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When Trent Edwards scampered those final 14 yards into BYU's end zone last Saturday, he did much more than preserve Stanford perfect 2003 record. He also earned the trust of a growing number of re-emerging Stanford Football fans, including many of the newly-minted Class of 2007. Indeed, Edwards's dramatic timing in relation to the new freshmen on campus might have been the most glorious part of his creative and somewhat hotdog-ish (we all saw the "Number 1" sign flashed by Number 5 before he actually set foot in the Land of Quick Six) game-winning run. With roughly 1,000 or so frosh watching anxiously on the Jumbotron at Stanford Stadium as a part of Cardinal Fan 101 festivities, Edwards and Stanford re-affirmed for a slew of skeptical first-years that Stanford Football is an enterprise worth supporting.
Stanford's hard-fought victory in Provo also ensured that the Cardinal stayed solidly on the track toward rebuilding the ruined fan faith which last year's tough 2-9 campaign left in its wake. Last Saturday was an essential win not only for Head Coach Buddy Teevens and his players, but for the Stanford Football program in general. The Card dispatched a quality opponent on their home territory, and they did it with a solid defense which has nullified opponents' running games, as well as with an offensive attack that, if still needing improvement, at least showed the ability to create scores when they were needed.
Against the 18th-ranked Washington Huskies in the Pacific-10 opener this Saturday, however, Stanford will need to have all facets of its game operating at a higher and more efficient level than has yet been achieved in this still-young 2003 season. Coach Teevens and the boys take on a Washington team that is very mature for having played but three games so far this year - a season opener against defending national champs Ohio State saw to that accelerated maturation process - even if the Huskies then got to feast themselves on powderpuffs Indiana and Idaho during the next two weeks.
Story of the Game - Pickett leads the charge against that Cardinal D
Definitely the most intriguing part of Saturday's upcoming contest is that which pits Heisman-hopeful Cody Pickett and his sure-handed counterpart Reggie Williams against a hungry Stanford defensive unit. Expect first-year coach Keith Gilbertson to let his steer-roping quarterback air it out early and often. Not only will this allow Washington's field general to pad his Husky-best 7,652 career passing yards, but it will also conveniently keep Washington from tangling too much with Stanford's restrictive run defense.
Any and all self-respecting Cardinal fans have to know that Stanford possesses the best run defense in the nation, but since it's so nice to hear that as much as possible, here it is one more time: Washington will avoid Stanford's rush D because that unit is the best in the country at stopping the run. Having allowed an infinitesimal four rushing yards in two whole games so far, Stanford's running defense has earned national recognition, and will see the effects of its newfound fame on Saturday when Mr. Pickett drops back to pass about 40 or so times.
For that reason, the main matchup this Saturday is between Stanford's passing defense and Pickett's seemingly golden arm. The six-foot, four-inch, 225-pound senior from Caldwell, Idaho is far and away Washington's main offensive threat, and for this reason Saturday's outcome might very well rest on whether or not Stanford can generate enough pressure on Pickett to force him to make rushed decisions and throw into tight coverage.
When given time to survey the field, Pickett is an assassin with the arm. 2002 not only saw him set a plethora of Washington offensive records, but last year's campaign was also a national coming-out party for the ballslinger from Idaho. His 4,458 passing yards in 2002 garnered Pickett the record for most passing yards in a season and also made him the Pac-10's first 4,000-yard passer ever.
This year, Pickett is looking to add to his résumé even further, and is no doubt anxious to prove that he belongs in the upper echelon of the Pac-10's historic quarterback club following his rocky first outing of 2003 against the Buckeyes from Ohio State. In that game, while the Huskies quarterback racked up 255 yards of passing offense, his unit did not put the ball in the end zone until Pickett himself scrambled into the Promised Land with 3:27 remaining in the game.
