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Stanford has already beaten a collection of Cougars this year, traveling to Provo on September 20 to squeak out a hard-fought 18-14 victory at Brigham Young University's expense. However, this week the Cardinal will have to channel more than they had at BYU - more intensity, more potency on offense, more stinginess on defense, and more confidence - if they want to bring down their Homecoming opponent on Saturday at 2:00 PM, the Cougars from Washington State.
We're honest here at The Bootleg, which is why we say that this is an extremely important game for the Stanford Cardinal. While only the third Pac-10 game of the season, this contest with the defending Pacific-10 Champions can really define how Stanford will play for the remainder of the 2003 campaign. A win at home against a nationally-ranked opponent (Wazzu currently sits at #6 in the polls) is an achievement that this Stanford team has the talent to accomplish, and would also be a huge confidence-booster as the Cardinal delve ever deeper into their grueling eight-games-in-a-row stretch against quality foes. Plus, losing at home in the ultra-competitive Pac-10 really dooms a team to play from behind for the rest of the season - a young group like Stanford covets home wins to take some of the pressure off subsequent away games in hostile spots like Eugene or on the sacrilegious AstroTurf at Reser Stadium.
Despite the importance of this Saturday's contest, it won't be easy this weekend. Washington State is refreshed, coming off its first bye week of the season, and the Cougars boast a well-rounded attack with a host of weapons on both offense and defense. Plus, their special teams play is stellar. Stanford will not be able to afford the kind of lapses they exhibited in the first half of last week's game down in Los Angeles, where they allowed the Trojans from USC to basically decide the game before the first half-hour of play was even complete. A quality hour-long effort is essential from the Card this weekend - and the boys in red and white can start it all by continuing their solid play from the second half of the USC game, when Stanford held the Trojans to just 3 points.
As Head Coach Buddy Teevens said about his squad earlier this week: "They see what happened and they understand what they need to do to move forward." But because we at The Bootleg understand that Mr. Teevens is a busy man and might not have the time to do this himself, we have taken the liberty of compiling a little checklist of all that the Stanford Cardinal has to do this weekend in order to make this Homecoming game one worth dancing about.
- Give Trent Edwards time to think.
Quite simply put, the offensive line must do whatever it takes to accomplish their primary assignment this weekend: protecting Trent Edwards. If the line has to link arms and form a Roman phalanx around Number 5, then so be it. If that means sticking the tight ends permanently on the line and having them forget about catching passes, then so be it. Stanford's offense stalled so mightily last week mainly because each time Edwards or Chris Lewis dropped back to throw, USC's pass rushers invaded their privacy like well-trained telemarketers with speed-dial.
What makes this particular task rather difficult for the Cardinal is that, unlike those pesky telemarketers, a little profanity and a quick hang-up trigger finger won't discourage these Washington State linemen from coming back after the quarterback. WSU is third in the Pac-10 with 20 sacks to its credit, trailing only USC and Arizona State. The current roster of pass-rushers is replete with some of the best QB-harrassers in the university's history: senior defensive ends D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown are in the school's top ten for almost all important statistical categories. Brown and Acholonu are tied for third all-time in sacks at WSU with 20.5 apiece, with Acholonu currently edging out his 6-foot, 2-inch partner from Upland, CA for career sack yards with 138 to Brown's 133. With Brown charging from the weak side and Acholonu lining up strong-side and using his 245-pound frame to bull his way to the quarterback, look for Brett Pierce and Alex Smith to help out quite a bit with the blocking duties on the exterior of the line. While this will probably hamper Stanford's receiving offense a bit, not too much should go amiss for the Cardinal if they take care of their second task, which is…
- Play the Cougars straight up in the first quarter
Stanford was outscored 13-0 in the first quarter of last week's Southern California contest, and it cannot afford to let the same thing happen again this week. Especially for a young team like Stanford, constantly playing from behind inflicts serious damage on a team's psyche, rushes the offense, and leaves the defense feeling constantly beleaguered. Stanford has shown that it can win games coming from behind, as it did against BYU earlier in the season, but the Cougars from up north will not cut Stanford nearly as much slack if the Card fall behind early this week.
