Pigskin Preview: Arizona State @ Stanford

The Bootleg's Scott Cooley was on hand for Tuesday's press conference and provides us with a preview of the Cardinal's now-critical game against ASU. The wound-licking Cardinal is looking forward to a return to the more friendly confines of Stanford Stadium. We pity the fools who think Stanford Football suffers from "fork-protrusion" as we head into the teeth of the 2009 campaign. Go Cardinal!

"Pigskin Preview": Arizona State @ Stanford

Response is a test of character, will and resiliency. Stanford must respond on Saturday, and each of those standards will be measured.

The Cardinal return to the cozy confines of the palm-tree studded Stanford Stadium where the team has enjoyed a 7-1 record the past two seasons. Stanford (4-3, 3-2) mathematically remains in the Pac-10 hunt, but will have to defeat Arizona State (4-2, 2-1) to have any shot at the title.

The Sun Devils and Cardinal commence action at 7:25 p.m. (PT) on Saturday with the game being televised nationally on Fox Sports Net and locally on CSN Bay Area. Stanford's flagship radio station, XTRA 860 AM, will broadcast the Annual Reunion Homecoming game live over the airwaves.

For the second time in as many weeks, Stanford found itself in an early hole. Against Arizona, an errant throw by Andrew Luck resulted in a 79-yard interception return, but the team bounced back. At Corvallis, the Cardinal fell behind 21-0, but mounted an admirable second-half surge.

Both responses have solidified confidence in a team that appears to be on the brink of breaking through.

"This ballclub is so close and I'm so proud of that," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We should be 6-1 at this point. It's getting over the hump, and Saturday night was an example of that. If we were there, we would have won it – same with the Wake Forest game. But now this team must respond in a big way."

Stanford enters into the gauntlet that concludes the 2009 schedule, including back-to-back affairs with the No. 6 and No. 11 teams in the country. The team's final five opponents have a combined 22-8 record.

"You have five games to go and four of those are at home," stated Harbaugh. "The heavyweights are coming into the ring, including this week. That is something we have to rise to."

State travels to Palo Alto riding a two-game winning streak after a miraculous last-second victory over Washington late Saturday night. The Cardinal haven't defeated the Sun Devils since a 45-35 win during the 2005 campaign.

The Sun Devils offense has struggled this year, much like last season when the team averaged 22 points per game.

Quarterback Danny Sullivan is leading the team after serving as Rudy Carpenter's backup most of his career. The senior has been up and down this season, only throwing five touchdowns to offset the same number of interceptions.

Arizona State is posting nearly 29 points per game this year, but remove Idaho State (50 points) and Louisiana-Monroe (38 pts) from the equation and the team is only mustering 21.3 points per outing.

Much like its intrastate Pac-10 rival, ASU enjoys spreading the ball around to the receivers. Five players have totaled 10 or more receptions with starters Kyle Williams and Chris McGaha each corralling at least 30 catches. The Sun Devils ground attack, however, isn't exactly bowling over with success. Senior tailback Dimitri Nance only has 231 more rushing yards than Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck (236) and the Arizona State collective running unit has one fewer touchdown than Toby Gerhart (12).

"Arizona State always has an athletic team that you can't take lightly," said linebacker Clinton Snyder. "They have a great coach that always has a very good plan for every game they go into. We haven't done anything the last two games to have any type of idea that we're just going to go in there and roll over them."

The Cardinal defense has been abysmal the last two games. It has surrendered a total of 81 points and 705 yards through the air. Coach Harbaugh said he wasn't concerned with the defensive schemes nor lacking in confidence in his coaching staff.

But the Stanford secondary must become more aggressive and start taking chances. It's never a good sign when a linebacker (Will Powers) has two more pass breakups (6) than any member of the secondary.

The Cardinal defense as a whole needs to create more havoc. Stanford ranks No. 95 in the country in turnover margin with a -.57 mark. The team has only collected three interceptions on the season and two of those came against UCLA.

Snyder attributes the failures on defense to lack of consistency. Some plays are being made, but others are not, especially in key situations. Tackling has been poor and some players are trying to do too much.