The Buckeyes set a perfect example for Stanford to emulate this Saturday, hurrying and harassing Pickett into throwing 23 incomplete passes while sacking him three times and holding the Huskies' running backs to seven total yards on the ground. So while the run defense will be there on Saturday for Stanford, much of Stanford's team success will depend on whether or not the Cardinal are able to mount a sufficiently vigorous pass rush to force Pickett into throwing some incompletions (and interceptions).
That puts a lot of responsibility on Amon Gordon and company on the front end of the defense to get to Washington's quarterback and force him to make mistakes. For a unit like Stanford's front four, which boasts six sacks already through only two games, that is not an impossible task. It is a crucial one, however, for Stanford's Saturday chances. Giving a player like Cody Pickett ample time in the pocket to read coverages and deliver the ball will doom Stanford to a long day of chasing after Reggie Williams and his cohorts while trying to limit yards after catch to at least a respectable number.
Contrary to appearance, Washington does in fact boast a running attack, and a significant one at that with which Stanford must concern itself this weekend. Rich Alexis, the 220-pound senior tailback from Coral Springs, Florida, handles the majority of the running duties for the Huskies. Over the last four years Alexis has managed to score more touchdowns than all but four former Huskies. He found the end zone twice last weekend against Idaho, in fact, bringing his career rushing touchdown total to 26. With 2,019 yards to his credit during his tenure in Seattle (good enough for 10th on the all-time Husky list), Alexis is a threatening runner. Stanford must neutralize Alexis early on or else face the frightening prospect of an armed-and-ready Cody Pickett augmented by a solid and reliable running game willing and able to grind out yardage on the ground.
Of course, Stanford's defensive responsibilities do not end once the Cardinal D has convinced Gilbertson and Pickett that it is folly to pound the ball on the ground (if they haven't already done so before the game even starts). Washington possesses one of the most potent offensive attacks in the nation primarily because of the skill with which Cody Pickett throws the ball and the dangerous explosiveness of those Huskies who catch Pickett's passes.
The litany of offensive accomplishments for the Heisman hopeful extends far beyond his previously-mentioned mark of 4,458 passing yards in a single season which he racked up in 2002. Pickett threw a touchdown pass in all but one game last year, and his red-hot arm has continued to sizzle in 2003. Pickett is averaging 20.7 completions per game for his career through Washington's first three games, a statistic which, if it holds, will make him the all-time Husky leader in that category. Pickett also owns Washington records for career passing yards, completions, attempts, 300-yard games, single-season touchdown passes, single-game passing yards, and passing yards per game. And as if sprinkling his name all throughout the Husky record books weren't enough, Pickett also rides in rodeos. How do you top that?
Besides rodeo-riding, Pickett owes a lot of his statistical success to the outstanding corps of receivers to whom he has the pleasure of slinging the ball each Saturday. His main man is of course explosive junior Reggie Williams, who is the other half of probably the most fearsome offensive duo in the country. Last year, Williams hauled in 94 balls, good for the third-highest total ever in the Pac-10. Williams also set a school record in 2002 with 1,454 receiving yards, and is averaging a whopping 100.1 yards per game over his illustrious career. So far in 2003, Williams has only continued to produce gaudy numbers - his 92.3 yards per game and 15.4 yards per catch are two numbers in particular which should worry the Stanford defense, mostly because they demonstrate that the junior from Lakewood, Washington is anything but a screen-pass or short ball receiver - every time Williams touches the ball, big things seem to happen for the Huskies. Stanford's defensive backs will no doubt be gunning for Williams, and with good reason. He is just the type of big-play player which tortured the Cardinal all last year (especially on third-and-long), so Stanford will want to keep him away from the ball as often as possible by throwing double-coverages and other wrinkles at Williams, who has now caught a pass in 28 straight games.
Such a strategy will not be without its risks, however. In fact, one of the reasons why Reggie Williams is such a good wideout is that he creates opportunities for his Husky cohorts just by stepping up to the line of scrimmage and demanding opposing defense's attentions. In only three games so far this year, for example, 17 different Husky receivers have held on to a Cody Pickett pass. Such a statistic is indicative not only of Coach Keith Gilbertson's open and aggressive play-calling style, but also of Pickett's considerable abilities to look to his third and fourth receiving options on each down.
