ASU Season Preview: The Sun Devils Will Make a BCS Game If...
Ever since the Arizona State reached No. 4 in the October 28th, 2007 BCS standings after an 8-0 start, the Sun Devils have fallen progressively farther away from a BCS bowl berth. This futility culminated in 2010 as the team missed a bowl game for the third consecutive season.
Despite their recent bowl drought, the Sun Devils are a team many consider to be on the rise. Their 2010 campaign featured a very young team that battled immense growing pains to surpass expectations and finish 6-6. The momentum of the instant classic double-overtime win over Arizona and sleek new uniforms has further fueled the fire of expectations.
The young kids of 2010 are now the experienced veterans of 2011. ASU is now poised to make a run, not just at the Pac-12 South division title but at that elusive first berth in a BCS bowl.
Now in his fifth season in Tempe, head coach Dennis Erickson has all of the tools in place to make that a reality. However, that is much easier said than done.
What must happen for the the Sun Devils to make it to the BCS promised land?
Deantre Lewis Becomes J.R. Redmond
The Sun Devil offense of recent seasons has lacked the type of game-breaking threat that can take the ball the distance at any given moment. In fact, the program has lacked such a player since J.R. Redmond graduated after the 1999 season.
That all changed last season when freshman running back Deantre Lewis stepped onto the Sun Devil Stadium turf for the first time.
He scored three touchdowns in the season-opening win over Portland State, including a 62-yard reception. Over the season's first half, he was among the most explosive players in the nation, reeling off three 100-yard rushing games, another 100-yard effort receiving and had nine plays of over 20 yards from scrimmage.
Sadly, nagging injuries hampered him through much of the season's latter half, although he did top 100 yards receiving, including a 70-yarder, against UCLA before being forced out of the Arizona game. Taking out his four injury plagued games, Lewis averaged 9.3 yards per touch last season.
During the offseason, Lewis was shot in the buttocks by a random shooting in his hometown of Norco, California, but it is not expected to hamper him this fall.
That's good news for ASU, as BCS caliber teams need a home-run threat to keep defenses on their toes.
Beat Utah on the Road on October 8th
The major news for the former Pac-10 conference is the addition of Colorado and Utah, thereby creating the new Pac-12 conference complete with North and South divisions and a conference championship game.
ASU joins Arizona, UCLA, USC and the two newcomers in the South.
With Colorado and UCLA still mired in mediocrity, USC wracked by sanctions and the presence of Lane Kiffin, the primary antagonists for the Sun Devils' quest for a title game berth figure to be hated nemesis Arizona and the Utes.
Among those new division rivals, the Sun Devils will play host to Arizona, USC and Colorado. Their first division game is September 24th against the Trojans, setting up their trip to Utah on October 8th to be the true litmus test for their BCS hopes.
Utah is coming off a 10-win season and returns star quarterback Jordan Wynn. If the Devils can pull off the road win, their remaining division schedule looks to be in their favor.
The Secondary Steps Up
Despite any coachspeak of "opportunity", there is really no upside to losing a unanimous All-Pac-10 first team player, especially one with legitimate NFL-caliber talent.
ASU's star cornerback Omar Bolden passed up a chance to enter the 2010 NFL Draft to return for his final season, only to tear his ACL last month. It is fortunate that the injury occurred in April, leaving him a chance to make a Rod Woodson-like return, given the typical five to eight month recovery window. However, the burden of ASU's pass defense now falls to a pair of talented but unheralded players.
Deveron Carr opened 2010 as the starting cornerback opposite of Bolden and played well in the first four games before being lost for the season against Oregon State with a shoulder injury. The injury kept him out of spring practice, but he has good size at 5'11" and his previous starting experience will be key.
After Carr's injury, Osahon Irabor stepped in to replace him. Irabor had some initial struggles but improved steadily down the stretch, and by season's end had become an effective player, finishing with 40 tackles and an interception.
The play of Carr and Irabor will go a long way in determining if ASU's vaunted defense will once again be able to play at a high level, especially with pass happy offenses such as USC, Missouri and Utah on the early season schedule.
Junior Onyeali Channels His Inner Terrell Suggs
Once of the reasons for ASU's early struggles last season was the complete lack of a pass rush. That began to change when Erickson inserted freshman defensive end Junior Onyeali into the starting lineup in Week 6 against the Washington Huskies.
He made an immediate impact, harassing Jake Locker, the Huskies' speedy quarterback. Despite his late start, by season's end, Onyeali had registered team highs in both sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (11.5).
Onyeali then became the second straight Sun Devil to win the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year award, following linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
However, the Sun Devils still only ranked 61st in the nation in sacks with 24. With the departure of star defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and the injury to Omar Bolden, the pressure on the Devils' pass rush grows that much greater.
Onyeali has shown the ability to become a pass rusher in the class of Terrell Suggs, and the team will need a strong sophomore campaign from him in order to make it to the BCS.
Find People to Kick
The memories of the kicking game woes for the Sun Devils in 2010 still sting.
Until he connected on all five of his field goal attempts in the win over Arizona, kicker Thomas Weber, the 2007 Lou Groza Award winner, had a nightmarish season.
He missed a field goal and had an extra point blocked in ASU's 20-19 loss to then No. 11 Wisconsin.
