Arizona State's 2009 season started with intense anticipation and reserved promise, promise of future achievements and success. But how come the fans in Arizona were so anxious to see a team that was coming off of a 5-7 season and was bowl-less for the first time since 2003? Because everything that came out of the program said, "there are pieces in place," that could catapult ASU into a contender for the Pac-10 crown.
But boy, it is late November and the Pacific 10 contender that many believed was alive and well during the summer is now staring death straight in the face.
However, let me take you on trip, not "Back to the Future," but back to the fall of 2008. ASU was riding high, coming off of a Pac-10 Championship season in which first-year coach Dennis Erickson won 10 games. Media outlets across the country had so much faith in the Sun Devils that nearly every source had them ranked in their top 20 to start the 2008 season.
Arizona State had their sights set on the overpowering Georgia Bulldogs who were coming to town in late September. But many neglected the fact that ASU had to play three games before that highly anticipated contest. Everything seemed to be going according to plan until the "little train that could" (University of Nevada-Las Vegas), made a stop in Tempe.
With hopes and dreams and thoughts of potential "back-to-back" conference championship seasons riding high, the Sun Devils overlooked the UNLV Rebels and, unfortunately, never recovered.
If you want to call it a recovery, Arizona State rebounded from a six-game losing streak from Sept. 13 to Nov. 8, when Erickson's squad beat the previously win-less Washington Huskies.
The Sun Devils did make the late-season push for a bowl game, only to be tossed aside and manhandled by their rivals to the south.
Now it is the summer of 2009 and Dennis Erickson has just ushered in his most prolific recruiting class to date. Vontaze Burfict, one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the nation, not only sniffed out the possibility of playing in Tempe, but actually signed on the dotted line to don the maroon and gold.
Not only did Erickson recruit very well in the offseason, but the wise head man also took a look at how to improve his offense. Erickson tweaked his schemes and formations and transformed ASU into a shotgun spread offense to couple with the ferocious, ball-hawking defense on the other side.
Through the first two games of the season, ASU dominated their opponents, and rightfully so. But the Sun Devils' real test was going to come "Between the Hedges" against Georgia.
Arizona State fought toe-to-toe, punch-for-punch, and unfortunately, weaknesses slowly began to show. Penalties began to pile up, especially in crucial stages of the game, and injuries, even to the kicker, began to send the Sun Devils back to square one.
A heartbreaking loss on the last play of the game to Georgia began to spell doom for ASU. I regarded the Sun Devils' next game against Oregon State as a "must win" game, and it was. No matter what the outcome of the Georgia road trip had on Erickson's team, somehow, someway Arizona State needed to beat the Beavers to right the ship.
As we all know now, Oregon State put the hurt on Arizona State at Frank Kush Field. Although the score did not indicate it, the first quarter of that game began the downward slope of the 2009 season.
Who would have thought that a botched snap on a routine fourth-down punt would be the opening line of a nightmarish horror story. The Sun Devils virtually gave the first quarter to the Beavers, gift-wrapping 14 Oregon State points.
And don't you wish stats really mattered in games? Arizona State dominated the Beavers in the box score. ASU had 406 total yards and 26 first downs to OSU's 295 yards and 14 first downs.
Although the Sun Devils lost against Oregon State, they rebounded nicely in wins over Pac-10 cellar-dwellers Washington and Washington State.
Then came the meat of the schedule, where flaws, inadequacies and weaknesses are exposed for all to see.
Penalties, lack of discipline, injuries, suspensions and lack of production from playmakers on offense began to riddle the team's confidence.
Oh yeah, and it also did not help that virtually no one outside of the football office had faith in quarterback Danny Sullivan. It was a rarity to hear cheers instead of boos raining down from Sun Devil Stadium. That began to divide the team from within.
When times got tough, the players began to doubt themselves, their teammates, their coaches and their fans. But when your back is against the wall you need to be the strongest and have confidence and faith that there is a way out.
The Sun Devils hoped that there was a way out, but their faith and confidence was damaged so much that the only thing that could bring them out of this funk was a quarterback change.
Clearly, the mistakes and downfall of the season cannot be pinned on one person. However, the lack of confidence and reliability into one quarterback was cause for concern.
Unfortunately for Sun Devil fans, it is Thanksgiving week and the quarterback situation is now only beginning to look a little clearer.
Samson Szakacsy has the talent, when healthy, to get the job done under center. Szakacsy will give fans in Tempe an opportunity to witness his ability and playmaking style in person for the first time as the starter.
Arizona State will be anticipating a look to the future Saturday night versus the Arizona Wildcats, while also paying homage to another great Sun Devil senior class. What better way than to give the fans a taste of what is to come in 2010 with a signature victory against the U of A.
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