Additionally, if Stanford can keep it even through the first 15 minutes of the game, then Washington State will start to feel a little rattled. Outscoring opponents 68-8 in the first quarter so far this year, the Cougars are used to cruising with a big advantage. Whenever a team is removed from its comfort zone, an opportunity presents itself for that team's opponent to strike, and Washington State is no exception. In fact, the Cougars are probably more vulnerable than ever if Stanford can make them feel uncomfortable - first-year coach Bill Doba as yet does not have enough appreciable experience leading a team that is fighting from behind or at least feels like it is climbing out of a deficit. Let's see how Doba does when his men start to get that scared look in their eyes when they aren't out to a huge lead after only a few minutes of play. But in order to do this, Stanford is going to have to…
- Stop Wazzu drives early
Of course this is a goal, right? What idiot would not include this in any team's checklist? As if Stanford is sitting in the locker room and thinking to themselves, "Let's go ahead and let Washington State drive down the field for a while and then we'll stop them cold." The reason this little number was included on the to-do list is because it deserves special recognition this week, since Washington State has Drew Dunning, the best place-kicker in the country. Rolling along at a 90% accuracy clip (18-of 20 on his field goals) and already with 72 points notched on his belt to start the year, Dunning has been lights-out since the opening bell of his Wazzu career. Last year he broke his own single-season points record that he set in 2001, accounting for 113 of Washington State's points, and if his leg stays constant this year he will destroy his 2003 mark with 144 points.
It is crucial for Stanford to stop Washington State before it gets into Dunning's range - which encompasses quite a hefty portion of the football field, we might add. The redshirt junior from Issaquah, WA nailed a 49-yarder last year, and was perfect inside 40 yards. That Stanford run defense simply has to get its swagger back, or else the Cougars will start to pick apart the D on the ground and then in the air as the Card plug the front line, and once WSU reaches the 20, it's goodnight courtesy of Mr. Dunning even if the Card does deny the WSU offense entry to the end zone.
- Don't give Washington State the ball
This sounds like another one of those "Of course we need to do that, you doofus" deals. But, like the "Stop them early" task, not turning the ball over to WSU on Saturday will go a very long way toward helping Stanford get back on track in the Pac-10 with a win. So maybe "take good care of the ball" isn't expressive enough to indicate how precious the pigskin is to the Cardinal this weekend. Stanford must love and caress and cherish the football; it has to protect it at all costs (which is where the old phalanx idea might come into play again). Washington State is positively vicious when it comes to scoring points off turnovers - they have recovered 24 opponents' turnovers so far this year and converted those into 84 points.
The man mainly responsible for this explosion? The Cougar with two first names - cornerback Jason David. The dude is positively ridiculous with 4 picks in just 6 games (putting him at the top of the NCAA in interceptions per game), two of which he's returned for touchdowns. David averages 27.5 yards whenever he does swipe an opposing quarterback's pass out of the air, and he's followed closely by fellow senior and strong safety Virgil Williams, who has 3 takeaways and averages 23.7 yards every time he notches an INT.
This is dangerous territory for Stanford and Trent Edwards, who has already tossed 7 interceptions on the year. As long as Number 5 keeps his composure in the pocket, he has the ability to guide the ball away from those quick-fingered Cougars and into the hands of the likes of Luke Powell and Alex Smith. The Bootleg has all kinds of faith in Edwards, who has shown the potential so far in 2003 to be a very effective and inspiring quarterback, especially considering that this Washington State game will be only the fourth game that Edwards has started in his collegiate career. And if Wazzu does get a couple of interceptions early on? Physically chain the Axe Committee to the football, while of course leaving one of the Committee members free to blow the train whistle that will be getting quite a workout on Saturday if all goes well.
- Feed off the crowd
Think Homecoming's just for high school? Think again. There will be tons of student support at Stanford Stadium on what promises to be a gorgeous Saturday in Palo Alto. The first home game of the year always draws a lot of fans, and if Stanford can make some exciting things happen on offense early in the game, the crowd will be sold on their team and the Stadium will start rocking. Can the Football team start rocking against Washington State, though? The verdict here is: damn straight. 27-24, Stanford, and no one on AxeComm gets hurt.
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