ASU Football: Are the Sun Devils No Longer the Sleeping, but Awakening Giant?

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ASU Football: Are the Sun Devils No Longer the Sleeping, but Awakening Giant?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

2010 Season in Review: As the 2010 season commenced, Arizona State was slated to finish ninth in the Pacific-10 Conference. Four months later, Dennis Erickson’s Sun Devils finished the season with a 6-6 record and tied for fourth place in the conference.

There was plenty of speculation before the season. Fans in the valley were chomping at the bit after two straight losing seasons, but still thought a 6-6, or even a 7-5 record was reasonable for a new-look football team. 

Although Erickson’s squad had much higher expectations than a mediocre record, and frankly, took offense to their cellar-dweller spot with Washington State, the only thing left to do was proving it on the field. 

Granted, Portland State and Northern Arizona were not exactly measuring sticks for a Pac-10 program, the early contests gave maroon and gold fans a first look at Noel Mazzone’s no-huddle, spread offense.

What fans saw was complete entertainment and excitement. The scoreboard received a full day’s work in the first game of the season, as ASU beat Portland State 54-9.

Coming off of a season in which the Sun Devils scored 30 points or more in two games, a new-look, high-octane passing attack was just the cure.

However, the first test of the season would take place at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI.

A game that matched a powerful rushing attack from the Big Ten and a speedy, athletic pass-oriented offense, turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the season.

Who among us actually believed the Sun Devils were going to win on the road, against Wisconsin, and come back home the following week to take on mighty Oregon?

For a moment there, the Sun Devils looked to be the better team. In fact, the Sun Devils looked to have the game tied with just over four minutes to play.

Ultimately, a blown blocking assignment on a normally routine extra point ended the Sun Devils’ hope of knocking off the Badgers.

All in all, there were plenty of positives leaving Madison despite the loss.

In fact, ASU realized that their special teams unit was pretty good too. Both Omar Bolden and Kyle Middlebrooks finished with 120 return yards.

Bolden scored one, but Middlebrooks fell less than half a yard short, and no time remaining before halftime on his long return.

Erickson found confidence in quarterback Steven Threet, as the former Big Ten starter was efficient with the no-huddle offense, and was secure with the football.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Dennis Erickson won a Pac-10 in his first season in Tempe, but until 2010 success was limited. 2011 appears to be different.

Against the Oregon Ducks, it was a completely different story. 

Threet and the ASU offense committed seven turnovers against the Ducks. Even with that staggering statistic, the Sun Devils looked to cruise into halftime with a 24-14 lead, until the Ducks big-play offense found another gear. 

Two minutes later, the Sun Devils walked down Tillman Tunnel staring at the scoreboard reading Ducks 28, Sun Devils 24.

What on Earth happened?

The Sun Devils gave up a 53-yard TD pass, and a 40-yard LaMichael James run 64 seconds later.

With the Sun Devils still in the game, the second half turned ugly. The Ducks extended the lead, but ASU not only fumbled, but gave the ball away with ease when a clutch comeback was needed.

The Ducks flew back to Oregon with an 11-point victory, and the Sun Devils were left to ponder what might have been.

After two straight nail-biting performances, the Sun Devils knew they could play with the best, but were struggling to prove it on the field for 60 minutes.

At Oregon State the following week, the turnovers were once again a point of discussion. In a 31-28 defeat, Threet tossed three interceptions, two coming in the red zone.

And once again, the Sun Devils fell victim to the big play. Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers scored twice; once from four yards out, and the nail in the coffin was his 74-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. 

The loss was not the only bruise ASU received following the game. Vontaze Burfict’s name was thrown around the media as a dirty player for his actions against OSU quarterback Ryan Katz.

Burfict was later suspended for the first quarter against Washington the next weekend, and was again on the Pac-10 officials' watch list. 

Nonetheless, ASU rolled into Seattle with a 2-3 record, facing the closest thing to a must-win game in October as you can get.

Arizona State responded with a 24-14 win. Threet played maybe his most complete game of the season, albeit in an absolute downpour. His one blemish in the interception department came in the fourth quarter, and the score tightened up.

