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Football: Edging out the Sun Devils

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With talk of a “letdown game” swirling around it all week, the No. 6 Stanford football team headed to Tempe on Saturday to take on a dangerous Arizona State squad. Despite an uncharacteristically weak day from the offense, the Cardinal managed to pull out a win, defeating the Sun Devils (4-6, 2-5 Pac-10) by a final score of 17-13.

Stanford (9-1, 6-1) entered the game after a big win over then-No. 15 Arizona last weekend, and the magnitude of that game led some commentators to predict that the Cardinal would not come out against the Sun Devils in top form, leaving itself vulnerable to an upset. Through the first half, an upset looked like a distinct possibility, with neither team gaining any ground and both defenses holding strong. The half ended in a 7-7 tie, after Stanford senior kicker Nate Whitaker missed a field goal with 16 seconds left.

Senior wide receiver Doug Baldwin (89) carries the ball for the Cardinal against Arizona State on Saturday. (courtesy of Scott Stuk, The State Press)

The third quarter continued to see strong defensive play from both teams. After trading punts to open the second half, Stanford finally took a lead on a Whitaker field goal, only to watch the Sun Devils march down the field on their next drive for a touchdown. A 39-yard run from running back Cameron Marshall got Arizona State into the red zone, and an eight-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Steven Threet to wide receiver Kerry Taylor gave the Sun Devils their first lead of the game at 13-10 (kicker Thomas Weber missed the extra point).

The fourth quarter started with a grim outlook for the Cardinal. After trading punts following the Sun Devil touchdown, Stanford was driving into Arizona State territory with its first drive of the fourth quarter. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck threw an interception at the ASU six-yard line, giving the Sun Devils an opportunity to increase their lead.

However, the Cardinal defense came up with a stop, forcing Arizona State to punt from the Stanford 44-yard line.

Starting with the ball on its own 15-yard line, Stanford put together one of its classic drives, grinding out 85 yards in 10 plays while taking 5:22 off the clock, ending with a one-yard touchdown run from senior two-way player Owen Marecic. Whitaker drilled the extra point, giving the Card a 17-13 lead with just over five minutes remaining in the game. Stanford’s running game finally started to find some space against a suffocating ASU front seven, with sophomore Stepfan Taylor and freshman Anthony Wilkerson gaining chunks of yardage.

Stanford’s defense held up on the next ASU drive, with sophomore linebacker Shayne Skov sacking Threet on third down to force the punt before the Sun Devils could even move the chains once.

Stanford used its final drive to kill the clock and preserve the win. The Cardinal running game, especially Wilkerson, continued to grind out yards. Indeed, on his final run of the game, Wilkerson got behind the ASU defense and had a clear shot at the end zone, but slid down at the Arizona State four-yard line to keep the clock moving. Two kneel-downs by Luck ended the game, giving the Card the win.

Arizona State came into the game needing to win out to secure bowl eligibility, and its desperation showed, especially on defense. Led by linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the Sun Devil defense swarmed the line of scrimmage, putting pressure on the Stanford backfield. ASU’s front seven completely stuffed Stanford’s vertical running game. The Cardinal offensive line, which had dominated Arizona’s much-vaunted defensive line just a week ago, couldn’t find similar success against the Sun Devils’ run defense.

The Sun Devils also distinguished themselves from earlier Stanford opponents in mounting a credible pass rush. Luck was hurried and hit far more often than usual, and was sacked once in the second quarter, just the fourth sack surrendered by the Cardinal all season. While Luck would throw for 292 yards on the game, he ended with no passing touchdowns and one interception.

The one bright spot for Stanford’s offense was Wilkerson’s play. The true freshman led the Cardinal in rushing with 10 carries for 65 yards, even though he did not enter the game until the final five minutes of the third quarter. Taylor, who had spearheaded Stanford’s running attack over the last several games, failed to make any headway against ASU, finishing with 16 carries for just 39 yards (a lowly 2.4 yards per carry). Overall, Stanford’s rushing attack tallied a low 3.0 yards per carry, including 18 carries for only nine yards in the first half.

Stanford was once again without the services of junior receiver Chris Owusu, who was held out of the game with an undisclosed injury. Owusu has missed a number of games due to various injuries already, but looked fully healthy last week against Arizona while racking up 165 receiving yards on nine catches.

Defensively, Stanford continued to play well, holding the Sun Devils to 268 yards of total offense. Threet was held to just 158 yards on 16-26 passing, despite entering the game near the top of the Pac-10’s stat sheet. The Cardinal front seven also managed to limit ASU’s (admittedly weak) rushing attack to 110 yards on 23 carries.

As it did last weekend against Arizona, the defense’s impact went beyond the stat sheet, with clutch plays to nullify big ASU drives. Junior safety Delano Howell picked off Threet in the first quarter, and freshman cornerback Barry Browning recovered a fumble at its own goal line early in the second quarter when junior defensive back Michael Thomas knocked the ball loose from a diving Threet.

“When you have the best quarterback in the nation, a Heisman candidate on the other side of the ball, you just have do your job and keep them out of the end zone,” said senior cornerback Richard Sherman in a postgame press conference. “No matter how long it takes, he’s going to get it done.”

With a 4-6 overall record and two games remaining, Arizona State is officially eliminated from bowl eligibility-two of the Sun Devils’ wins came over FCS opponents, and only one of those can count toward eligibility. However, if Arizona State wins out, it may still gain a waiver to play in a bowl game if there are not enough eligible teams to fill all the bowl slots.

By beating ASU, Stanford kept its hopes of a BCS berth alive. With a 9-1 overall record, the Cardinal should be ranked in the top 10 of the final BCS standings if it wins out, but numerous factors could see Stanford in the Rose Bowl, another BCS bowl or a lesser bowl, most likely the Alamo Bowl. It will also help the Card that its only loss came to No. 1 Oregon, which survived against California in Berkeley on Saturday with a 15-13 victory.

Up next for Stanford is the 113th Big Game against Cal (5-5, 3-4) across the Bay at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. The Golden Bears have looked unbeatable at home- they won every home game this season by big margins prior to playing the Ducks, and only lost by two points to Oregon at home, which is no small feat against the country’s top team.

Stanford will take on Cal Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in Berkeley.

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Kabir Sawhney is currently a desk editor for the News section. He served as the Managing Editor of Sports last volume.