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It was 1847 when Brigham Young - the man - first encountered Utah's Great Salt Lake, initiating a large Mormon migration westward to settle the unknown territory. The tables are turned this Saturday in 2003, however, as the Stanford Cardinal (1-0) leave their plush western home to take a few steps Eastward into unknown area - the Cardinal and the Brigham Young University Cougars have never faced each other on the football field
As the Cardinal prepare to tangle with the 2-1 BYU Cougars in an early-season non-conference matchup, everyone in Palo Alto knows that Stanford's performance this weekend against an injury-depleted but still dangerous BYU team will go a long way toward determining the success of Stanford's program this season. Not only will a victory in Provo give Stanford invaluable momentum heading into a tough Pac-10 opening road sequence against Washington and the University of Southern California, but it will also allow the Cardinal to see how well they stack up against a team with a long-cultivated and well-deserved national reputation.
Story of the Game - Injuries
It is impossible to discuss BYU's chances against Stanford this week without mentioning the plethora of injuries, which the Cougars sustained over the past two weeks. Probably most damaging to their aspirations to knock off the Cardinal this weekend was the loss of sophomore quarterback Matt Berry, who broke the little finger on his throwing hand in BYU's contest against New Mexico on September 13th. Prior to the injury, Berry was in the midst of what looked like a promising offensive year, having passed for 675 yards and five touchdowns in his first three games. Freshman John Beck, who will start in Berry's place on Saturday, is not exactly in top condition either. He was roughed up by the Trojans in the season's second week, sustaining a concussion which kept him out of action against New Mexico. The banged-up backup has only attempted six passes on the year, completing one of them for 12 yards.
The hospital roll call continues for BYU's offense with Marcus Whalen, who at the start of fall camp was listed as BYU's starting tailback. Whalen, a junior who during his sophomore season led the Cougars with 918 rushing yards on 181 carries, is slated to play on Saturday despite not having seen game action since he suffered an injury to his foot against Georgia Tech in the opening contest of BYU's 2003 campaign. Expect Whalen to share many of his carries with Junior Reynaldo Brathwaite, who last week torched New Mexico for 169 yards on only 19 carries.
BYU's limping tailback corps will not have to pick up too much of the slack left by fullback Fui Vakapuna's knee injury, though because Vakapuna will be replaced by Sophomore Naufahu Tahi. Vakapuna, who went down against the Lobos last weekend, will not play on Saturday, giving way to Tahi, who boasts seven receptions and 13 rushes on the season.
The 234-pound Tahi, who was one of the top five Utah recruits as a running back out of high school, will nonetheless be asked to do a lot of blocking for BYU's tailback duo, because it might be a bit more difficult for either of the Cougars' runners to find holes in the offensive line after center Scott Jackson's knee injury. Jackson, a veteran who started all 12 games as a junior and who provides 300 pounds of leadership for BYU's offensive protection unit, is listed by Coach Gary Crowton as probable for Saturday's game. It will be tough for the Cougars to justify keeping their All-Mountain West Conference Honorable Mention recipient on the bench in favor of Hanale Vincent, despite Vincent's good showing last week against the Lobos.
On the other side of the ball, BYU's defensive corps largely escaped the injury bug which plagued their offensive counterparts, with the exception of senior defensive back Brandon Heaney. Heaney, the speedy senior corner, will miss the remainder of his senior season with a shoulder injury suffered against Georgia Tech. The Cougars will definitely miss his presence in the secondary against Stanford's more open offensive scheme.
The BYU offense is a potent one. It is a squad that will test the Stanford defense, despite the fact that the Cougars will be so shorthanded offensively on Saturday. One big factor working in the Cougars' favor goes by the name of Daniel Coats. This freshman tight end has been a huge surprise for BYU so far in 2003, averaging a whopping 6.7 receptions per game and garnering the MWC Offensive Player of the Week on September 1 after catching six balls for 99 yards against Georgia Tech. This young man very well might be a player to watch with interest - his first ever collegiate reception was a fingertip grab for a touchdown with BYU facing a fourth-and-three situation. He has already set two BYU records: his three touchdown receptions gives him the record for most touchdown passes in a season for a freshman tight end, and his amazing 207 receiving yards in the first two games of the season shattered the previous record of total freshman receiving yards for an entire season. It remains to be seen whether or not Coats will prove as inviting a target for John Beck as he was for Matt Berry.
