saturday's victory, so that they do not begin to think they are invincible at home, while still maintaining that swagger which led to eight sacks and three turnovers? This much is certain: the Cardinal are riding high, with sophomore linebacker Michael Craven and senior wide receiver Luke Powell earning Pac-10 Players of the Week honors on defense and special teams, respectively. Whether or not Stanford can fend off the attack of an angry Arizona State squad is a question only Saturday can answer, however.

The Sun Devils, for their part, also are faced with a dual choice. They can either invade Stanford Stadium with renewed fury and energy following the 51-23 shellacking they sustained at home against the California Golden Bears, or they can show up flat and deflated, still recovering from their defeat. One of the questions of the day then is: even if the hungry and motivated Sun Devils squad comes to Stanford on Saturday, will that be enough for the yellow and red to overcome a solid and balanced Stanford attack such as the one the Cardinal displayed against UCLA? Indeed, as questions about star quarterback Andrew Walter's health continue to breed uncertainty in Tempe, we at The Bootleg have comprised a little list of our own of pressing questions regarding this week's hosts, the Stanford Cardinal:

Is Stanford going to bring the pass rush heat as much as they did last week?

While it may not show up in the statistics column as glaringly as the Card's eight sacks last week, anyone who claims that Stanford will not attempt to exploit Walter's right ankle sprain probably also said that Bill Clinton was a remarkably faithful and celibate husband. All eyes will be on the Arizona State offensive line as they will have to ramp up protection of their injured and more immobile quarterback against a pass rush that understandably has a ton of confidence heading into Saturday's showdown. Led by the hugely athletic and talented Craven, who notched two sacks against UCLA, Stanford's pass rush will also depend largely on whether or not Babatunde Oshinowo, Jon Alston, and Jared Newberry can continue the torrid sacking pace they have set for themselves so far in 2003.

Besides boasting the best name on the Stanford roster, "Baba" Oshinowo leads the team with four quarterback takedowns, followed closely by Alston and Newberry with three apiece. These three heavy hitters form quite a trifecta of defensive skill, and their combined strengths are a big reason why Stanford's run defense currently ranks fourth in the Pac-10 and 17th in the country. Oshinowo is a 310-pound nose tackle with a sixth sense for the football, Alston contributes excellent speed and athleticism, and Newberry is an outside linebacker with intense desire to achieve and contribute during games. When combined with the raw power and quickness which Craven brings to the table, it is apparent that Stanford has assembled quite a lineup of tacklers and penetrators who force opposing quarterbacks to take to the air, that is if said quarterbacks have the time to drop back and survey their options before getting dropped to the turf. Look for Stanford to exploit its quarterback-pressuring capabilities on Saturday, all the more so since Arizona State's star field general is rolling with a bum leg.

Does this Cardinal team have the experience to string more than one conference win together?

Ah, here it is, the old knock against the 2003 Cardinal: the youth issue. Stanford is quite possibly the youngest team in the nation - of its 94 roster players, a good half of them are either true or redshirt freshmen. No other high-profile program in the country is so backloaded with youngsters, and at times this lack of experience has shown. On the whole, however, Stanford has dealt remarkably well with its plethora of young athletes, intermixing them with more seasoned veterans (of which there are few - only 28 of Stanford's players are upperclassmen). On offense, Powell and Kirk Chambers are two seniors who have tasted success and who know what it takes to be victorious in the Pac-10. Powell is both Chris Lewis's and Trent Edwards's favorite target, and his glue-like hands are the main reason why. With the season-ending injury to sophomore center Brian Head, Chambers remains the only letter-winning starter on an offensive line that was shaky during the start of the season. They however played a fairly solid game against UCLA despite two freshmen among its regular starters (RG Jeff Edwards and LG Ismail Simpson).

On defense, young blood does not have as much of a presence in the starting lineup, with strong safety Trevor Hooper being the one freshman (redshirt) to have solidified himself in a starting spot. However, the Mountain View, CA native has yet to demonstrate any hugely negative effects of being such an inexperienced starter: Hooper has distinguished himself so far in 2003 with 26 solo tackles, 12 assisted tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. Hooper has benefited from being surrounded by mostly upperclassmen in the starting defensive unit - all of Stanford's defensive starters are juniors with the exception of Oshinowo, a sophomore, and Hobson, a senior. Stanford's defense also hasn't suffered much from 2002 graduation losses, as Craven and Oshinowo have upped their level of play in response to the loss of Matt Leonard and Trey Freeman.

