'A Weekend To Forget'

Nov. 13, 2000

It somehow seemed appropriate that, as I returned home from the Bay Area on Sunday after broadcasting this past weekend's ASU-Stanford football game, my chronically sore lower back started acting up on me.

It was that kind of weekend. It's been that kind of season.

For those of you who didn't see Saturday's game, consider yourself fortunate. You'd probably have to go back to last year's New Mexico State disaster, to find a Sun Devil game so equally void of any redeeming social value. Even in defeat, you can generally find some highlights, some aspects of play in which your team displayed heroic qualities or enjoyed momentary runs of success. From an ASU perspective, the Devils' 29-7 drubbing at the hands of the Stanford Cardinal had one singular highlight which exhausted perhaps 10 seconds of the game's 60 minutes: the 37-yard Jeff Krohn-to-Richard Williams touchdown pass which accounted for ASU's only points of the afternoon. The rest of the game can best be remembered for its forgetfulness.

Right from the beginning, the afternoon had a bizarre feel to it. Approximately 15 minutes prior to kickoff, there couldn't have been more than 5,000 people in the stands at cavernous 88,000-seat Stanford Stadium. Even when all the ticket-holders were present and accounted for, the total attendance didn't reach 30,000, despite the fact that the game was played in made-to-order football weather: sunny skies, temperatures in the mid-50s. There was no atmosphere, no sense of excitement inside the stadium all day long. With the defending Pac-10 champion Cardinal officially eliminated from post-season bowl consideration, you could understand why Stanford's team and fans might have lacked interest in the game. However, Arizona State began the day just one win away from becoming bowl-eligible for the fourth time in the last five years. Surely that would be enough to fire up the Devils in a stadium where they had won on each of their last three visits, dating back to 1988.

Wrong again, pigskin breath! And please quit calling me Surely.

From the game's opening minutes, Stanford was in control. The Cardinal played like the team still in the hunt for a bowl bid, while the Sun Devils played the part of the team whose season had already ended. ASU's offense couldn't move the ball, the defense couldn't tackle, and the special teams made the latest in a troubling series of blunders that seem to keep re-occurring in the Devils' kicking game. An Arizona State team that had shown so much grit, so much competitive fire for nine grueling weeks succumbed so meekly at Stanford last Saturday. It was painful to watch. And somewhat predictable, too.

After enduring consecutive double-overtime losses to Oregon and USC the previous two weeks, the Sun Devils figured to be running dangerously near 'empty' in their collective emotional fuel tank. There's only so much heartbreak a group of kids can withstand before saying 'enough's enough.' You could see the signs of emotional meltdown in the USC game, which the Trojans led 35-6 late in the third quarter. The Sun Devils deserve credit for their 29-point comeback (believed to be the greatest in school history) against Southern California, but in all candor, the only reason ASU got back in that game was the generosity of the momentarily-inept Trojans, who turned the ball over four times in six possessions in the third and fourth quarters to fuel the Devils' rally. When that comeback attempt fell agonizingly short of victory, the Sun Devils simply had exhausted their supply of emotional gas, and were running on fumes this past week at Stanford.

To make matters worse, the Sun Devils were as beaten up physically as they were psychologically this past weekend. Key players such as cornerbacks Kenny Williams and Machtier Clay did not play due to injury. Top rusher Tom Pace and star linebacker Solomon Bates played despite painful ailments (Pace: shoulder and ankle. Bates: shoulder only), and then during the game ASU lost quarterback Jeff Krohn (second concussion in a month, plus an arm injury) and rapidly-improving freshman defensive end Chad Howell (torn ACL, done for the year). When the spirit and the flesh are weak, you're in a heap of trouble.

I made this observation on the radio Saturday, and I think it bears repeating here: I believe the single most critical moment of the 2000 season occurred when Oregon scored a game-tying touchdown right before halftime of the Ducks' epic 56-55 victory over the Devils on October 28. What made the moment so significant wasn't the score, but the fact that cornerback Kenny Williams injured his knee on the play. With Williams out for the year (and Clay continuing to be hobbled by an ankle injury), the Sun Devils' defense has had to go without the services of two fine cover corners, who, along with Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist Nijrell Eason, had done a terrific job standing tall out on that 'island,' where blitz packages leave cornerbacks isolated against receivers in man coverage. Consequently, in an effort to protect his less-experienced backups in the secondary, defensive coordinator Phil Snow has been forced to employ much more conservative schemes, depriving the Devils of their highly effective utilization of the blitz. Unable to pressure opposing quarterbacks, the ASU defense has surrendered 108 points in the two-and-a-half games since Williams' injury (35 in the second half and overtimes of the Oregon contest, 44 to USC and 29 against Stanford). Injuries to Krohn and Pace the past two games have made the offense less potent, less able to compensate for the defensive shortcomings. Just like that, you have a heretofore feisty, competitive team licking its wounds resulting from a three-game losing streak.

Thankfully, the Sun Devils get a week off before the regular-season finale at Arizona the day after Thanksgiving. The time off, plus the mere thought of playing the hated Wildcats in Tucson, should both do wonders for the psyche of this ASU football team. If the Devils taste defeat against UA, it won't be because they weren't emotionally ready to play. The more pertinent question that day will concern the Sun Devils' physical condition, and whether ASU will be healthy enough to compete against the Cats, who have problems of their own (Arizona will carry a four-game losing streak into the November 24 showdown with ASU).

Over the next few days, I'll be popping anti-inflammatory pills and muscle relaxers, in hopes of easing the pain in my back. I wish prescribing a cure for what's ailing the Devils would be so simple.

Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU football for the Sun Devil Sports Network.

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