Reynaldo Brathwaite is another Cougar playing at the top of his game. Seeing a lot of action in place of the injured Marcus Whalen, the diminutive running back who weighs in at 170 pounds and measures only 5'10", broke off a huge game against New Mexico. Not only did Brathwaite scurry for 169 yards at the Lobos' expense, but he also demonstrated some innovative abilities while running, switching directions to race for 89 yards on one particular play against New Mexico. It will be essential for Stanford's defensive line and linebackers to get to both Whalen and Brathwaite early, before their creativity and speed manufacture huge gains.
The BYU defense is strange, unorthodox, and stingy. Employing a 3-3-5 lineup, one of the main strengths of the Cougars' defense is that it is difficult for opposing linemen and quarterbacks to anticipate blitzes. Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards will have a hefty task ahead of him to sniff out linebackers and safeties, who come charging through looking to sack or hurry him. This BYU defense presents a good and healthy opportunity for Stanford's young, but promising, field general to demonstrate his creativity in the pocket as well as his ability to effectively read defenses.
However, even if Edwards and his offensive line do a good job of predicting and reacting to BYU's unique formations and blitzes, that might not be enough to conquer the BYU ball-hawkers. Indeed, early on the Cougars seem to be the quintessential bend-but-not-break unit. Despite surrendering 235 yards in the air to U$C on September 6, the Cougars held their formidable opponents scoreless for both the second and third quarters of the game. Had the BYU offense not turned the ball over twice inside the 20-yard line - leading to two Trojan touchdowns in the first quarter - the Cougars might have had the biggest upset of the season thus far. Against New Mexico, the Cougar defense surrendered 312 yards of total offense but the Lobos were only able to scrounge up seven points against a defense that seems to know when to bear down.
In seven of 12 quarters played this year, the BYU defense has not surrendered a single point... The Cougars are only 42-48-1 (.467) when playing a team for the very first time... Perhaps BYU's most astounding record is its NCAA-best 353 games it has played in a row without being shut out... None of the Cougars' current roster was alive the last time BYU failed to score a point, which occurred against Arizona State in 1975... This will be the second time this season that the Cougars face off against a team they have never before seen - BYU's loss to USC on September 6 was the first time those two teams had met... Stanford fifth-year senior offensive tackle Kirk Chambers hails from Provo and was a lifelong fan of the "Y" until his official visit to The Farm dramatically changed his college plans.
Although most are predicting a Stanford loss this Saturday, there are several factors working in Stanford's favor. First of all, while John Beck has demonstrated himself to be an effective pocket passer, if Stanford's pass rush can make him hurry, he is not a proven scrambler, with only six carries and 14 yards to his credit. As a freshman, Beck is vulnerable to getting rattled if his bell is rung a couple of times early on in the game.
Fortunately for Stanford, rattled does not seem to be a description that fits Trent Edwards. The freshman redshirt showed remarkable poise and quarterbacking smarts against San Jose State, and he looks to be on his way to earning the trust of the rest of the Stanford Football squad. A solid performance in Provo will not only solidify him in the starter's role, but will go a long way toward helping Edwards assume the leadership mantle of a Stanford squad yearning for direction and guidance.
Don't underestimate the talent and determination on this Stanford team to erase the memories of last year. Remember that last year the Cardinal thrashed San Jose State even worse than they did in 2003 - by a 63-26 margin - and still ended up 2-9. The guess here is still that Stanford continues the steadiness on both sides of the ball that prevailed after the first quarter against the Spartans – we smoke these guys, 20-14!
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