The Sun Devils turned to their kicker, Tom Weber, to turn the lights out at Husky Stadium. After missing two kicks earlier in the game, Weber, just like the Sun Devils rebounded from two tough losses, came back and drilled the kick.

Staring at a bye week and a looming trip to Berkley, followed by lowly Washington State, ASU appeared to be on the upswing.

However, all the hope, all the expectations and promise from recent successes came crashing down at Memorial Stadium versus California.

There is something about that stadium that road teams cannot overcome. Even top ranked Oregon just barely escaped with a victory in their recent trip to Strawberry Canyon.

There was nothing barely, near or close about the Sun Devils performance in Berkeley. At the end of the day, it was an absolute butt-kicking, and the 50-17 score proved that in every way. It appeared that the team did not even show up, and Erickson received the brunt of the criticism. 

Thank goodness the Sun Devils played Washington State next.

Wazzuu fans circled the contest versus ASU as their one winnable game remaining on the schedule. As the clock wound down, the Sun Devils proved just how achievable that feat was with a 42-0 drubbing.

ASU understood the raised bar with two FCS opponents scheduled. The Sun Devils needed to win three of their final four games, with USC, Stanford, UCLA and in-state rival Arizona remaining; seven wins looked to be a huge stretch. 

But with less than two minutes to play at the L.A. Coliseum, the Sun Devils lined up to kick the potential game-wining field goal, and win their fifth game of the year. 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Cameron Marshall displayed why he will be mentioned with the top running backs in the conference in 2011.

It was not meant to be.

Tom Weber continued to battle inconsistency. In a game that Weber undertook the punting responsibilities as well, he had one punt blocked and an extra point blocked and returned for a crucial two points lingering in his thoughts.

Weber’s 41-yard attempt sailed wide, and as Barry Tompkins said, “He never had a chance.”

But the Sun Devils did. After fighting back from a 22-7 deficit, ASU looked to take a 34-29 lead with a “simple” extra point with under seven minutes to play.

USC’s Torin Harris returned the ball all the way for a pivotal conversion. Joe Houston’s late field goal kicked the Trojan’s into the lead and notched the victory. 

ASU was valiant in defeat, but that story was overplayed. No longer did moral victories excite the fans and players.

The coaching staff was called into question again, but never waivered. The team could have easily folded once again. However, there was still business at hand, and with the hard-nosed Stanford Cardinal coming to Tempe, there was no time to deliberate.

Sixth-ranked Stanford was playing for a spot in a BCS games and had a Heisman Trophy hopeful in Andrew Luck on display. Everything was in line for a Stanford blowout victory.

ASU was thought to be still licking their wounds against USC and overmatched by a powerful and well-coached Cardinal team.

That was not the case at all. Once again, ASU held a slim lead (three points) late in the fourth quarter. The Sun Devils were about to upset No. 6 Stanford.

Not so fast my friend! No, a late blunder on special teams did not end ASU’s hopes; this time it was the penalties.

In fact, the calls on the field were later retracted in a “my bad” kind of fashion. Officials made three game-changing calls on Stanford’s only touchdown of the second half.

The first was a flag on Burfict for holding, which negated an Eddie Elder interception. Next came the most impactful call of the game: face-masking on Burfict.

Video replays showed no contact to the facemask or helmet by Burfict, yet the flag was still thrown. Fifteen yards were marched off, and just when that happened, Burfict threw in his two cents.

And of course another unsportsmanlike conduct flag was thrown on Burfict.

The ball was later placed at the 6-yard line, and two plays later Stanford scored to win the game.

Another hard-fought effort fell by the wayside with nothing but a loss to show to for it.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Brock Osweiler looks to be the man at the qb position entering the Spring, especially after deciding against playing basketball for Herb Sendek.

Erickson’s squad could have easily thrown in the towel and finished with a second consecutive 4-8 season, but where is the respect and dignity in doing that?

Early on against UCLA, the thought of folding for the rest of the year came to the forefront when the Bruins held a 17-point lead at Sun Devil Stadium.

To add fuel to the fire, starting quarterback Steven Threet suffered his second concussion in five weeks.

Enter true sophomore Brock Osweiler. From that point on, ASU outscored UCLA 55-17, and a new hero in the valley emerged. It was "Brock and Roll Time" in the Valley of the Sun.

