Harbaugh, Fua, Luck preview Sac. St.

Some might consider Saturday's season opener against Sacramento State somewhat of a "tune-up" or "dress rehearsal" in preparation for the real opponents on the daunting 2010 Stanford schedule. But don't tell that to any of the Cardinal coaches or players.

With UCLA on the docket next week, this is your classic "look-ahead game" without the label of a "trap", because the Hornets have no chance of walking out of Palo Alto with a victory. Then again, we all remember what happened to Michigan at home against Appalachian State in 2007.

"Everyone is focused on Sac State and our gameplan for what they're going to throw at us," Sione Fua said. "I haven't heard the name UCLA once. Even the coaches aren't looking ahead; they know we have to take it one game at a time. The team is doing the same."

Sacramento State started the 2009 season winless after three games, but built some momentum heading into this year by going 5-3 the rest of the way. The Hornets are no stranger to going toe to toe with the big boys, having played at least one FBS school every year since 2002. The Big Sky representative was humbled by UNLV last season, 38-3.

The Hornets run a 4-3 defensive scheme that can sometimes transform into a 4-2-5 like Boise State and TCU utilize.

"I would say the strength of the team is defense," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "They moved several players from offense to defense to become athletic."

Sac State's top defensive end is a former high school quarterback. Two of the team's linebackers were running backs last year. The defensive coordinator is an ex-Marine that demands an aggressive, attacking style out of his unit.

"Defensively, from what I've watched, everybody plays with an incredibly high motor and they've got a lot of athletes," said Andrew Luck. "It's going to be a struggle putting up points."

Now Mr. Luck is as humble as they come but we're not buying into the "struggle" of scoring touchdowns. This is essentially the same team that averaged 35.5 points per outing last season and hung 51 and 55 on Oregon and USC.

Look for Stanford to air it out early and often against the Hornets. The play-calling could be pretty vanilla, not wanting to give anything away this early, but the offense should be able to expose inferior talent on the defensive side of the ball. Our friends over on the CFN Scout network predicted a 61-3 trouncing.

Offensively for Sac State, the Cardinal expects to see a heavy dose of running even though the Hornets operate out of the spread formation.

"The first thing they want to do is run the ball right down your throat," Fua said. "That's what we're gameplanning for right now. We just need to be able to stop the run first and foremost."

The Hornets will use a three-headed monster out of the backfield. After leading the team in rushing in 2007 and 2008, Bryan Hilliard will return from shoulder surgeries. Jake Croxdale and Curtis Shaw (Washington transfer) round out the stable of backs.

Under center in the spread, zone-read option offense will be senior quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson. The name might sound familiar, since he spent the first two years of his collegiate career at UCLA before transferring to Sac State.

"He's a dual-threat guy, I remember recruiting him out of high school," Harbaugh said. "Defensively, we're going to have to be athletic, they do things that will put pressure on us. We'll have to get to the quarterback and tackle in space."

The opportunity to pressure Bethel-Thompson should be available. The Hornets return just two offensive linemen and one of those players switched from center to left tackle. Getting to the quarterback was a problem last year for Stanford, as were many aspects of the defense, but this is a game in which the Cardinal should be able to build some confidence heading into Pac-10 play.

Harbaugh would not comment on injuries going into the game but said he has not ruled anybody out. Nonetheless, Chris Owusu was absent from the depth chart and is apparently "working through something physically." Don't expect to see the dynamic receiver and kick returner on the field Saturday.


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