How is it that a Stanford football program drawing ever closer to national prominence has such a remarkably difficult time establishing itself as the best team in its own 20-mile radius? Recent years haven't provided much of an answer, and while Stanford's mud-soaked victory at Spartan Stadium last season banished the monkey from Tyrone's back, it is obligingly ready to jump onto Buddy Teevens' if invited. Fitz Hill's record as San Jose State's head coach is 4-10 since taking the reins from ex-Stanford assistant Dave Baldwin, and with a program suffering from funding cuts, record low attendance, massive graduation hemorrhaging, and threats of demotion to D-1AA status, he and his players may not be perfectly poised to beat the Cardinal this Saturday. But then again…
Hill's Spartans have shown surprising toughness this year, and while Stanford is filling its gaping graduation holes with redshirt freshmen, SJSU is quietly filling theirs with juniors and seniors, many of them stars in junior college. After finishing tied for seventh in the WAC last season and returning only 7 starters this season, the Spartans managed to surprise a few fans with a 33-14 win over Arkansas State to start the season, followed by a perfect first half against Washington that saw them trotting into the locker rooms with a 10-0 halftime lead. ASU's 63-7 pummeling at the hands of Virginia Tech the week before, and the Huskies' 34 point second half binge (all unanswered) decorate the other side of the coin, but there are still some very dangerous elements to this fast and yet undersized SJSU team.
The opportunities for Stanford's offense might leave Booties drooling: the Spartans return only 2 defensive starters from a team whose 2000-01 defense ranked dead last in D-1A, allowing over 500 jaw-slackening yards per game. What they lack in starters, however, is made up for in age and experience – the roster is brimming with juniors and seniors (many of them transfer students). The defensive line features pass rush specialist Chip Kimmick and converted linebacker Philip Perry manning the ends and returning starter Mike Beams and freshman Kinji Green plugging holes at defensive tackle. At linebacker, senior Luke LaHerran picked up a team-leading 12 and a half tackles vs. Arkansas State two weeks ago (including two behind the line of scrimmage), and is the most dangerous fixture in a unit that may surprise some observers this year. LaHerran and junior Paul Okumu would have been starters last year had they not been injured, and when their speed and savvy is combined with that of senior Brian Foreman in 2002, the linebacking corps looks solid. The defensive backfield has the height and some experience, but whether or not the necessary speed is there is highly debatable. Returning starter Melvin Cook stands a leggy 5'10", and was converted to cornerback from safety this fall. 5'10" senior Carlos Koustas, who ran in two touchdowns off ASU turnovers the other week, mans the other corner. Both seniors are backed up by junior free safety Gerald Jones and senior strong safety C.J. Arnold. How good will the Spartan D be this year? It may be too early to even attempt a definitive answer, but in all probability, they'll be better than last year's graduation massacre might suggest. It might be helpful to keep in mind that the defense easily controlled ASU in week one, and shut out Cody Pickett and the Huskies for an entire half in week two. Perhaps as importantly, Reggie Williams' explosion for 160 yards and 2 touchdowns on six catches was responsible for much of the U-Dub damage in the second half. Reggie Williams' performance isn't necessarily a fair barometer of how effective a defensive backfield is; were he playing underwater, he'd still be phenomenal. Outcomes in the trenches are a little more easier to speculate about - Stanford's 1500 lbs of muscle up front could steamroll the bantamweight Spartan defensive line (the average SJSU DL starter weighs just over 260 lbs) en route to the early establishing of a powerful running game. And while Stanford's pass protection must improve, Chris Lewis can expect to have more time to throw the ball than did Kyle Matter.
SJSU's offense poses serious threats in several key positions. With only 5 starters returning, the Spartan attack may not have the potency of last season, when it churned out an average of 429 yards a game, but it has all the ingredients to put plenty of points on the board. Surprisingly enough, the player most Stanford fans would expect to be wary of isn't even starting. Marcus Arroyo, a fifth year senior with over 25 starts to his credit, will now be playing backup to junior Scott Rislov, a transfer student from Ellsworth College. While both players will probably see plenty of action, Rislov has surprised people with his play this season, and in just over two quarters against Washington completed 16 of 23 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown. The Spartans' most dangerous weapon may also be their smallest, as 5'5" tailback Lamar Ferguson has wreaked some serious havoc in opponents' backfields so far this season. Quick and elusive, Lamar is averaging 4.3 yards per carry, and looked outstanding in the first half against Washington. Hard-nosed fullback Brandon Miles will help fill out the backfield, and Oscar Rigg can expect to also receive time at the tailback slot. Also dangerous is the Spartan wide receiver corps, led by Charles Pauley, who has caught 11 passes for 124 yards in two games. Pauley is a candidate for all-conference honors, and has a DeRonnie-like knack for getting open. Tuati Wooden is a sleek and efficient second option, who has racked up 80 yards on 5 catches over the same period. The offensive line is anchored by 295 lb. tackle Tim Provost, a three-year starter and one of the most reliable linemen in the WAC. He is complemented by Lamons Walker, a 6'3", 280 lb. senior center, and the powerful Joseph Hayes, who will start at left guard. SJSU always seems to put together a solid O-line, and it looks like Fitz Hill has plenty of meat to throw into the trenches this year as well. Combine a solid line with the possible second coming of Deonce Whittaker in Lamar Ferguson and a talented (if young) quarterback in Scott Rislov, and you're left with the impression that the Spartan offense could do some damage this weekend.