Against USC, he had another extra point blocked that was returned for two points and later missed a 41-yard attempt in the Devils' 34-33 defeat.
He then missed another extra point that would have given the team a four point lead in an eventual 17-13 loss to No. 7 Stanford.
Despite those struggles, his departure both highlights the importance of the kicking game and leaves a large void. To add to the worries, punter Trevor Hankins, who was among the elite at his position for much of the season, is also gone.
Left in their wake are three kickers and two punters to battle for those ever so important spots. As any ASU fan can tell you, that can mean the difference between a title-contending season and sitting home in December.
Brock Osweiler Avoids Steven Threet's Example
For much of the 2010 season, then-starting quarterback Steven Threet was among the conference leaders in passing. He was also challenging for the national lead in another category.
Despite missing essentially the final two games, Threet's 16 interceptions were only two off of the national "lead". Many of those interceptions were extremely costly, including both the Oregon and Oregon State losses, in which five combined fourth quarter interceptions sealed the Devils' fate.
After taking over for an injured—and now retired—Threet, Brock Osweiler was able to avoid those mistakes. In his final two games, Osweiler threw five touchdowns without an interception. Not surprisingly, ASU won both games.
That's not to say there were not any close calls or bad decisions. In the season finale, Osweiler was repeatedly aided by drops from Arizona defenders on bad decisions and poor throws.
Now the unquestioned starter, much of ASU's hopes for 2011 reside in the 6'8" junior's head and right arm. He enters his second season in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's system, so he should be well prepared to lead the team into contention. He's seen first-hand how decisive turnovers from the quarterback position can derail a season.
It's up to him to avoid his predecessor's mistakes and lead them to the BCS.
Cut Down on Self-Inflicted Wounds
As touched on in the previous slide, interceptions killed ASU last season.
On the surface, the -4 turnover differential (22 to 18) wasn't overwhelming. However, as is frequently the case, it's not how many turnovers a team commits, but when they occur that truly matters.
The Devils showed a penchant for choosing the worst possible times for those turnovers (see: Oregon and Oregon State). That is often the sign of a young and inexperienced team, and both adjectives more than adequately described them in 2010.
Another telltale sign is penalties. In this case, it wasn't even close. Arizona State ranked 114th out of the 120 FBS teams in both penalties (8.0) and penalty yards (69.6) per game, both staggering figures. As anyone who followed the team last season, many of them were of the imbecilic variety—staggeringly moronic calls that easily could and should have been avoided.
Championship teams in this day and age rarely have the margin of error to rank 114th in a category as crucial as penalties. Coach Erickson must finally make good on his repeated claims of addressing this issue if ASU will be bowling in January.
An Experienced Offensive Line Plays Like One
It is one of the oldest football cliches, but also one of the most accurate—the wars on the gridiron are won up front in the trenches.
Any ASU fan of recent years can immediately point out the offensive line as the most consistently weak point on the team. The images of a battered and bloody Rudy Carpenter picking himself off the turf are still vivid to many.
This was also the case in 2010, but there were improvements. After losing tackle Jon Hargis to a knee injury for much of the season, the Devils started four different line combinations in the first five games. On the offensive line, consistency is everything.
However, after that, the combination of tackles Evan Finkenberg and Aderious Simmons, guards Andrew Sampson and Mike Marcisz and center Garth Gerhart handled the next six games until Dan Knapp made his return.
All six of those players return in 2011, along with Brice Schwab and Adam Tello, who each had starts last season. This has the makings of ASU's best line in years, as well as the core of a contender.
Burfict Is Burfict
The 2011 NFL draft recently ended, which of course means that mock drafts for the 2012 NFL draft are beginning to come out. One name that is showing up on all of those early prognostications is junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Burfict was ASU's highest ranked recruit ever and he's proven those forecasts correct.
Last season, he led the team with 90 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and forced two fumbles. His dynamic play earned him the Pac-10 Defensive MVP award and numerous spots on First Team All-American lists, becoming the first Sun Devil to do so since Terrell Suggs in 2002.
The strength of this ASU team is the defense, and the strength of the defense is Burfict. If he can play to his immense potential, the Sun Devils will be in great shape. However, if he takes a step back or continues to struggle in his well documented battle with penalties, this defensive unit will falter, especially in light of the Bolden injury.
Although it's far from certain, there's a good chance this will be Burfict's last season in Tempe. If he plays like most expect him to, he will be a certain first-round pick next season. It's time to solidify his legacy as one of the all-time Sun Devil greats.
BCS teams succeed because their best players step up and led them to those bowls. ASU will need Burfict to do that in 2011.
Learn to Win
Before a team can become a championship contender, they must learn to win. They must prove that they can overcome the numerous obstacles that occur during a season, a game and a single drive. They must prove that they can defeat not only their opponents, but that invisible barrier separating pretenders from contenders.
For most of 2010, ASU did not know how to win.
They were talented enough to put themselves in a position to win among the elite teams in the country—Oregon, Wisconsin, Stanford—but inevitably they crumbled while on the precipice of such program-altering victories.
In most cases in all of sports, those are the heartbreaking hurdles that a team on the rise must face before they can taste glory.
This is Arizona State's time. There are no more excuses. The talent is immense. The experience is here. The lessons of winning have been learned.