So, to answer the question which started all this: Yes, but experience still does not extend far down the depth chart.

Will Stanford's offense ever wake up?

It better if Stanford wants to be competitive in its remaining Pac-10 schedule. While last week's win over UCLA was encouraging, the fact remains that Stanford's offense was decidedly less-than-dazzling. Take away Luke Powell's punt return for a touchdown and UCLA's other special teams gaffe when it fumbled a punt on its own eight-yard line, and Stanford's offense really only earned seven points against the Bruins. Chris Lewis, despite providing solid leadership on the field and playing within himself, only had 91 yards to show for his 20 pass attempts. The Cardinal's tailbacks did a bit better, amassing 115 yards on 41 carries, but still showed some hesitancy hitting holes opened by the offensive line.

The really encouraging trend for the Cardinal, which Arizona State would do well to reverse on Saturday, was the protection that the much-maligned offensive line afforded to Lewis. The senior QB was only sacked once and was never hurried by the UCLA defense. If Lewis settles down in the pocket and begins completing the easy passes (he inexplicably sprayed a few simple screen passes on Saturday) then the Stanford offense will start to hum a little bit. If you're a Sun Devil, watch out when that happens.

Have the Cardinal finally forgotten about last year's torturous season?

Depends on how you look at the issue. This year's Cardinal squad is, according to Coach Buddy Teevens, a confident bunch which expected to win against UCLA and took their Oregon demolition as an affront and an aberration rather than as an indication that they are outclassed in the Pac-10. So in one respect, yes, Stanford has left 2002 behind it. In other ways, however, this year's Stanford team carries with it a whole heap of motivation that stems from last year's troubles. Having lost significant starters on both sides of the ball - Leonard, Freeman, and Colin Branch on defense; Kerry Carter, Teyo Johnson, Kwame Harris, and Casey Moore on offense - this year's younger and more eager Stanford squad can recall the sting of many of last year's ignominious defeats. At the same time they remain confident that they have the skills and the mental approach necessary to play high-quality Pac-10 football.

Indeed, there is a bit of a sense on this year's Cardinal squad that some of the older guys did not buy into Coach Teevens's system completely last year, leading to more than a few of the inconsistencies on the field. With all 94 Stanford boys this year playing at full tilt, even the loss of such Cardinal producers as Carter, Johnson, and Moore has not retarded Stanford's development to any significant degree. Tailbacks Kenneth Tolon II and J.R. Lemon split the running duties (hearkening back to the glory days when Brian Allen and Carter shared the ball) and thus give Stanford's ground attack a deeper dimension. And it is not possible to forget Gerald Commissiong, the promising young freshman back from Montreal who is worthwhile for so much more than the fact that whenever he touches the ball he gives Stanford fans the excuse to scream "The Commish!" in celebration of his runs.

The receiving corps, while admittedly diminutive following the early exit of the 6'5" Johnson, is now a more cohesive unit which boasts a number of different attacking weapons. Luke Powell is the reliable and senior pass-catcher who is always a danger to wiggle and slide his way to a huge gain, while Greg Camarillo (9 catches for 94 yards) and Alex Smith (14 grabs for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns) provide shorter-range options for Lewis and Edwards. The emergence of true freshman Mark Bradford has been a wonderful surprise for Teevens and the Card as well - Bradford already has two spectacular one-handed catches to his name this season and will no doubt blossom into a spectacular receiving threat once he improves his consistency.

What will Saturday's game look like from the Stanford sideline?

Expect a whole lot of pass rush from a Stanford defense high on life after its stellar showing against the Bruins last week. Also, don't be surprised if Michael Craven comes up with a huge game stopping the run - it's crunch time for the sophomore from La Quinta, CA to show NFL scouts what he can do. And if Baba continues his winning ways, Andrew Walter's ankle might not be the only part of the Arizona State offense that is hurting.

On the other side of the ball, expect to see Chris Lewis try to establish his passing game early (to the ASU defense and to himself) with some short stuff up the sidelines. Tolon and Lemon will get their carries, and they are integral to any aspirations Stanford might have of putting together solid drives down the field. Stanford's offensive output on Saturday really depends on Chris Lewis. Number 10 has shown that he is occasionally susceptible to cases of game-day nerves when he knows he is the starter, but they didn't manifest themselves too terribly last week and Lewis played solidly.

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