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In football there are losses and there are defeats. While a dictionary may list the two words as one in the same, the later tends to carry a more demoralizing effect. By all accounts, last week's 51-23 loss to Cal would be classified as a defeat. Head coach Dirk Koetter said that the spirit of his squad was broken, and now ASU is left up picking the pieces as they go on the road. Can the Devils bounce back and overcome these dire times? DevilsDigest takes a look at Stanford's next opponent.
The health of quarterback Andrew Walter has been the hot topic of discussion in Tempe these days. Two weeks ago at UCLA, the junior sprained his ankle and had to leave the game early in the second quarter. Extensive treatment and limited reps in practice preceded his start against Cal, in which he passed for a mere 170 yards – his second lowest total as a starter. He admitted that he was bothered by his aliment, but Koetter and the medical staff feel that the worst part of the injury is now behind him. Thus, Walter is expected to go full speed in practices this week, and should be in a better physical condition in Palo Alto on Saturday.
Backup quarterback Sam Keller should be a familiar name for bay area football fans. The former San Ramon Valley High School in Danville was one of the best signal callers to come out of California in the 2003 recruiting class. The true freshman saw extensive action against UCLA, and played the entire fourth quarter against Cal. While he may not posses the NFL caliber arm strength that Walter has, Keller is a smart and mature-beyond-his-years player. Koetter has said that he fully trusts Keller's abilities and has noted his progression in each game. Therefore, one shouldn't expect a dramatic drop-off between a Walter-led offense and one with Keller at the helm.
The woes of the passing game this year may be attributed more with the struggles of the wide receiver core, rather than Walter's play. Miscommunication and faulty route running has plagued ASU for the first few games. Consequently, Walter's frustration resulted in untimely throws and turnovers. Nevertheless, it would appear that these troubles for the most part are a thing of the past. Derek Hagan and Skyler Fulton have emerged as the clear-cut star receivers on the team. Hagan, a sophomore, leads the team with 674 yards, and has four touchdowns on the year. Fulton leads the Devils with eight scores, and has amassed 621 yards thus far. Both wideouts don't posses blazing speed, but are considered physical receivers who have a knack for the tough catch. Redshirt freshman tight end Jamaal Lewis has been emerging as a receiving threat in the last few games.
ASU's running game was a constant topic of criticism last year. In 2003, the complaints have been as common as a blizzard in Phoenix. Redshirt freshman Loren Wade has cemented his status as a starter leading the team with 598 yards, and averaging a near conference best 5.6 yards a carry. Wade is a downhill runner who excels running between the tackles, and hitting the hole with authority. Second stringer Hakim Hill has been bothered by an injured knee, and his status for this weekend is up in the air. The sophomore has 443 yards on the year. Last year's leading rusher Cornell Canidate has been buried down the depth chart, but with the injury to Hill and the other ball carriers – this nifty runner stands to see considerable time in the backfield. Fullback Mike Karney, one of the best in the conference, missed the Cal game due to illness and is expected to play on Saturday.
The Devils' offensive line is another unit that was frequently maligned last season. The success of the team's running backs is naturally attributed in some part to the improved play of the front five. This group has been constantly praised by the coaching staff for opening the rushing lanes, and are also ranked fourth best in the Pac-10 in giving up sacks. The team's tackles, sophomore Grayling Love on the right and redshirt Andrew Cranahan on the left, started off the season with limited experience but are now playing like savvy veterans. The line's veterans reside in the interior with junior and Palo Alto high school graduate Drew Hodgdon at center, senior Regis Crawford at right guard and fellow classman Tim Fa'aita at left guard.
It may have been expected, but the post-Terrell Suggs era on the Devils' defensive line has been a rough transition period. With a defensive scheme that leaves its cornerbacks on an island virtually the whole game, a less than average pass rush can prove more detrimental than usual. Things have looked promising in this area earlier in the year, but in the last few games opposing quarterbacks haven't felt the heat from the team's front four. JC transfer Ishmael Thrower paces the devils with 3.5 sacks, and his tied for lead in tackles for a loss with 6.5. Matters are bleak as well when it comes to pass defense. ASU ranks next to last among its Pac-10 peers giving up 154.6 yards a game, and the 232 yards it gave up last week hardly made matters better. JC transfer Shane Jones leads all defensive linemen with 34 tackles, and is by far the best run stopper on the team. Unfortunately for him and the team – there haven't been any notable contributors around him at his position.
Some of the struggles of the run defense can also be attributed to the squad's young linebackers. Sophomore Jamar Williams is the most experienced player of this group, and JC transfer Justin Burks is almost as green as his teammate. In ASU's 4-2-5 alignment, this duo is featured as sideline-to-sideline speedsters. When a more physical presence is needed against the run, redshirt freshman Jordan Hill enters as the true middle linebacker and changes the alignment to a 4-3. The ASU coaches have hinted that the numerous shifts from the 4-2-5 to the 4-3 may have been a source for the overall defensive struggles throughout out the year. Thus, it will be interesting to see on Saturday if the coaches will truly minimize the back and forth shifting.
The safety unit is by far the strongest on the Devils' defense. Case in point, junior Jason Shivers leads the team with 80 tackles and junior Riccardo Stewart is second with 73. Shivers is considered the "quarterback" of the defense, while Stewart is more of a ferocious hitter who play closer to the line of scrimmage. Senior Brett Hudson completes this trio, and is regarded as the best combination of speed and power of the group. However, his play has been lacking for most of the year. Sophomore Matt Fawley is the first one of the bench, and his versatility of playing all safety positions has made him a valuable commodity.
ASU may be ranked in the conference's upper echelon in pass defense, but to say that any Sun Devil follower is very pleased with the play of the team's cornerbacks would be untrue. As mentioned, being matched up in single coverage without adequate pass pressure upfront is a daunting task. Nevertheless, all throughout the season it seemed that whenever an opponent needed a big play via the air, they were able to accomplish that feat. Junior R.J. Oliver came into the season as one of the true lockdown corners of the conference, but injuries and inconsistent play have turned his year into a nightmare. JC transfer Chris McKenzie is perhaps the fastest player in the conference (was clocked running the 40-yard at a 4.1) and is having a better year than Oliver and the rest of his fellow corners.
Punter Tim Parker is averaging 43.5 yards a punt, which is good enough for third best in the conference. The senior is very astute at angling his punts and pinning the pigskin inside the 20-yard line. True freshman kicker Jesse Ainsworth is having a pretty good year considering the fact that he's getting his first taste of a Pac-10 season. He made 8-12 of his attempts, and three of his misses have been from 40-plus yards. Return specialist Daryl Lightfoot has just been suspended indefinitely from the team. Therefore, the punt return duties will go to receiver Terry Richardson and the kick returns to Canidate or cornerback Josh Golden. The Sun Devils are the conference's best in kick returns, and also excel in their coverage teams.
This game will probably be won more on the mental level than the physical one. Stanford is coming off its debut conference win, while ASU is aching after a demoralizing rout. The Devils are not known as a good road tea, which hardly bodes well for a game that can aid them in restoring their confidence. If ASU jumps to an early and significant lead, it just may be able to notch a rare conference win away from home. If they should find themselves trailing early in the contest, it will undoubtedly prove if their broken spirit is truly mended.
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