Trick Or Treat?
Oct. 30, 2000
It's two days after the fact, and I'm still emotionally drained as a result of the most incredible football game it has ever been my privilege to broadcast. Incredible---and excruciating at the same time.
On the weekend before Halloween, you might consider it fate's way of saying 'Trick or Treat' to the Sun Devil football team, its coaches and fans. For over four hours this past Saturday afternoon, ASU 'treated' us to a scintillating display of offensive football. Yet, in the end, fate played a nasty 'trick' on the Devils, as the Pac-10-leading Oregon Ducks escaped with a 56-55 double overtime victory, a game in which Oregon never led until the final minutes of the second extra period.
(By the way, before I continue, can I get this off my chest? What did ASU ever do to merit the athletic heartache it continues to suffer against the Oregon Ducks? The three most gut-wrenching ASU defeats I've witnessed in the past year have all been at the hands of Oregon: l999's last-second football loss in Eugene, the men's basketball 'Miracle at McArthur Court' this past March, when the Ducks overcame a four-point ASU lead with six seconds left, and now this. Enough, already!)
We now return to my regularly scheduled column!
In my pre-game analysis last week, I figured this to be a low-scoring contest between two teams for which defense has been the primary calling card in 2000. I sure had this one pegged correctly, eh? Don't ever take me to Vegas with you! This alleged 'defensive struggle' ended up producing 111 points, over 1,200 total yards of offense, and enough brilliant individual performances to fill both teams' highlight reels for hours.
It was a game that Arizona State seemed to have wrapped up at least six or seven different times, only to see Oregon storm back against a Sun Devil defense whose secondary had been depleted due to injuries, in particular the season-ending knee injury suffered by ASU's underrated cornerback Kenny Williams. It also was a game that left both head coaches ripe for second-guessing, some of it legitimate, some of it unfair.
As heartbreaking as the defeat proved to be, the Devils have to take encouragement from the way their offense sliced and diced what had been the Pac-10's best (and the nation's 10th best) defense. Entering the weekend, Oregon had been allowing an average of just 14 points and 279 yards a game. ASU piled up staggering totals of 55 points and 667 yards, nearly four times the point yield and three times the yardage total that the Ducks normally allow in a single game. And don't think the two extra overtime periods unjustly inflated those numbers: the Sun Devils only got six of the points and 28 of the yards in the two overtimes. And, unlike previous games this year, ASU had balance in its attack, with 235 net rushing yards beautifully complementing the 432 yards gained in the air.
Individually, the improvement quarterback Jeff Krohn has displayed the last two weeks is utterly remarkable. This young man has clearly justified the confidence Bruce Snyder and his staff showed in him, when they decided way back in spring ball to make the one-time walk-on freshman ASU's co-number one QB entering the 2000 season. Remember how we said the offense looked good in the second half at Washington State, despite the fact it didn't score any points till Mike Barth's game-winning field goal in overtime? Well, it wasn't a mirage! Except for a pair of lost fumbles in the second quarter and an interception in the first overtime period, Krohn was brilliant, completing 21-of-34 passes, five for touchdowns. He was pinpoint precise with most of his passes, and oh-so-cool in the clutch. Consider: of Krohn's five scoring passes, four of them came on third down plays. In the first quarter, on a third-and-16, he hit Tom Pace, whose spectacular broken-field running turned it into a 69-yard touchdown. In the fourth quarter, with a third-and-one at the Oregon two, Krohn found Stephen Trejo in the end zone to put the Devils up 35-28. Later in the fourth, facing a third-and-14 from his own 10, Krohn had Richard Williams open along the near sideline, and the senior speedster was off to the races on a 90-yard touchdown jaunt. Then, in the second overtime period, two plays away from possible defeat, Krohn and Williams hooked up again on a perfectly thrown 21-yard touchdown on third-and-six.
Krohn had numerous co-stars in Saturday's offensive production. As Bruce Snyder said after the game, 'thank God for Tom Pace.' The nation's most famous pool cleaner rushed for 158 yards, including a 37-yard third quarter touchdown, and has a chance this week against USC to become just the fourth Sun Devil back in the Snyder era to post three straight 100-yard performances. Richard Williams, Donnie O'Neal and Todd Heap all flashed their big-play receiving skill throughout the game, combining for 14 catches good for 286 yards and three scores. Heap had one of his patented one-handed grabs where he actually pinned the ball against his shoulder pad to gain possession.
All those highlights, all that yardage, all those points, all those heroes---and the Sun Devils still lost.
I would submit the game took a subtle turn away from ASU late in the first half, when Oregon's Joey Harrington passed five yards to Marshaun Tucker for a touchdown that tied the game at 21. On the play, Devils' cornerback Kenny Williams suffered a knee injury that will sideline him the rest of the season. With number three corner Machtier Clay already out of the lineup with an ankle sprain, the loss of Williams proved to be devastating. Harrington spent much of the second half abusing Williams' replacement, senior Christon Rance, en route to compiling over 300 passing yards after halftime.
