The Gomez Files: Game Time Is Finally Here

Sept. 2, 2003

By Brian Gomez

Having watched more than a handful of Pac-10 football teams start their seasons over Labor Day weekend, Arizona State can't wait to step into Sun Devil Stadium for a game that actually counts.

ASU head coach Dirk Koetter is making sure his hungry squad approaches Saturday's opener against Northern Arizona with the same mentality that bred success through three scrimmages and nearly a month of practice. He doesn't want his players to have too much excitement, yet he doesn't want them to be too lax, especially against a team that has already undergone its first test of the season.

'Every team on our schedule from here on out gets this tape,' Koetter said. 'We want people to say that we're a team with great speed, a team that's physical, a team that knows what they're doing and a team that plays hard. Whether you're playing the first game against NAU or the last game against Arizona, those characteristics should show up.'

The No. 20-ranked Sun Devils have met Koetter's expectations thus far behind the leadership of junior quarterback Andrew Walter and junior free safety Riccardo Stewart, both of whom are serving as co-captains this season.

On Saturday, Walter will face a defense that relinquished an average of 359.4 yards per game last year, the fourth most in the Big Sky Conference. The Lumberjacks allowed 214 yards last week in a 44-3 win over St. Mary's.

Stewart and his teammates in the secondary figure to get tested by NAU freshman quarterback Jason Murrietta, who came off the bench to throw for 287 yards and three touchdowns against St. Mary's. Murrietta will likely start Saturday in place of Baylor transfer Guy Tomcheck.

'Murrietta can run and throw very well, and when he gets outside of the pocket, he can throw on the run,' said Koetter, whose team could be without freshman defensive end Kyle Caldwell and sophomore safeties Joey Smith and Lamar Baker, depending on their progress in practice this week. 'I've seen that kid make a lot of plays in his high school career (at Glendale Ironwood). When things around him were breaking down, he could still make a play.'

The Lumberjacks ranked second in the Big Sky in rushing defense a year ago, yielding an average of 103.4 yards per game. ASU hopes to balance its passing attack with a ground game that features senior tailback Mike Williams, who's listed first on the depth chart, ahead of redshirt freshmen Loren Wade and Randy Hill and sophomores Cornell Canidate and Hakim Hill.

'The theme for this week is to just be ourselves,' Koetter said. 'NAU already played a game and got to work some of their bugs out. We need to go out there and take care of how we're going to play.'

Saturday's game will give coaches an opportunity to evaluate some of the lingering position battles: Senior Tony Aguilar is challenging senior Tim Fa'aita at left guard and junior Drew Hodgdon at center; sophomore Chaz White and redshirt freshman Andrew Carnahan are both in contention for the starting left tackle spot; on defense, sophomore Josh Golden and junior Emmanuel Franklin are vying to start at corner opposite junior R.J. Oliver.

'There are a lot less questions because everyone has been in the system, and most of the guys have 14 games under their belt,' Koetter said. 'Last year at this time, we were going into a game at Nebraska hoping that we could be a competitive team, and I don't think we're hoping anymore. Our guys think they have a chance to be in every game, and I believe that.'

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