As the clock ticked down to zero at Camp Randall Stadium, the expression on Dennis Erickson’s face as he approached midfield for the handshake was priceless. Erickson’s squad found themselves staring a victory right square in the eyes, but once again, in a big game circumstance, the Arizona State Sun Devils failed to execute with the necessary effectiveness to earn a victory.
The final result between the Sun Devils and Badgers was decided with ASU and Erickson wondering “what if?” How would the game have changed if Thomas Weber made an early 25-yard field goal? What if ASU capitalized on one of the many times Wisconsin threw into double and triple coverage?
How about if George Bell, who has been absolutely dead silent the first two weeks, did not drop a sure touchdown pass in the second quarter, or just barely miss dragging his toe on another end zone grab?
What about if true freshman Kyle Middlebrooks returned a Wisconsin kickoff following a late first half touchdown one extra yard, as he was tackled literally at the half yard line?
I am not sure which was the final straw, but out of the next three plays, one of them certainly broke the camel’s back. The officials completely missed a pass interference call in the end zone that would have set up a first and goal for ASU in the fourth quarter; unfortunately a field goal was the result.
The score was sitting at an unusual 20-19, and ASU had Wisconsin in a 3rd down and 5 from the Badgers’ 33 yard line, but a personal foul penalty away from the football by James Brooks would then set up Wisconsin with a first and ten from nearly midfield.
At that point, even with three timeouts left, the game was already decided. ASU let another big game, big statement game slip away. This time, ASU lost by the narrowest of margins, just a single point. The difference between a win and a loss in football sometimes cannot even be measured, but in the game at Madison, WI, miscues, mistakes, penalties, and a Wisconsin team that was good, but not that good struck down, the Sun Devils.
Once again Dennis Erickson walked into the post game press conference only to try and diagnose a few moral victories. Unfortunately, the NCAA does not recognize moral victories in the win column. And in a year where ASU can only count one of their FCS (formerly Div. 1-AA) victories, so wins are at a premium in the valley of the sun.
For the most part, ASU kept that style boiling the entire game. With each hit, each tackle, and each play, the Sun Devils looked to move closer and closer to an upset. Spectators might even suggest that the maroon and gold offensive line was equally as impressive as Wisconsin’s heralded offensive line. The crowd noise and intensity inside the stadium did not affect the Sun Devils performance, if anything ASU fed off the crowd’s excitement.
With big play after big play during Saturday’s game the offensive line was an integral part of the Sun Devils’ success. The Sun Devils only rushed for 56 yards against Northern Arizona, but you could tell the gameplan Saturday was to attack the edge with speed and find a running lane created by the big boys up front. That strategy led to 169 yards on 28 attempts. ASU averaged 6.0 yards per carry, compared to Wisconsin’s 4.6 yards per carry.
Arizona State finished the game below their season average in total yards and passing yards, but the Sun Devils were not playing the Portland State Vikings this week. When the final whistle blew, ASU accumulated 380 yards of offense against one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, if not the country.
As Steven Threet returned back to his old stomping grounds of the Big Ten, he was eyeing another big victory of the Wisconsin Badgers, similar to his performance as a Michigan Wolverine in 2008. Although, ASU was playing so well, Threet never had to worry about completing a monumental comeback. Threet’s numbers on Saturday were good enough for a win (21 of 33 for 211 yards), but his numbers could have been better as well.
Threet probably thought he had a touchdown pass to George Bell in the third quarter and I am sure Bell thought the samething, until he looked up only to see a Wisconsin defender primed to rip his helmet off. As we found out, Bell saw the hit coming, and sure enough dropped a touchdown pass.
However, the Sun Devils never let up when mistakes or miscues found their way into the game. ASU’s leaders were forced to step up and take charge, but a huge reason the game remained close was the Sun Devils’ stifling defense.
I am sure giving up 440 yards of offense was not the dominant performance that coordinator Craig Bray was expecting, but throughout the game, every single yard conceded was hard fought. Wisconsin never really looked in rhythm both running and passing and that can be credited to ASU’s athletic defense. The Badgers tried to take control, but ASU, led by linebacker Vontaze Burfict, would not allow it.
ASU was well aware of the Badgers’ lofty rushing totals not only this season, but in years past. ASU's defense set a goal to keep their opponent under their 240-yard average. That mission was complete, but in the end the game was decided with the defense on the sidelines, and on a fluke blocked extra point.
Dennis Erickson’s squad performed admirably in defeat, but in all reality, Wisconsin should be the team licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves. ASU earned a victory Saturday in all categories, except where it matters the most, the field. As ASU fans and Erickson understand, moral victories do absolutely nothing for your football program.
This was just another instance where Dennis Erickson and the Sun Devils attempted to get over the preverbal “hump” with a victory over a top 15 team on the road. However, the result was just another close call, as the hometown favorite in the game walked away with an unblemished record, and the underdogs jumped onto another long cross country flight, only to think about what could have been.
Unfortunately the schedule does not get any easier for Arizona State. Now, the Sun Devils will have to regroup and shift their focus to another top ten opponent, as the Oregon Ducks flock to Tempe with their virtually unstoppable offense. Hopefully another near win and a moral victory on the road will not spark a third straight midseason collapse for Arizona State.