Things got so bad for ASU that, by game's end, walk-on Josiah Igono was playing the cornerback spot opposite Nijrell Eason. To his credit, Igono performed creditably while he was in there. Nonetheless, the depleted nature of ASU's secondary forced the Devils' defensive coaches to employ more conservative schemes. Absent the pressure, the talented Harrington had time aplenty to pick apart the Devils' DBs.
Still, despite Oregon's aerial assault, Arizona State never surrendered the lead in regulation. The game's outcome hinged, in large part, on three controversial sequences. Sequence #1: With about two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, leading 49-42, the Devils faced a fourth-and-14 at the Ducks' 33. If you're Bruce Snyder, do you try the 50-yard field goal that could lock up the game, or try to punt and pin Oregon deep in their end of the field? Unbeknown to most observers, ASU kicker Mike Barth was in great pain most of the day Saturday, having wrenched his back while taking a playful swipe at a nerf football two days before. As the game progressed, Barth's back tightened up to the point where a 50-yard field goal attempt on his part in the crucial late stages of the game was out of the question. A punt could pin the Ducks deep, but if a touchback resulted, Oregon would get the ball on its own 20, meaning the net difference from the previous line of scrimmage would only be 13 yards. Besides, as we previously noted, the Ducks were moving the ball freely on the Devils' defense at that stage. So, the decision was made to go for it on fourth-and-14, but Krohn's pass to Todd Heap was incomplete. Oregon got the ball back, and within two plays (following a 58-yard reception by their tight end Justin Peele) had a first and goal at the ASU nine. Here, the defense stiffened, forcing three straight incompletions, leading to the fourth down play where safety Willie Daniel tackled Peele at the one-yard line with 1:22 left to seemingly save the day for the Devils.
That, however, led to sequence #2: Faced with an effort to run the clock out from their own one, ASU went with poised freshman fullback Mike Karney on two running plays that netted six yards. On third-and-four, from the ASU 7, and Oregon out of timeouts, the decision was made to run the ball again---this time, with another freshman, Mike Williams, who had broken a sensational 59-yard touchdown run about five minutes before. A first down would have iced the victory, and Williams got the first down and nearly broke free for a lot more-until he fumbled! The Ducks recovered at the Devils' 17 with: 33 left, and scored the tying touchdown on the very next play. As coach Snyder explained it, the Sun Devils would not have been able to run out the clock simply by having Krohn take a knee on third down, which then likely would have necessitated ASU taking an intentional safety on fourth down, and kicking the ball away to the Ducks with about eight or 10 seconds left in the game. Instead, the coach decided to go with conservative running plays aimed at getting the clinching first down. Why use Mike Williams, you ask, when Tom Pace had been the man all day long? Simple. Pace was in the training room receiving treatment for a shoulder sprain. Were it my call, I'd have probably either given the ball to the bullish Karney (less likely to fumble), or had Krohn go to a knee, and then take my chances with a fourth down intentional safety. But, like they say, hindsight is 20-20, right?
Sequence #3 involves the decision to go for the two-point conversion in the second overtime. Coach Snyder explained his thinking to us on the post-game radio show, and I must admit, his points are well taken. For openers, Barth's bad back made kicking the PAT problematical (imagine if ASU had gone for the one-point conversion, and Barth had missed? Then critics would be barbecuing Snyder for using an ailing kicker to keep the game alive, meaning the coach is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't!) Besides, as Bruce aptly noted, ASU hadn't stopped Oregon's offense most of the second half and overtime, so he felt like why not try to end the game now? By replacing his normal holder (Griffin Goodman) with Krohn, Snyder may have tipped his hand that a fake kick was in the works. However, most of the Oregon players on the field went to block a would-be kick. Krohn rolled out and made a decent throw aimed at Heap in the back of the end zone. Heap likely would've caught it, had not an Oregon defender grabbed hold of one of Todd's arms! No flag was thrown for the obvious pass interference, and the Ducks escaped with an astonishing win.
The question to ask now, is actually the same one we've been asking for two months, it seems: how will the 2000 Sun Devils respond to this latest bit of adversity to be tossed their way? I'd be inclined to say they'll survive this heartache, because if this team were going to come apart in the face of negativity, it likely would've happened by now, given all that has transpired the past two-and-a-half months. And, as you can judge by the effort they've given in each and every game this year, these Devils have not yet come close to surrendering to adversity, answering their call-to-arms all season long.
So now, the Sun Devils face the prospect of attempting to bounce back against a USC team that is mired in a stunning five-game conference losing streak. Two teams with hurt feelings figure to give us another memorable evening of football Saturday night in ASU's 2000 home finale. Here's hoping this last chapter of the home season has a much happier ending!
Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU football for the Sun Devil Spotrs Network. Tim can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.