By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Anticipation runs deep for Saturday's showdown between 10th-ranked Stanford and visiting 13th-ranked Arizona, perhaps the two most improved football teams in the Pac-10 over the past two or three years.
This game, matching teams with 4-1 (7-1 overall) records, may not be for all the marbles but it still carries a championship feel. National television (ABC), a full house, teams that match strength against strength only help throw the switch on the magnitude of the contest.
The electric atmosphere surrounding the contest, from tailgating to other planned sporting events on the Stanford campus earlier in the day, should peak when the head official blows his whistle for either Nate Whitaker or John Bonano to put the game into motion at 5 p.m.
The expected return of Arizona quarterback Nick Foles, the tough-minded redshirt junior who missed the past two games with a knee injury, will bolster the Wildcats' mindset. They didn't miss a best with backup Matt Scott, who guided Arizona to a 29-21 victory over host UCLA last week. Stanford beat host Washington, 41-0, last Saturday.
"It shows you how big of a game this that this is prime time on ABC," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said. "We understand this game has huge implications on the end of the season and the Pac-10."
Luck will be staring across the line of scrimmage against a defense that leads the conference in sacks at 3.38 per game. He's confident his offensive line, which has helped ward off potential danger all season, will continue its strong efforts. The Cardinal has allowed three sacks all season.
Luck tops all Pac-10 quarterbacks in passing efficiency and Stanford ranks second in scoring offense and third in total offense. The Wildcats are the conference's best defensive team.
"They might be the best defense we've faced," Luck said. "They force turnovers, they are fast and they are coached by Mike Stoops, a very well-respected defensive coach. You don't change anything but you have to be aware they have good players, great defensive ends."
Even the Pac-10 championship is in play, though Stanford has already lost to top-ranked Oregon. The Wildcats play in Eugene in three weeks. Oregon State pinned Arizona with its only loss to date. Stanford hosts the Beavers in three weeks.
"They have the best two defensive ends, by far, in the Pac-10," Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh said.
"Even their third guy would be starting for any other team. Pass rush can dictate a lot of things if you can get pressure on the quarterback."
Film from last year's 43-38 loss in Tucson was very much part of the weekly study meetings in preparation for this game. Arizona scored twice in the fourth quarter to overcome a 38-29 deficit. Nic Grigsby raced 57 yards for the winning touchdown late in the contest.
Stanford failed to score on its two trips into the red zone in the final period. The teams combined for 1,137 offensive yards, including 849 yards on 61-of-86 passing combined. Foles completed 40 of his 51 pass attempts. There was one interception and one sack in the game, both produced by the Wildcats.
"I'm sure for the older guys that's certainly in the back of their minds," Stanford sophomore linebacker Shayne Skov said. "It's in their minds not to let it happen again. We have to be physical up front and clamp down on the running lanes. We just have to go out and play football."
While Arizona has the conference's best defense, Stanford is not far behind in third place, allowing 330.4 yards a game, roughly 43 yards more than the Wildcats. The pass defense has been the most impressive. After allowing 265 yards on average last season, the Cardinal secondary has helped improve that to its current 199 per-game average.
Delano Howell's return to the secondary against the Huskies certainly bolstered that unit. Howell and Owen Marecic each had two of the team's 10 interceptions.
Special teams will also play a vital role in the game's outcome. Stanford has the conference's best kickoff coverage team while Arizona's Travis Cobb leads the Pac-10 in kickoff returns, including a spectacular 100-yard return in helping Arizona beat Iowa in week three.
"He's a returner who can hit it," Harbaugh said. "He has great instincts and the ability to set up his blockers."
Harbaugh hinted that Chris Owusu, who led the Pac-10 in returns last year, may get a chance to return this year.
Owusu, who missed the Washington State game with a left hand injury, had his most productive return day, in terms of yardage, against the Wildcats last year.
"We have a heck of an opportunity to get where we want to be by the end of the season," said Skov, who leads Stanford with 46 tackles. "We're definitely going to be ready to play."