Tim Healey: 'No Ducking The Spotlight'
Oct. 28, 2000
It's a big game, against a difficult Pac-10 opponent, on network television, at Sun Devil Stadium. A game that could help turn Arizona State's season from good to potentially great.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
All of the above apply to ASU's homecoming football game this weekend against the Pac-10-leading Oregon Ducks, a contest that could stamp the college football world's seal of approval on Arizona State as one of the 2000 season's 'feel good' stories, provided the Sun Devils win.
Trouble is, all of the above also applied to the Devils' home game with the Washington Huskies two weeks ago. That one got away, or more accurately, was given away by the home team, which turned the ball over six times in ASU's 21-15 loss to the Dawgs. Now, the Sun Devils are getting football's version of a 'mulligan,' another opportunity to prove itself as a quality team, by beating a team of similar (or even higher) quality.
There's no questioning the 2000 Sun Devils' intensity, toughness, togetherness and focus. A team forced to employ walk-ons at quarterback and tailback, a team deprived of talented senior stars at both key positions, has nonetheless persevered through the adversity to win five of its first seven games. In their two defeats, the Devils have been extremely competitive against good opponents, and, in fact, could have or maybe even should have won both games. At UCLA, Arizona State surrendered a three-touchdown second quarter lead at about the same time quarterback Ryan Kealy and hard-hitting safety Al Williams exited the lineup with injuries. Against Washington, the Sun Devils' magnificent defensive effort (six forced turnovers) was negated by an ineffective offense and crucial blunders in the kicking game. It's frustrating to ponder just how close the Devils are to being a 7-0 team.
Unlike last year's wildly inconsistent group, the 2000 Sun Devils have played reasonably well (or better) in every game so far, giving maximum effort week in and week out. However, there's one significant chapter missing from this story, one important line that's so far absent from the Sun Devils' current resume: a victory over a top-notch foe. Granted, ASU's 13-10 win over Colorado State on Sept. 16 is looking better with each passing week, given the fact that the Rams haven't lost since (they're 6-1, and ranked in one of this week's top 25 polls). Other than CSU, however, ASU's success has come against the likes of San Diego State, Utah State, Cal and Washington State---not exactly a college football 'Murderer's Row.' As Adam Archuleta said earlier this week, 'we need to prove that we can win the big games. We've lost to two good teams and we've beaten the mediocre teams, so we need to go out there and play a complete game, so we can get some confidence going into the rest of our Pac-10 schedule.'
If they can knock off Oregon, the Devils should be brimming with confidence, because right now there isn't a better team in the league than the Ducks. Interestingly, one normally associates Oregon with glitzy, high-octane offensive football, and the Ducks do indeed feature the Pac-10's #2 rusher (Maurice Morris, the nation's all-time leading junior college ground-gainer), an outstanding veteran quarterback in junior Joey Harrington, and a group of talented receivers led by sophomore Keenan Howry and senior Marshaun Tucker, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds against ASU last year in Eugene. However, the 2000 Ducks' calling card is a no-name defense that is easily the Pac-10's best. Oregon surrenders a mere 279 yards a game (10th in the nation) and just over 14 points per game (12th in the nation). Their defensive stars include senior end Saul Patu (second in the league with seven quarterback sacks), linebacker Matt Smith (a one-time minor league baseball player who, like Adam Archuleta, is a Butkus Award semifinalist), and Arizonan Rashad Bauman, a product of Phoenix's South Mountain High School and one of the best cornerbacks in the nation.
In attempting to analyze this game, my biggest concern is whether the Sun Devils have enough offensive firepower to penetrate Oregon's solid 'D'. Last week, the Arizona Wildcats ran the ball 32 times against Oregon, with 17 of those rushes resulting in no gain or a loss of yardage. The Devils, meanwhile, are ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in rushing offense, though they did start to generate a ground game in the second half last week at Washington State, thanks to the 103-yard effort of walk-on Tom Pace, who will make his starting debut at tailback against Oregon. If ASU is going to generate any kind of offensive momentum, my hunch is it will come in the form of big plays. As good as it has been, Oregon's defense has been susceptible to giving up yards in big chunks, having allowed 11 plays of 40+ yards. Conversely, the Sun Devils' offense has shown big play capability for much of this season, mainly with their vertical passing game.
While Arizona State's defense doesn't have the same type of gaudy stats as Oregon, the Sun Devils' 'D' has been every bit as effective. ASU is among the national leaders in turnover margin (+8), and has forced its last two opponents to cough up the football a total of 11 times. Phil Snow's unit seems to have that uncanny knack most good defenses possess, of coming up with the big play or the key turnover at crucial times. That trait would come in handy against the Ducks, who have committed the fewest turnovers (9) in the conference.
All in all, it's easy to envision a tough, physical, low-scoring game, with two good defenses dictating the tone of the contest. If the Sun Devils can practice good ball security (which they did not do against Washington two weeks ago), I believe they have a legitimate chance to upset the Ducks. I can't help but think back to this same weekend five years ago: Oct. 28, 1995. ASU traveled to Autzen Stadium to play an Oregon team ranked 10th in the nation, yet Jake Plummer and the Sun Devils rallied in the fourth quarter for a scintillating 35-24 win that many observers regarded as the launching point for the squad that went to the Rose Bowl the following season. If ever-improving Jeff Krohn can engineer a similar upset at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday, it likely would be the springboard to a strong finish for the 2000 Devils. Being around the players and coaches this week, I sense this team is respectful of Oregon, yet confident they can beat Oregon. To say the least, these Devils are due for a quality win, one that could instantly transform a heretofore-good season, into a potentially special one.
There's no ducking the spotlight now.
Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU football for the Sun Devil Sports Network.