Arizona State preview

The 2003 season was full of promise for ASU. A top 25 ranking, being picked second in the Pac-10, and a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback - it was all coming up roses for Sun Devil fans. Following two consecutive losses, including their Pac-10 opener, Dirk Koetter's team is potentially staring at one of the most disappointing seasons in ASU's history. That being said, how will the Devils fair against the Trojans on Saturday? DevilsDigest.com previews USC's next opponent.

Junior signal caller Andrew Walter has been struggling a great deal in his team's last two games. His overall numbers on the season 77-147 for 898 yards 8 touchdowns and five interceptions. These stats may be good enough for some, but not for a player who was touted in the pre-season as possibly the conference's best in his position. Many of his struggles are directly correlated to the sub par performance of his receivers. This group is arguably the weakest link on the team, which doesn't bode well for a high-octane offense such as ASU's. Senior Skyler Fulton is Walter's main target, and he leads the team with 290 yards on 19 receptions. He also has three touchdowns to his credit. Junior speedster Daryl Lightfoot has been banged up all season, and hasn't come close to being the vital deep threat in the Sun Devils' scheme. Last Saturday at Oregon State saw the emergence of redshirt freshman, and once USC recruit, Terry Richardson. The Corona, CA native established career highs with 79 yards on four receptions. The Trojans are currently ranked last in pass defense, which would hopefully jump-start ASU's anemic passing attack.

The Devils' running game has been a sore spot ever since 2002. Nevertheless, once the "running back by committee" approach was abandoned last week, the results were encouraging. Sophomore Hakim Hill had his coming out party in Corvallis rushing for 115 yards, while averaging a spectacular 4.8 yards a carry. Ironically he was also the leading receiver that night with 92 yards on six receptions. All eyes will be on Hill on Saturday, as he tries to keep his momentum against a stout USC rush defense. Redshirt Loren Wade figures to be the first one off the bench relieving Hill.

The strength of the Sun Devil front five lies within their interior players: Junior center Drew Hodgdon, Senior left guard Tim Fa'aita, and fellow classmen right guard Regis Crawford. Both tackles, Grayling Love on the right and Andrew Cranahan on the left have preformed fairly well despite their inexperience. The team hasn't developed a passing threat at tight end yet. Sophomore Lee Burghgraef is much more proficient at blocking, and while the passing skills of JC transfer Aaron Austin are far more superior, he is still going through the natural growing pains of the transition to Division-I football.

The Sun Devil defense has been fairly solid so far. This year they have built a reputation of strong starts, which not only give the offense excellent field position, but also create turnovers. ASU's front four should be able to somewhat slow down USC's running attack. The senior defensive tackle tandem of Brain Montesanto and Shane Jones has generally played well this season. Junior defensive end Jimmy Verdon has emerged as the team's co-leader in sacks (along with Montesanto), notching three quarterback drops in 2003. JC transfer defensive end Ishmael Thrower has risen to not only grab a starting position, but also be a consistent true threat in rushing the quarterback. ASU's 18 sacks rank second in the Pac-10.

ASU features only two linebackers in its 4-2-5 defensive alignment. What the duo of sophomore Jamar Williams and JC transfer Justin Burks lack in experience, they make up with sideline-to-sideline quickness. Both rank fourth and fifth respectively among the leading tacklers on the team. Redshirt freshman Jordan Hill may be the most adept out of this unit in stopping the run, and his playing time is likely to be dictated in the Trojans' running success this week.

The Sun Devil safeties are considered the best in the conference. However, injuries at this position have also held them back. Riccardo Stewart is the leading tackler with 36, and fellow junior Jason Shivers isn't too far behind with 34. Brett Hudson is the third safety in the lineup, and is versatile enough to play cornerback if needed. Often played reserve Matt Fawley is third in the tackles' ranking at 32, and has the ability to play both safety spots.

With all the injuries that have and still are plaguing the Devils, their 5th place ranking in the conference's pass defense category may be somewhat of a miracle. ASU is likely to miss Junior R.J. Oliver – the team's only true lockdown corner. So far, his absence from the lineup has been very noticeable. Sophomore Josh Golden was the second starting corner, but his chronic cramping issues have held him back as well. JC transfer Chris McKenzie, the fastest Sun Devil (4.1 in the 40-yard dash), will make his first start of the season, alongside Junior Manny Franklin who was teetering on a starting position all season long.

Punter Tim Parker is off to a great start and ranks fourth in the conference with a 43.9-yard average. The senior was pulling double duty as the field goal and extra point kicker, but the last two weeks he did relinquish those duties to true freshman Jesse Ainsworth. Ainsworth, who was arguably the best high school kicker in California last year, made his first ever field goal as a Sun Devil last week, but he only attempted two kicks overall. Josh Golden is second in the Pac-10 in punt returns with an 11.9 average. However, due to his nagging injury, one can expect to see more of Daryl Lightfoot in that role. On the same token, Golden may see his kick return duties handled frequently by Jason Shivers. Both have done very well in that category in 2003. ASU's coverage teams have been the weak link of the special teams, and could be further exposed against the Trojans.

Forgive us for mentioning the obvious, but this game can and probably will dictate the rest of the season for both teams. Specifically for the Sun Devils, a loss can further their season down the drain, while a win could be an enormous shot in the arm for a program that right now appears lifeless. Handing a solid USC team its second consecutive defeat may be an unfeasible task, but ASU has yet to play a solid game on offense. If that were to happen on Saturday afternoon, there's no telling what the end result may be. One thing is for certain; the outcome of this game will severely dash the morale and the psyche of the losing team.

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