Tim Healey: 'Saturday Night Live'
Oct. 13, 2000
As you probably can imagine, there's nothing quite like game day for a college football play-by-play announcer. The excitement and anticipation build to a crescendo during the week, as you dutifully prepare for the task of bringing the descriptions and accounts of Sun Devil football to ASU's legion of fans worldwide.
Then, game day comes, and it's time to put all that hard work and preparation to good use. It's actually quite similar to what the players and coaches do: practice and prepare all week, and then take care of business on Saturday!
To be honest with you, there aren't many Saturdays that I've approached with as much excitement and anticipation as this coming Saturday, when the 10th-ranked Washington Huskies visit Tempe for a game which has potentially far-reaching ramifications for the Sun Devils.
I don't know about you, but I really like this ASU team, one that has faced a year's worth of adversity in just two months, yet one that hasn't backed down from any of the challenges it has confronted. Think back to pre-season: franchise running back Delvon Flowers goes down for the season with a knee injury. Then, backup Davaren Hightower falls victim to a mysterious illness that knocks him out of the lineup for a month. Third-stringer J.R. Peroulis quit the team, meaning the Devils were down to a true freshman tailback (Michael Williams) and a walk-on who joined the team in mid-September (Tom Pace). Veteran quarterback Ryan Kealy gets in trouble that costs him the first two games of the season, then suffers a final, career-concluding knee injury a week after his return to the lineup. That leaves the offense's most significant position in the hands of two former walk-ons (Jeff Krohn and Griffin Goodman). In mid-August, knowing what would transpire in the coming weeks, would you have picked the Devils to be 4-1 (and actually, only one bad quarter removed from being 5-0) heading into the Washington game? Me, neither.
How have the Devils done it? It's easy to cite the newfound big play offense that 'Air Snyder' has suddenly unleashed on the Pac-10. It's also easy to credit the ASU defense, whose aggressive, blitz-happy package has been a highly effective crowd-pleaser. However, it seems to me that the underlying reason for the Sun Devils' success so far has been some kind of intangible quality this team possesses. I'm not sure if that quality is mental toughness, or good chemistry, or consistency, or quiet self-confidence, or maybe even maturity. Perhaps it's a combination of all of those things. However you describe it, the 2000 Sun Devils seem uniquely able to bring the right amount of focus and intensity to each week's game. The frighteningly inconsistent tendencies of the '99 Devils (lose by 31 at Notre Dame one week, win by 21 at Washington the next) seem to be a thing of the past. This year's bunch is almost certain to give you their best shot, week in, week out.
Which brings me to this week.
As fun and fascinating as I think the 2000 Devils have been to watch and follow, I get the sense their story isn't reaching a very big audience. It reminds me of a line from one of my all-time favorite Broadway musicals, '1776,' where John Adams' character laments 'Is anybody there? Does anybody care?' One would think it would be big news if a major college football team goes 4-1 with a variety of walk-ons and newcomers manning key positions on the squad. It would seem to be even bigger news if that 4-1 record was forged on the strength of spectacular offensive fireworks (11 touchdowns of 35+ yards the last three weeks) and aggressive, crowd-pleasing defense. Yet, an average home attendance of 46,450 (nearly 30,000 below Sun Devil Stadium's capacity) and an absence of national media conversation regarding ASU football tell me this intriguing story is falling on deaf ears. So far.
Which, again, brings me to this week.
The conspicuous absence of ASU football fever in the Valley likely stems from a general perception that this team really isn't that good, that it has played a soft schedule, that a team with so many walk-ons can't possibly be counted on to stand toe-to-toe with the best the Pac-10 has to offer, that a major 'reality check' is in store for the Sun Devils.
Which, again, brings me to this week.
If the Devils can beat #10 Washington, just about all of those perceptions listed above will dramatically change. If ASU can knock off a potent, tradition-rich program like Washington's, fans will start realizing that these Sun Devils just might be able to line up and compete with the cream of the Pac-10 crop. If Arizona State can defeat UW, which in turn beat Miami, which in turn beat Florida State, then perhaps the 'reality check' is that the Sun Devils are, in reality, a top-25-caliber football team.
In essence, ASU's version of Saturday Night Live will show us if the Sun Devils are 'ready for prime time' players.
The Devils proved themselves to be Husky-worthy last year, in a much more difficult locale. In mid-October of '99, Arizona State went into Seattle's Husky Stadium, easily one of the two most imposing road venues in the Pac-10, and dominated Washington 28-7, forcing seven Husky fumbles (recovering six) and staging a memorable goal-line stand in the third quarter to turn momentum decisively in their favor. This weekend's game will be on ASU's home turf, with an expected crowd of 65,000 cheering them on.
Victory this year won't come easy. Washington features the Pac-10's top-rated offense, one that averages 193 rushing yards a game (22nd in the nation). Led by their brilliant senior quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, the Huskies run much of their offense out of the option, which creates major headaches for defenses not accustomed to seeing such a scheme with any degree of frequency during the season. One can't help but wonder, for example, how ASU's sensational freshman defensive end Terrell Suggs will react the first time he sees UW run an option play at full speed. How, you may ask, will Adam Archuleta's instinctive defensive brilliance be altered by the attention to assignment detail that stopping the option requires?
Offensively, ASU has feasted on the long ball the last few weeks, but Bruce Snyder would love nothing better than to get his running game cranked up, against a Husky defense that ranks last in the Pac-10 in rush defense. Mike Williams' ouchy ankle is supposedly better, and Snyder believes Williams, Tom Pace and Davaren Hightower can have success on the ground this weekend. Among the keys to moving the ball on Washington: neutralizing the Huskies' superb nose tackle Larry Tripplett (to whom Snyder once offered a scholarship to come to ASU) and pre-season All-
American free safety Hakim Akbar, who has UW's only interception in 2000.
As I said, I can't remember an ASU game I've anticipated more eagerly the past three years than this one coming up. A win won't punch ASU's ticket to the Rose Bowl, and a loss to the Huskies will, by no means, ruin the season. But it's terrific to see a true 'big game' atmosphere return to Tempe on a mid-October Saturday night. A win by the home team in that big game, and a lot of perceptions, both locally and nationally, will be changed about the 2000 Sun Devils. The 'feel-good' football story that has so far drawn indifference could end up becoming an overnight best seller.
Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU football for the Sun Devil Sports Network. Tim can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.