'GOIN' FOR THE DAWGS'
Oct. 25, 2001
In sports, you'll find that there are times when the numbers don't lie. Fortunately for the Sun Devil football team, last Saturday night was one of those times.
Entering the Oregon State game a week ago, ASU had averaged 194 rushing yards in its previous three games, and was set to take on a Beaver team whose defense was ranked among the Pac-10's worst at stopping the run. The 'numbers' seemed to indicate Arizona State could have success keeping the ball on the ground, particularly when you consider that Sun Devil quarterback Jeff Krohn was coming off a foot injury and still was less than 100% physically. Voila! ASU compiled a staggering 314 rushing yards, including 226 from senior tailback Delvon Flowers, to rally for an inspiring 41-24 victory over Oregon State.
Now, the 13th-ranked Washington Huskies are set to visit Tempe this weekend, and current trends point once again to the ASU ground game as a key factor in the Sun Devils-Huskies contest. Washington is eighth in the Pac-10 in run defense, surrendering an average of 167 rushing yards per game. In the past two weeks, the Huskies have given up a total of 524 yards on the ground to UCLA and Arizona, with Deshaun Foster of UCLA compiling 301 yards by himself, while the Wildcats' Clarence Farmer had a 147-yard day in Seattle last weekend in UA's 31-28 loss to Washington. Conversely, Arizona State now ranks second in the conference in rushing offense (189 yards/game), with Flowers third among individual ground-gainers. If ASU's senior-laden offensive line can take control of the line of scrimmage, Flowers and Tom Pace (10 carries, 84 yards, one touchdown against Oregon State) figure to exploit Washington's vulnerable run defense.
It seems as though the running game has been a problem on both sides of the ball for UW. In each of the past two seasons, the Huskies led the Pac-10 in rushing offense, averaging over 211 yards on the ground a year ago. However, the Dawgs' per-game average this year is down considerably, to just 108 yards per contest, ninth in the Pac-10. The chief reason for that decline would appear to be the inexperience of Washington's offensive line, which features four new starters, including two sophomores and a redshirt freshman. Another factor, according to UW coach Rick Neuheisel, has been the injury problems of Husky QB Cody Pickett, which has prevented Washington from effectively utilizing its option package.
Now, before you go feeling fat and sassy about the Sun Devils' chances for victory this Saturday, consider a few other factors. While Washington may be struggling with the run game (both offensively and defensively), the Huskies are thriving where the passing game is concerned. Despite having to fill the substantial shoes of the departed Marques Tuiasosopo, sophomore Pickett has taken over at quarterback and helped UW compile 295 passing yards per game, 13th best in the nation. Pickett enters the ASU game as the reigning Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week, based on his school record-setting 455-yard passing performance last week against Arizona. Besides becoming the first UW quarterback ever to throw two passes of 75 yards or more in the same game, Pickett also ran three yards for the winning touchdown with just 13 seconds left against the Cats. He did all that despite suffering from a separated right (throwing) shoulder! Just the kind of toughness you'd expect from a rodeo cowboy! (Pickett, a native of Caldwell, ID., qualified for the national rodeo finals in 1997 and '98, and is the son of a one-time championship roper on the pro rodeo circuit). Pickett aims his passes at a Washington receiver corps that features one of the most heralded recruits in Husky history, 6'4' freshman Reggie Williams from nearby Tacoma, WA., whose 28 catches and 516 receiving yards place him among the Pac-10 leaders in both categories. 6'3' senior wideout Todd Elstrom has caught passes in 25 straight games, while converted running back Paul Arnold already has three catches of over 40 yards this season, all touchdowns. To say the least, another significant challenge awaits Arizona State's young, yet talented and improving secondary. As well as they are throwing the ball, the Huskies are equally adept defending against the pass, ranking second in the Pac-10 in that department.
A quick glance at Washington's season-to-date leaves one scratching his/her head. The Huskies' 5-1 record (3-1 in Pac-10 play) includes an impressive opening game win over Michigan in Seattle. However, UW's last three victories have each been by three points, over three Pac-10 teams (Cal, USC and Arizona) with an aggregate season record of 5-15. Underwhelming, perhaps, but as Raiders' boss Al Davis likes to say, 'just win, baby!' And that, the Huskies do with admirable regularity.
Perhaps Washington's most imposing characteristic is its uncanny ability to rally from the brink of defeat. In the two-plus years of the Neuheisel era, 17 of the Huskies' 23 victories have been of the'come-from-behind' variety, with 12 of those wins involving fourth-quarter comebacks. More often than not, a key defensive or special teams play provides the springboard to victory. Washington is one of only three Division 1-A teams in the nation (the others being Oregon and Arkansas) that have returned a kickoff, punt and interception for a touchdown this season. An example: in UW's opener against Michigan, the Wolverines held a 12-6 fourth quarter lead and were driving for a possible clinching score. What happens? Washington cornerback Omare Lowe blocks a field goal attempt, which teammate Roc Alexander returns for a go-ahead touchdown. Then, on Michigan's very next play, Lowe intercepts a pass and runs it back 21 yards for a touchdown. The Dawgs ultimately prevailed, 23-18. Think back to last year's turnover-filled ASU-Washington game at Sun Devil Stadium: the Devils had a 6-0 second-quarter lead when Valley native Marquis Cooper (the son of Phoenix television sportscaster Bruce Cooper) blocked a Nick Murphy punt at the ASU five-yard line, leading to a touchdown that gave the Huskies a lead they'd never relinquish.
Last week against Oregon State, the Sun Devils displayed some big-play capability and fourth-quarter character of their own. After trailing most of the game, ASU came up with a succession of clutch plays in the final period to overtake and lap the Beavers. Justin Taplin's 62-yard punt return set the stage for Delvon Flowers' game-winning 28-yard touchdown scamper, on which the Oregon State defense appeared to have Delvon stopped cold after a three-yard gain. Flowers just kept moving his feet, dislodged himself from the pileup and bolted unmolested to the end zone. Then, on ASU's next possession, Taplin took an end-around handoff, started circling left end and then pulled up and fired a left-handed 23-yard strike to WR Ryan Dennard for an insurance score. Flowers' 41-yard run set up Tom Pace's 11-yard 'coup de grace' touchdown in the final moments. All while this was going on, the Sun Devil defense dug in and held Oregon State to a mere 27 total yards in the fourth quarter.The Oregon State win did wonders for the confidence and self-esteem of Dirk Koetter's ASU squad. Long-time observers of Sun Devil football had a hard time remembering a locker room scene as jubilant as the Devils were after their well-earned win over the Beavs. After easily disposing of three patsies, and then losing decisively to a pair of Pac-10 foes, ASU needed to prove its ability to win a close game and beat a good team. They did both against Oregon State. Now, they take another step up in competition this weekend, with an opportunity to beat a nationally-ranked opponent. Washington certainly poses a variety of challenges to Koetter and his club, but they are challenges the Sun Devils seem capable of conquering.
Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU football on the Sun Devil Sports Network. Tim's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.