Stanford welcomes the Arizona Wildcats to Stanford Stadium in what seems to be a showdown between the hapless and the helpless. The Cats are 3-3 (with their three wins coming over such powerhouses as Northern Arizona, North Texas, and Utah), and have dropped their last two games. Adding to my skepticism about this Arizona team is the fact that they're 2-13 in their last 15 Pac-10 games, have an anemic ground game, and a turnstile defense riddled with injuries. On the other hand, they played Washington tough last week, the loss coming courtesy of an 80-yard touchdown reception by the irrepressible Reggie Williams in the waning moments of the game. How different would this preview be were the Cats 4-2 and coming off a win in Huskyville? Hmm…
Arizona is the only Pac-10 team to return players who were in the conference's top ten in rushing, passing, receiving and scoring last year. Stanford fans certainly have good reason to remember UA's firepower, as the Cats unloaded on the Cardinal for 578 yards last year (most of it dumped onto reserves after Stanford shot out to a 51-16 third quarter lead). However, UA has lost Clarence Farmer, a major key to that offensive success, for the year, and a bigger blow to the team is hard to imagine. Farmer was the running game. He smacked 131 yards onto Wisconsin's defense in early September, but since his athletic demise (knee injury), the Cats have averaged just 2.3 yards per rush and 79 yards on the ground per game. In Arizona's last two games (both played without the injured RB), the Wildcats attempted 56 rushes… and gained exactly 54 yards. Beau Carr is running hard in his stead, and the true freshman notched the first TD of his career against Washington last week.
The Cats currently feature an extremely one-dimensional offensive game plan – keep the QB on his feet, and get the ball to his receivers. The architect of the Wildcats' success in the air is Jason Johnson, the 6'1" senior QB who has been simply magnificent this year. Coming off a season in which he threw for 2,347 yards and 19 touchdowns, Jason is currently averaging 310 yards a game in the air and has threaded 10 touchdown passes through opposing backfields. In the last two games, Johnson threw the ball over 40 times a game… and has completed almost 65% of his passes. He broke a school record for passing against Washington last week with 443 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Benefiting from Johnson's accurate arm are the wide receivers, led by pre-season All-Pac-10 candidate Bobby Wade (6'0", 182 lbs), a senior with 50 catches for 736 yards and 6 TD's on the year. Andrae Thurman and Lance Relford share time at wideout, and have greatly helped spread the field. A 6'0" junior, Thurman was absolutely clutch against Washington, with 9 catches for 142 yards, all seemingly at important moments in the game. Snapper61 will be saying, "Johnson to Wade" and "Johnson to Thurman" far more times on Saturday than we may like…
The OL has done an adequate job of keeping Johnson out of harm's way this year, but they've had less success creating holes for their backup RB's. Four returning starters and six returning lettermen anchor the line. Junior guard Reggie Sampay has been a stalwart lineman for two years, ever since he was thrown into the fray as a true freshman center in 2000. He's complemented on the right side by junior tackle Brandon Phillips, who started four games last year. Makoa Freitas has 29 starts in his career, and he provides plenty of beef at LG, weighing in at 300 lbs.
While Johnson and Wade may be tearing the Stanford defense into shreds, the Cardinal offense has the opportunity to return the favor against a banged up Arizona D that will be showcasing plenty of youth on Saturday. The Mildcats have been giving up 178 rushing yards per game to opponents – they yielded a jaw-dropping 730 rushing yards in the 3 games prior to U-Dub, where they limited the Huskies to a surprising 82 yards. This poor rushing defense will face off against a solid Stanford running game that is averaging 154 yards per game on the ground (3rd in the Pac). The Arizona secondary is also showing signs of weakness coming into the weekend; a slew of recent injures may slow down a unit that is allowing just 170 yards of passing offense a game.
The best player in this thoroughly average defense is Lance Briggs, a preseason All-American inside linebacker. Even after missing the Oregon game with a high ankle sprain, he leads the team in tackles and tackles for losses, with 44 and 6 respectively. He's playing behind a patchwork defensive line that lost 3 starters and two key backups to graduation last year. Among the few DL standouts is Joe Siofele, who was switched from OLB to DE this season and has rung up 39 tackles and a team-leading 3 sacks thus far. Given the relative youth and inexperience in the unit, Mackovic tends to use a full 10-man rotation. Senior DT Young Thompson has been one of few fixtures, providing 305 lbs. of much-needed leadership in the middle.
The backfield has been chomped on by injuries, as starting CB Michael Jolivette and SS Jarvie Worcester are both shelved indefinitely. Fellow starter Darrell Brooks may also be out with a sore back, which leaves juniors Gary Love and David Hinton manning the corners and true freshman Lamon Means at FS. The Cats' woes in the defensive backfield may be a real boon to Stanford's offense, as C-Lew and Matter have had plenty of pass protection but precious few open receivers. Hopefully, that will change this week, as Stanford's receivers test the "flex" in Arizona's double-eagle flex D. Note to consider: Reggie William's last-minute 80 yd touchdown reception that won the game for the Huskies last week was a direct consequence of UA having two true freshmen (one a walk-on) assigned to keep him under wraps. Oops. Hopefully, a similar mistake will be made with Teyo Johnson or Luke Powell…
PREDICTION: My first one of the season, probably because this is the first game I actually think we'll win. I have the feeling that we'll be violating the inner sanctums of Arizona's end zone many, many times this Saturday… Look for C-Lew to get comfortable and pick apart a wounded Arizona secondary. Go Cardinal!