If there is one bright spot for the Stanford Cardinal defense when it comes to this passing generosity, it has to be that of the 17 receivers who have caught at least one pass this year, eleven of them were making their first collegiate reception. The receiving corps alone counts seven true freshmen among its members, making it Washington's youngest (but therefore its most promising) group. Welcoming these youngsters to the Pac-10 with a few bone-rattling hits would go a long way toward setting the tone in a positive way for the Stanford defense, and would also help to throw this greenhorn batch of wideouts into a bit of an early tailspin. The Cardinal secondary will have to hit hard and clean if it doesn't want to be picked apart on Saturday.
Amidst all the offensive gaudiness that Washington brings to the table, it is easy to forget that this team from up north also possesses a quality defense. Trent Edwards, Luke Powell, Kenneth Tolon and the rest of the Stanford offense will have their hands full this Saturday as they attempt to rectify last week's somewhat uninspiring, if still successful, offensive performance.
They will have to do so in spite of the imposing presence of senior captain and defensive tackle Terry "Tank" Johnson. Johnson, whose accomplishments on the field so far this year and throughout his career give validation to his nickname, is an intimidating pass rusher and run stopper who racked up two sacks against Ohio State and followed that performance with two tackles for loss and one sack against Indiana. In last week's Idaho game, Johnson recorded two more sacks and three tackles for loss to bring his Husky-leading total to 7.5 tackles for loss, which is also good for second in the Pac-10 and which has cost opposing teams 36 yards. Johnson's five sacks lead the conference as well, and have moved opponents back a total of 31 yards, making "Tank" single-handedly responsible for 67 yards of erased offensive progress.
Another defensive standout for the Huskies is Senior inside linebacker Marquis Cooper. The 6-4, 215-pound Arizonan leads Washington with 10 solo tackles and nine assisted takedowns, placing him second on the team with 19 tackles, two behind strong safety Evan Benjamin. These guys are two big reasons why Washington has the best pass defense in the Pac-10 so far this season, surrendering only five and a half yards per pass attempt and holding opponents to 45 points so far. The defense, which ranks 19th nationally in pass defense and 17th in total defense, is also still trying to dig its way out of the statistical hole it created for itself during that tough opening game against the Buckeyes - over the past two games the Huskies have only surrendered 27 points, which is a stingy amount considering the potency of the Washington offense.
The Husky D does not just stymie opposing offenses, though - it also creates offense of its own. Through the first three games of this young 2003 season, Washington's defense has forced six turnovers, leading to four touchdowns and 28 points. Ohio State fumbled twice against the Huskies, and Indiana and Idaho each lost a fumble and threw an interception to the Huskies D. This swarming defense could create some problems for a Stanford offense that through just two games has already thrown four interceptions and fumbled the ball three times.
Stanford will have to take better care of the ball this week, for each possession will be precious as the Cardinal try to hang with the high-octane Washington offense. The Huskies have a proven offense replete with exciting and dynamic players who have made a national impact already, a young and skillful bunch of receivers, and a possible Heisman Trophy winner in Cody Pickett.
Stanford, on the other hand, has a freshman quarterback who struggled last week against Brigham Young, an offensive line which can't seem to give their young Mr. Edwards enough time to throw the ball, and a defense which is improving but which still has some holes. So how can anyone pick the Cardinal this week?
This is why: we have all entered a new era of Stanford Football. The players are buying into Coach Teevens's system (and the system is working), players who were too young last year are starting to mature, the offense and defense and special teams each have hungry and eager personnel around which they are starting to gel, and the aforementioned Mr. Edwards seems to have that magical ability to create Ws even when the stat sheet says they ought to be Ls.
Stanford's defense does an admirable job against the Huskies and holds them to 28 points, while the Cardinal offense continues to mature behind Number 5 and puts up 30.
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