ASU Preview – Still Seeking First Pac-10 Win

Pre season accolades carry a lot of positives with them. Increased ticket sales, media tripping over themselves to provide extensive coverage, and fans basking in the glory of it all and making New Year's plans for New Orleans or Pasadena. Nevertheless, when a team fails to live up to those expectations, such as the Sun Devils, the thud of the fall is unbearably loud. DevilsDigest.com analyzes Oregon's upcoming opponent.

Earlier in the year, quarterback Andrew Walter was on the Heisman watch of many College Football pundits. Suffice to say that his team's 2-3 (0-2 Pac-10) record has squelched any dreams of a mid-December visit to the New York Athletic Club. Thus far in 2003, Walter has completed 51.9% of his passes for 1197 for nine touchdowns, and six interceptions. Those statistics are definitely mediocre in Walter's terms, but nevertheless the USC game last week marked his best outing. The Sun Devil signal caller was 19-38 for 305 yards, throwing for score, as well as one pick.

In his defense, much of his struggles were tied into to the many woes in the wide receiver unit. Walter's main target, senior Skyler Fulton, has been the most consistent of the group, and leads the team with 23 catches for 338 yards and four scores. Sophomore Derek Hagan had a career game against USC with 170 yards and eight catches. Thus, he will have the proverbial magnifying glass on him to see if he's able to be a consistent threat in the Devils' passing game. Redshirt freshman Terry Richardson is another wideout who has come on strong as of late, and he figures to be inserted in the game early and often.

ASU's running game has been sore subject for all of the 2002 season, as well as most of this year. However, the emergence of sophomore Hakim Hill in the last couple of games has finally put a smile on coaches and fans alike. Hill has rushed this year for 263 yards and is averaging a solid four yards a carry. The sophomore who's also an excellent receiver from the backfield is arguably the biggest playmaker currently on the team. Oddly enough, he is still seeking his first touchdown in the 2003 campaign. Redshirt freshman Loren Wade is the first off the bench to relief Hill, and he is an accomplished ball carrier in his own right. Fullback Mike Karney is one of the best in his position, and has a significant part in opening the running lanes for ASU's ground attack.

The tight end position hasn't been used extensively, to say the least, in the passing game. However, one shouldn't be surprised if this trend reverses itself in the near future. Sophomore starter Lee Burghgraef blocking skills are far superior to his catching ones. JC transfer Aaron Austin and redshirt freshman Jamaal Lewis figure to be the big targets down filed that Walter may seek. The strength of the Devils' offensive line is in its interior with senior right guard Regis Crawford and fellow classman left guard Tim Fa'aita, as well as junior center Drew Hodgdon. ASU's tackles, sophomore Grayling Love on the right and redshirt freshman Andrew Cranahan are not as seasoned but have played admirably this year.

There seem to be many differing views concerning the Sun Devil defense and their performance this season. Some will say that this group hasn't been a difference maker and continues to give up more plays than it creates. On the other hand, some will contend that this core of players has created golden opportunities, especially early in the game, for the offense to capitalize on. Thus, the inability to cash in on the turnovers created and the superior filed position, has wore down the defense both physically and mentally as the game goes on.

The Sun Devils' defensive line has done a fine job amassing sacks, and has ten quarterback drops in five games. The defensive ends, junior Jimmy Verdon and JC transfer Ishmael Thrower have done a good job rushing from the edge. Stopping the run has been an area begging for improvement, and surrendering 124 yards a game, as ASU does, is damming evidence to that deficiency. The duo of senor defensive tackles Brain Montesanto and Shane Jones may be breathing a little easier this week in practice, after facing the power run attacks of Iowa, Oregon State, and USC the last three weeks.

Only two linebackers are employed in ASU's 4-2-5 scheme, and despite their lack of numerous Pac-10 games under their belt, they have been performing at a high level. JC transfer Justin Burks is fourth on the team in tackles, and along with sophomore Jamar Williams possess lighting speed at the position, which helps them reach opponents' backfields quite often. Reserve redshirt freshman Jordan Hill is more of a run stopping linebacker, and will be the first one off the bench.

The strength of the Sun Devil defense clearly lies in its trio of safeties. Junior Riccardo Stewart leads the team tackles with 47, while fellow classman Jason Shivers is second with 40. Senior Brett Hudson is the most versatile player on defense, and is fifth on the team's tackle rankings. All three have been hobbled with various injuries, but now appear to be past their aliments and ready to prove the lofty accolades bestowed on them. Reserve Matt Fawley will see extensive time, as he's enjoying a very fine season.

Playing cornerback in the high passing Pac-10 is a thankless job. Nevertheless, there hasn't been much to cheer about among the Sun Devils when it comes to this position. Standout cornerback junior R.J. Oliver has been banged up for a few games now, and his absence has been sorely felt in the defensive backfield. He should be ready to go this week, and against a highly acclaimed Ducks' receiver group, it will be a welcomed sight. Starting opposite Oliver has been an ongoing battle between sophomore Josh Golden and junior Emmanuel Franklin, with the later having the upper hand as of late. JC transfer Chris McKenzie is blazing speed cornerback that is more than likely to play many snaps in an attempt to slow down Oregon's dangerous passing game.

Senior punter Tim Parker is one of the leaders in his position in the Pac-10, averaging over 44 yards a punt. True freshman Jesse Ainsworth has been outstanding on his kickoffs, and hasn't attempted enough field goals to really give an indication if he mastered that craft as well. Lightfoot and Golden are very astute at returning both kicks and punts. The glaring Achilles heel of this group is their coverage teams.

Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium will be a meeting of desperate teams. A wounded team can be a dangerous one, both to its opponent and to itself. The desire to halt a losing streak can cause one not only to elevate their game, but also to botch simple assignments because of excess adrenalin. ASU knows that a loss this week could very well kill any aspirations for a bowl game. Any bowl game. A win can give a glimmer of hope that this squad can still reverse its fortunes. The outcome of the Oregon game can signal a much-desired turnaround or further sinking to an abyss of disappointment.

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