Gargling Windex may not have left as bad a taste in Stanford fans' mouths as the fourth quarter meltdown (figuratively and literally) to the WSU Cougars in 2001. The initial frustration at the loss only seemed to compound as the season wore on and the BCS implications became more and more clear. This year, star QB Jason Gesser accompanies an equally talented Wazzu team into Stanford Stadium for a rematch and a chance for some Cardinal vengeance. The #12 Cougars, however, will be facing a very different Stanford team than the one they faced in 2001; in contrast to the lethal effectiveness of last year's offense, the only thing this Stanford team seems capable of doing with machine-like efficiency is turn the ball over. The Cougs do have a softer underside, however, currently located somewhere in the defensive backfield. Another key opportunity for Stanford success lies along the injury-ridden Cougar offensive line. The Card's ability to shake Gesser and keep him off balance may be the best hope for pulling out a victory on Saturday.
Jason Gesser is rapidly cementing his position as the best QB in the Pac-10, bar none. The 6'1" senior is completing passes at a 60% clip (115-192) and has thrown for 1600 yards on the season. In contrast, Chris Lewis and Kyle Matter combined have thrown for just 930 yards this year (albeit in two fewer games). Gesser has skillfully kept the offense afloat when the running game has suffered, and has provided clutch plays at clutch times. His 39 second-half points against Cal while nursing a dislocated rib, along with his cool game-winning drive in the waning minutes of the 4th quarter against a superb USC defense, prove yet again that there is mettle behind the gaudy stats.
While Gesser can always be counted on to produce, the Wazzu offensive line may be one of the least predictable units on the field this Saturday. Ravaged by injury, the line managed to pull off its most impressive performance of the season last week against SC, when, ironically, it had just two starters in the trenches. Gesser was only brought down once by a carnivorous Trojan defense that made no bones about its desire to lay him out flat by blitzing 36 times. Not only did the line pass-protect, but it also opened up some of the biggest holes of the season, allowing Mike Price's committee of running backs (John Tippins, Jermaine Green, and Jonathan Smith) to run for over 200 yards on 29 carries.
The only two starters to definitely receive time this Saturday on the O-line are Derek Roche and Tyler Hunt. Roche is a senior All-American candidate who stands 6-5 and weighs 295 lbs, and is one of the true leaders of this Cougar team. Hunt is a 6-3 senior with 10 starts under his belt. With injuries to 4 other potential starters, relative unknowns Billy Knotts, Riley Fittt-Chappell, and Norvell Holmes will start in their stead. Holmes and Fitt-Chappell are both freshmen, and Billy Knotts an unproven junior, yet each played a key role in the powerful line performance against SC. One move to look for is the switch from defense to offense for DE Fred Shavies. The 6'2", 260lb senior may lack the bulk of some offensive linemen, but he successfully competed at tackle over the spring and could provide much needed depth.
6'6" Sr, Mike Bush, who shredded Stanford's D last year for 97 yards on 4 catches, is back in action at wide receiver, along with one of the Pac-10's best in Devard Darling. Darling has 32 catches for 420 yards and 7 touchdowns on the season, his first since he transferred from Florida State. Despite these two players' talents, Gesser's patience and ability to make hot reads has ensured a balanced attack – 5 players have 15 or more catches on the season. The Cougs' top 2 tight ends are out, however, and redshirt freshman Troy Beinemann will start in their place.
Defensively, the Cougs are adequate and then some. Wazzu looks a little like Stanford's 2001 team in that they tend to simply outscore their opponents when they can't stop them. They showcase a strong run defense along with questionable downfield coverage, as opponents average 114 yards a game on the ground and a formidable 259 in the air. The Coug defense has, however, kept all but one of their challengers (Cal being the surprising exception) to under 30 points. Anchoring the team's defense is right tackle Rien Long, who accounts for 25 tackles on the season, almost half of them (11.5) for a loss. He also leads the team with 6.5 sacks, and may have just permanently enshrined himself in Cougar lore with his sack of Carson Palmer in overtime, followed immediately by his crunching tackle for loss of tailback Justin Vargas on the next play. His heroics led to a missed 52-yard field goal attempt that sealed the win for the Cougs. After the game, Long's only wish was that he'd hit Palmer a little harder on that last sack…
Long is surrounded by a bevy of talent and experience on the line, all of which have been instrumental in holding opponents to 3.2 yards per rush, a stat that includes the 230 yards and 2 TD's that Ohio State frosh phenom Maurice Clarett laid on the Cougs early in the season. At right tackle is senior Tai Tupai, who has struggled in the first half of the season, producing only 3 tackles and no sacks. D.D Acholonu and Isaac Brown share time at strongside defensive end, and have combined for 7.5 sacks and 35 tackles; Acholonu led the Pac-10 in sacks in 2001, while Brown ranked just behind him at third. Three year starter Fred Shavies holds down the other end admirably, with 3 sacks to his credit. Stanford's D-line has combined for 3.5 sacks; Wazzu's front four have combined for 20. And while this comparison is probably starting to get old, it's certainly unusual enough to deserve repeating.
The Cougars' backfield has at times looked solid, limiting Ohio State to just 4 completed passes, and at times disgraceful, allowing Carson Palmer (Carson Palmer!!) to throw for 351 yards and 32 completion. It takes an effort to make Palmer look good, but the Cougars did just that last week. 6'0" senior Marcus Trufant heads up the backpedaling corps at RCB, and has been roundly praised by both Buddy Teevens and Mike Price as one of the best coverage men in the country. He has played well this season, and gracefully shares the backfield with fellow star Erik Coleman, a junior free safety who leads the team in tackles with 44. 12-time starter Jason David patrols the right side of the field at cornerback, currently leading the team in interceptions with 3, while Virgil Williams has quietly provided muscle and speed at strong safety.
A potential position to exploit is linebacker, where 6'0"Al Genatone is the sole returning starter, and he's accompanied by inexperienced transfer Pat Bennett and the merely adequate Ira Davis. One good sign for the cardinal – the Cougar defense has looked its most vulnerable during its last two games against Cal and USC, giving up 578 and 516 yards of offense respectively.