"We weren't playing consistently," he said. "A lot of the big plays [Arizona] had all over the field you can find little mistakes where people were trying to do too much or just not getting off blocks, not tackling, not taking right angles. You've got to have everyone doing what they need to do, myself included."

On the other side of the ball, the Cardinal offense has been clicking. The unit has posted 66 points in its last two games and ranks No. 30 nationally with a 31.7 points per game average.

Power running by Gerhart has created play-action opportunities where vacant receiving lanes are appearing for the wideouts. Stanford did an excellent job of spreading the ball around last Saturday when 11 different receivers caught a pass, including the quarterback himself.

"I give the credit to Toby, our O-line and Andrew," said receiver Ryan Whalen. "Obviously Toby's had success running the ball, teams are bringing eight-in-the-box, bringing safeties down and creating those opportunities for play-action. Our line is doing a heck of job holding up. Andrew has a lot of time back there and is throwing great balls down the field."

head coach Dennis Erickson is well aware of the success Stanford is having offensively this season.

"No one has consistently moved it against us, but the team we're playing this week is by far the most physical team that we've faced," Erickson stated. "Their offensive front is really good and their running back is good. Gerhart – he's a stud. He is 240 pounds that can run fast, break tackles, so he creates all kinds of problems. Their quarterback, Andrew Luck, is special and they've been scoring points against everyone, so we've got our work cut out for us. This is by far the biggest test that we've had."

Gerhart suffered a mild ankle injury in last week's game versus Arizona. The resilient tailback said the ankle has been somewhat of a lingering injury, but wasn't swollen at all this week.

"He practiced last night. He looked like Toby on a Monday night practice, he's fine," Harbaugh confirmed.

Attempting to combat Stanford's potent offensive gameplan will be the No. 7-ranked Sun Devil defense. A couple of stud defensive linemen in Dexter Davis and Lawrence Guy anchor a run defense that only gives up 57.83 yards per game – a mark good for No. 2 in the nation.

"It's definitely going to be another offense/defense kind of matchup," Gerhart said. "I don't know if they've really faced an offense like ours at this point in the season. We're more of a smash-mouth, downhill running game whereas they've faced more of spread offenses. It will be a test for them, but at the same time we're going to see what we're made of."

Somewhat of an off-the-radar player to keep an eye on while the Sun Devils are on defense is safety Jarrell Holman. The 6-0, 220-pound fifth-year senior has registered a trio of picks on the season and resembles a hybrid DB who can tackle and cover.

"He is kind of the guy you are looking for," said Harbaugh. "Physical in run support, a sure tackler, but yet there's not a mismatch when it comes to covering a wide receiver or a tight end inside. He's not going to get bounced around like a ping- pong ball. That's kind of the total package you are looking for in a safety."

has intercepted at least one pass in 14 straight games – the longest streak in the nation. Linebacker Mike Nixon pulled the hat trick versus Idaho State with three INTs, and leads the team with 34.0 tackles.

"ASU plays a very aggressive defense," said offensive tackle Allen Smith. "They have a lot of talented players, especially at the linebacking and defensive line positions. I don't think we have to do anything different. We've just got to make sure we're solid in all our protection schemes. Make sure all our technique is sound and have communication throughout the entire line."

While Stanford has pulled some gimmicks out of the bag recently, the Sun Devils have produced some trickery of its own. Last game versus Washington, receiver Kyle Williams threw a 32-yard touchdown on a flanker pass.

Perhaps the most soundly-devised and favorably-timed deception play this week will seal the victory for either team.

About the Author: Scott Cooley is a seasoned sports writer who was groomed as a reporter for ESPN.com, and he most recently served as the media relations manager for the San Jose SaberCats arena football team. He earned a Business and Economics degree from Hendrix College where he also played baseball. Cooley has a passion for producing sports content, and his writing evokes thought into the minds of his readers with a witty and entertaining style. He is a freelance writer who has been published on multiple media platforms and is always looking for additional opportunities. Cooley and his wife, Christina, reside in Palo Alto where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at Stanford. Contact him at scottwcooley@gmail.com

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