Arizona State in search of a .500 Season

OH MY HAVE times changed in Tempe. College Football pundits called ASU the sleeping giant of the Pac-10. With a top 25 pre-season ranking and a Heisman trophy candidate quarterback, everything pointed to a beautiful awakening for the Sun Devils. Suffice to say that not even the most skeptic ASU follower predicted a 4-6 record in mid November. Can the Devils play the role of spoiler this weekend? <I>DevilsDigest</I> takes a look at Washington State's next opponent.

The health of quarterback Andrew Walter has been the hot topic of discussion in Tempe the last few weeks. Nevertheless, sprained ankle and all he still managed to pass for 357 yards last week against Stanford – his second highest total for the year. Walter is expected to go full speed in practices this week, and should be near healthy in Pullman on Saturday. By no means is he having the season he envisioned, but he vows to give it his all for the remainder of the 2003 campaign.

The woes of the passing game this year may be attributed more with the struggles of the wide receiver core, rather than Walter's play. Miscommunication and faulty route running has plagued ASU for the first few games. Consequently, Walter's frustration resulted in untimely throws and turnovers. Nevertheless, it would appear that these troubles for the most part are a thing of the past. Derek Hagan and Skyler Fulton have emerged as the clear-cut star receivers on the team. Hagan, a sophomore, leads the team with 812 yards, and has seven touchdowns on the year. Fulton leads the Devils with nine scores, and has amassed 695 yards thus far. Both wideouts don't possess blazing speed, but are considered physical receivers who have a knack for the tough catch. Redshirt freshman tight end Jamaal Lewis has been emerging as a receiving threat in the last few games.

ASU's running game was a constant topic of criticism last year. In 2003, the complaints have been as common as a blizzard in Phoenix. Redshirt freshman Loren Wadehas cemented his status as a starter leading the team with 664 yards, and averaging a near conference best 5.5 yards a carry. Wade is a downhill runner who excels running between the tackles, and hitting the hole with authority. However, he did suffer a concussion last week, and his status for this week along with second stringer Hakim Hill is very much up in the air. Redshirt freshman Randy Hill, who has 154 yards to his credit figures to be the starter right now. Last year's leading rusher Cornell Canidate has been buried down the depth chart, but with the after mentioned injuries to Hill and the other ball carriers – this nifty runner stands to see considerable time in the backfield. Fullback Mike Karney, who hails from Kent, Wash., is one of the best in the conference at his position.

The Devils' offensive line is another unit that was frequently maligned last season. The success of the team's running backs is naturally attributed in some part to the improved play of the front five. This group has been constantly praised by the coaching staff for opening the rushing lanes, and is ranked third best in the Pac-10 in giving up sacks. The team's tackles, sophomore Grayling Love on the right and redshirt Andrew Cranahan on the left, started off the season with limited experience but are now playing like savvy veterans. The line's veterans reside in the interior with junior Drew Hodgdon at center, senior Regis Crawford at right guard and fellow classman Tim Fa'aita at left guard.

It may have been expected, but the post-Terrell Suggs era on the Devils' defensive line has been a rough transition period. With a defensive scheme that leaves its cornerbacks on an island virtually the whole game, a less than average pass rush can prove more detrimental than usual. Things have looked promising in this area earlier in the year, but in the last few games opposing quarterbacks haven't felt the heat from the team's front four. JC transfer Ishmael Thrower paces the devils with 3.5 sacks, and fellow defensive end Jimmy Verdon has three quarterback drops of his own. Matters are bleak as well when it comes to rush defense. ASU ranks next to last among its Pac-10 peers giving up 157.9 yards a game, and the 183 yards it gave up last week hardly made matters better. JC transfer Shane Jones leads all defensive linemen with 45 tackles, and is by far the best run stopper on the team. Unfortunately for him and the team – there haven't been any notable contributors around him at his position.

Some of the struggles of the run defense can also be attributed to the squad's young linebackers. Sophomore Jamar Williams is the most experienced player of this group, and JC transfer Justin Burks is almost as green as his teammate. In ASU's 4-2-5 alignment, this duo is featured as sideline-to-sideline speedsters. When a more physical presence is needed against the run, redshirt freshman Jordan Hill enters as the true middle linebacker and changes the alignment to a 4-3. The ASU coaches have hinted that the numerous shifts from the 4-2-5 to the 4-3 may have been a source for the overall defensive struggles throughout out the year. Thus, it will be interesting to see on Saturday if the coaches will truly minimize the back and forth shifting.

The safety unit is by far the strongest on the Devils' defense. Case in point, junior Jason Shivers leads the team with 86 tackles and junior Riccardo Stewart is second with 76. Shivers is considered the "quarterback" of the defense, while Stewart is more of a ferocious hitter who play closer to the line of scrimmage. Senior Brett Hudson completes this trio, and is regarded as the best combination of speed and power of the group. However, his play has been lacking for most of the year. Sophomore Matt Fawley is the first one of the bench, and his versatility of playing all safety positions has made him a valuable commodity. Fawley had career high 12 tackles against Stanford last week.

ASU may be ranked in the conference's upper echelon in pass defense, but to say that any Sun Devil follower is very pleased with the play of the team's cornerbacks would be untrue. As mentioned, being matched up in single coverage without adequate pass pressure upfront is a daunting task. Nevertheless, all throughout the season it seemed that whenever an opponent needed a big play via the air, they were able to accomplish that feat. Junior R.J. Oliver came into the season as one of the true lockdown corners of the conference, but injuries and inconsistent play have turned his year into a nightmare. JC transfer Chris McKenzie is perhaps the fastest player in the conference (was clocked running the 40-yard at a 4.1) and is having a better year than Oliver and the rest of his fellow corners.

Punter Tim Parker is averaging 43.7 yards a punt, which is good enough for third best in the conference. The senior is very astute at angling his punts and pinning the pigskin inside the 20-yard line. True freshman kicker Jesse Ainsworth is having a pretty good year considering the fact that he's getting his first taste of a Pac-10 season. He made 8-12 of his attempts, and three of his misses have been from 40-plus yards. Return specialist Daryl Lightfoot has been suspended indefinitely from the team. Therefore, the punt return duties will go to receiver Terry Richardson and the kick returns to cornerback Josh Golden. The Sun Devils are the conference's best in kick returns, and also excel in their coverage teams.

Playing in the bitter November weather in Pullman is a daunting task of itself. Couple that with a three game losing streak and a shattered confidence, and it would be easy to see why any prediction of a Sun Devil victory on Saturday would be far fetched. Nevertheless, one can expect ASU to play with reckless abandon and relish in the spoiler role it finds itself in now. Playing for a .500 record isn't what the Devils have hoped for, but now that reality has set in they will undoubtedly want to achieve this feat. And all that is standing in its way is one of the pac-10's best squads…

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