Osweiler came off the bench to lead ASU to nearly 600 yards, and accounted for five total touchdowns.

Brock Osweiler, the newly named starter, knew he was “The Guy,” and heading into the biggest game of the season against Arizona, the pressure seemed to be too much.

As was the case for the better part of 2010, the defense dominated, and kept Osweiler’s confidence true.

When the plays with his throwing arm faltered, Osweiler made plays with his athleticism. With a 6'8" frame, his mobility kept drives alive, and the punt team off the field.

In the Territorial Cup, both Arizona and Arizona State were evenly matched. The total yards were 389 to 391 in favor of the Wildcats, but in one game, the Sun Devils season was redefined.

After a trying, up-and-down season, Tom Weber tied his own school record of five made field goals against Arizona. Weber was the hero of the night, and his counterpart, Alex Zendejas, was the Wildcats scapegoat. 

Zendejas must have been the unfortunate recipient of Weber’s “bad juju” before the game. Maybe even a passing of the torch, if you will.

In the waning moments, it was Weber who was once again clutch in a big-time performance, and Zendejas was left scratching his head and wondering what could have been.

In turn, Erickson responded with a very candid statement on ASU’s up-and-down season.  

All year long, Erickson was confronted with questions regarding his team’s late-game follies. Following the Duel in the Desert, that question was posed in a far better light following the Arizona victory.

“It’s nice to get the football gods on our side,” Erickson said. “Well, at least the extra-point gods. What a football game.”

In all reality, what a season for the Sun Devils. As a fan, this season began with pedestrian expectations, but soon heightened to new levels after near upsets versus the nation’s elite. Not soon after, the Sun Devils ran into a wall, and needed victories in a terrible way. Each and every game that seemed to be a victory, somehow, someway turned into a head-scratching “what if” game.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Sun Devils return 19 of 22 starters and a core group of sophomores and junior returning, the Sun Devils look to be celebrating a lot more often.

Still, as the season has come to a close, what if the Sun Devils won one more game, against Oregon, Oregon State, USC, Stanford or even Wisconsin? Well, ASU would be practicing today, and even though Erickson’s squad is not, the 2010 season was a success.

To go from ninth place in preseason polls, with an entirely new offensive system, new quarterback and replacing key veterans on defense, to a fourth-place finish in the conference is extremely admirable.

But admirable is not good enough for a national championship-winning coach, and a program starved for sustainable success.

By season’s end, moral victories transformed into true, actual, NCAA recorded victories. No more shoulda, woulda, coulda’s. ASU’s young team learned how to finish strong, and win an ever-important game.  

The saying, “one game defines a season,” is heard frequently in sports culture, especially when it comes down to winning championships. Arizona State did not win a championship this year, but Erickson’s 2010 team competed with, and in some cases outperformed, championship-caliber teams.

In what turned out to be the final chapter of an exciting rollercoaster season, the Sun Devils found a catalyst in the victory over Arizona. The Sun Devils won a game on the road and in doing so, beat a Top 25 opponent for the first time since October 2007. 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Hopefully next season, ASU's games will not be as heart-wrenching as 2010, but fans would like enjoy this celebration much more frequently.

This one win, and two-game winning streak, sets the stage for a 2011 season with 19 of 22 starters returning, including a hot commodity or two at quarterback. In the new Pacific-12 Conference, Arizona State might be the early favorite in the South Division.

In a season defined by learning and growth, the Sun Devils showed resolve and an understanding of what can be accomplished with total, and complete effort.

Before the victory over Arizona, fans and players hoped their team could pull off the win, or the upset, but probably didn't believe it.

Now, moving forward, the players have labored through intense game experiences with minimal reward, and plenty of soul-searching. The belief and confidence now is that the Sun Devils will win, and with a heavy home schedule in 2011, Erickson and his ASU players will expect to win.

The 6-6, or 7-5 middle of the road records will not be predicted anymore, and fans in the valley are looking for the “sleeping giant” to awake in the new Pac-12 South.  

Don't look now, but the sun appears to be rising on the Arizona State's slumber. 

On September 10, 2011, fans in the desert will find out just how forceful that giant is when Arizona State hosts the Missouri Tigers. 

For once, the phrase: "Wait till next year" has a ring to it.

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