'Lightning Strikes Twice'

Oct. 23, 2000

Thanksgiving Day is a month away, but after this past weekend's developments in Pullman, Wa., I find myself in possession of a distinct 'gratitude attitude.' For one thing, I'm thankful I had the opportunity to witness a thrilling (if not artistic) college football game on a beautiful (albeit chilly) autumn afternoon in the Palouse. For another, I'm thankful the Sun Devils were able to pull out a 23-20 overtime victory over the Cougars, to improve to 5-2 on the season.

Oh, one other minor thing. I'm grateful I'm still alive!

Following a win as gritty and dramatic as the Devils' triumph at Washington State, the journey home to Tempe on the ASU team charter is generally a festive, fun-filled flight. Saturday night's trip back from Pullman was just that---until we were about 100 miles outside of Phoenix, flying into the rainstorms that blanketed the state last Saturday. At that point, the somewhat choppy ride was interrupted by a pair of loud explosion-type sounds, accompanied by large flashes of light, one coming several minutes after the other, with both seemingly centered next to where I was sitting (seat 20-A, left-side window, just behind the wing).

Who says lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place?

The first terrified reaction of most of those on the charter was that the plane's engine had exploded. In reality, we were hit by lightning. To our undying (and I guess in this case, 'undying' takes on a very special meaning) gratitude, the aircraft used by the major airlines are built to absorb lightning strikes with minimal adverse effects on the planes (though the pilot's inspection later detected a hole in the tail of this aircraft). Still, you could see the fear in the eyes of virtually everyone on board, with many passengers frantically engrossed in prayer. To their credit, the America West Airlines flight crew did a largely commendable job of maintaining a relative sense of calm on the plane, whose routine touchdown at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport 20 minutes after the lightning strike was greeted by applause from all of us on board.

One funky footnote to this saga: the in-flight movie we were watching when the lightning hit was a Nicolas Cage offering: 'Gone in 60 Seconds.' For a harrowing moment, I thought we would be!

Funky footnote number two: each Thursday, the last period of ASU's football practice is devoted to the two-minute offense. The Sun Devils' terminology for that segment of practice: the Lightning Drill!

Suffice it to say the trip home was fairly interesting. So, too, was the game from which we were returning.

Nothing has come easily for the 2000 Sun Devil football team, and Saturday's win in Pullman was no exception. Arizona State somehow managed to extract a victory from a game in which they gave up nearly 500 yards, missed two field goals and muffed an extra point, while giving Washington State two freebie points thanks to a bad center snap on a punt attempt. The Devils did all this on a new-to-them playing surface ('FieldTurf') on a day much colder than the weather to which the ASU kids are accustomed.

And still, they won.

We keep harping on the resiliency of these Sun Devils, but with each passing week we see that this is a focused, mentally tough football team as well. Those traits served the Devils well on Saturday, when they fought through all the above-mentioned 'adversities' to achieve an extremely satisfying victory.

Early on in the game, the Devils were a rather opportunistic bunch, capitalizing on a pair of early takeaways (interceptions by Brandon Falkner and Solomon Bates) and a 47-yard punt return by the ever-improving Justin Taplin to take an early 14-0 lead over the Cougars (a one-yard run by Michael Williams on fourth-and-goal, and a two-yard Tom Pace TD jaunt provided the scoring). WSU spent much of the day moving the ball up and down the field on the ASU defense, largely on the strength of QB Jason Gesser's passes to his tall wideouts, 6'5' Marcus Williams and 6'3' Milton Wynn (those two receivers combined to catch 11 passes good for 281 yards and a touchdown). But it seemed as though each time it needed one, the Sun Devil defense consistently came up with a big play, none bigger than Adam Archuleta's interception in overtime that ended Washington State's lone offensive possession.

In recent weeks, coach Bruce Snyder has expressed genuine concern about the Sun Devils' fourth quarter woes. Prior to the Washington State game, ASU had been outscored by its opponents 41-18 in the fourth quarter of its first six games. In Pullman, the Devils dominated the fourth quarter and overtime, pitching a shutout and running twice as many plays from scrimmage as WSU. All told, the Cougars ran 15 plays from scrimmage in the fourth quarter and OT (the Devils had 30). Included in Washington State's total were a lost fumble, an interception, four incomplete passes, and four plays for either no gain or a loss of yardage. It reminded me of last year, when the Sun Devils blanked Washington State on just 32 total yards in the second half of a 33-21 ASU victory. Credit defensive coordinator Phil Snow and his staff with making some excellent adjustments the last two years, to help keep alive ASU's current four-game winning streak against Wazzu.

Other thoughts on Saturday's game: ASU continues to be the 'walk-on' capital of college football. Tom Pace was heroic with his 103-yard rushing effort, with 85 of those yards coming in the second half and in overtime. Despite being briefly knocked out of the game with a mild concussion, Jeff Krohn looked extremely comfortable at quarterback, completing 18-of-27 passes for 214 yards. Thanks largely to the play of Krohn and Pace, ASU's second-half offense had a rhythm, a consistency (and a running game) that has been missing much of the season. Meanwhile, Archuleta (an ex-walk-on) continued his campaign for Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors with these numbers: a team-high 12 tackles (two behind the line of scrimmage), one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and the crucial interception in overtime.

In addition, Bruce Snyder had one of his best games of the season in Pullman. Late in the third quarter, with Washington State deep in Devils' territory, the Cougars ran a play that resulted in a pass interference against ASU at the goal line. Trouble is, time ran out in the third quarter before the ball was snapped. The officials were going to let the play stand, before Snyder alertly (and vehemently) protested. As a result, the call was reversed, so that instead of first-and-goal near the one, Washington State had a second-and-eight at the ASU 12. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cougars' Deon Burnett fumbled the ball away to ASU.

Then, in overtime, Snyder wisely allowed kicker Mike Barth to attempt the potential game-winning field goal on third down, in the event of a blocked kick, a muff or a fumbled snap. That way, if the Devils recovered such a miscue, they'd still have an opportunity to re-try the field goal on fourth down. Lo and behold, what happens on the third down attempt? The snap by Jay Breckenridge (replacing the injured Scott Peters, the normal field goal snapper) was high, going off the hands of holder Griffin Goodman. Luckily, Barth fell on the ball, giving ASU a 'mulligan' on the game-winning three-point attempt. On fourth down, following a good snap and hold, Barth nailed the 41-yard kick that sent the Sun Devils home happy (till the lightning struck, that is!) Credit the kicker, snapper and holder----and also the coach who had the foresight to send the field goal unit in on third down. Just in case.

Finally, props to three other players. Todd Heap tore off another page in the ASU record book with his five-catch, 53-yard performance Saturday. Heap is now the all-time leading pass-catching tight end in Sun Devil history. With his 47-yard punt return that set up a touchdown, as well as three clutch receptions good for 51 yards, Justin Taplin continued his game-by-game improvement. Meanwhile, walk-on Roderick Denetso had three tackles on special teams and blocked a punt that set up Griffin Goodman's 34-yard touchdown pass to Donnie O'Neal late in the first half.

I must admit to being an utterly fascinated observer of this year's Arizona State football team, one that has overcome so much to place itself on the brink of bowl eligibility. Saturday's win at Washington State was the 2000 season in microcosm: lots of difficulty along the way, but an exciting and satisfying outcome in the end.

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