Back To The Pac
Oct. 11, 2001
They've shown that they can take care of business. Now, it's time for the Arizona State Sun Devils to get down to business.
With their 63-27 pounding of Louisiana-Lafayette last Saturday night at rainy Sun Devil Stadium, the Devils concluded the non-conference portion of their 2001 football schedule, disposing of San Diego State, San Jose State and the Ragin' Cajuns by a combined score of 154--49, just the way you would expect a heavily-favored team to handle three out-manned foes. Now, it's on to the games that matter most, as ASU resumes Pac-10 play this weekend in Los Angeles against the slumping USC Trojans.
Lest you tread too lightly over what the Devils accomplished in non-conference play against three of college football's relative 'lightweights,' consider coach Dirk Koetter's reaction to the Louisiana-Lafayette win. 'We did what we had to do, and what we needed to do,' Koetter said. 'It's difficult to play when everyone expects you to win big.' Indeed, a sluggish start against the Ragin' Cajuns put the Sun Devils in an early 10-7 hole last Saturday, resulting in a chorus of boos from the small crowd of 38,118. Arizona State rebounded quickly and emphatically from that early deficit with a nine-touchdown on-slaught that enabled the Sun Devils to record their highest single-game point total since 1977. For a school which in the past has occasionally struggled against weak non-conference opponents, the Devils' domination of the Aztecs, Spartans and Cajuns was a welcome development that produced some mind-boggling numbers. ASU's 45.5 points-per-game scoring average so far this season is tops in the Pac-10, and third-best in the nation! The Sun Devils are piling up passing yards at a 311 yards-a-game clip, which is seventh-best in the country. Their 481 yards-per-game total offense figure is America's sixth-best. Individually, quarterback Jeff Krohn is the Pac-10's top-rated passer, and second in the nation (trailing only Florida QB Rex Grossman) in pass efficiency. Jeff's 1,156 passing yards and 15 touchdown throws represent the finest four-game start of any quarterback in Arizona State history. Sophomore wide receiver Shaun McDonald has turned into a veritable touchdown machine, of McDonald's 14 catches so far this season, seven have been for touchdowns, making him the Pac--10's leading scorer.
Very nice numbers. Starting this weekend, we'll find out just how accurate they are.
To say the Devils will take a quantum leap up in terms of the strength of their competition is a major understatement. Don't be fooled by the 1--4 record of the USC Trojans, who are off to their worst start since 1958. Troy's four losses this season have been by a combined margin of just 14 points. All four defeats have come at the hands of top 25 teams, including three (Kansas State, Oregon and Washington) ranked in the Associated Press top 12. Last-second field goals cost the Trojans possible road victories at Oregon and Washington, easily the two most difficult road venues in the Pac-10, while a late turnover deep in Kansas State territory cost Southern California a legitimate shot at upsetting the perennially powerful Wildcats. Remember how snake-bitten the Sun Devils seemed to be in 2000? That ornery reptile appears to be chowing down on coach Pete Carroll's Trojans in 2001!
To the casual observer, it would appear that USC's problems this season have mainly involved their offense. The school so famous for 'Student Body Right' and all those great running backs (Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, Charles White, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell) is actually rated LAST in the Pac-10 in rushing this year, averaging a mere 93 yards per game on the ground. It's hard to imagine the Trojans struggling so much in the run game, when you consider they have the fastest running back in the Pac-10 in junior Sultan McCullough, who finished third in the league in rushing a year ago with 1,163 yards, including a career-best 176-yard performance at ASU November 4. What gives? The apparent answer is an offensive line that has had as many as four sophomore starters. That line may be starting to come around, as evidenced by USC's improved ground game (134 yards) last week at Washington. Still, Southern California is ninth in the league in total offense (336 yards a game) and dead last in scoring (17.8 ppg).
Carroll brought in one of college football's most heralded assistants, Norm Chow, to run his offense, and Chow is attempting to exert his influence on talented junior quarterback Carson Palmer. It seems as though Palmer is one of those kids who has fallen victim to the massive hype that surrounded his recruitment to USC. His own high school coach in Santa Margarita, CA., described Palmer as having 'the size of Troy Aikman, the arm strength of John Elway and the quick release of Dan Marino.' Nothing like putting a little pressure on a kid, huh? Actually, Palmer has had statistical success at USC, ranking third among all-time Trojan quarterbacks in passing and total offense. However, he's also thrown more interceptions (33) than touchdowns (30), and has been the quarterback during a mediocre period in USC football history. Say this much for Carson: he's unbeaten against Arizona State! As a true freshman in 1998, he came of f the bench in relief of Mike Van Raaphorst to help spark the Trojans, who rallied from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit to dump the Devils 35-24. Palmer didn't face ASU in 1999 because of a broken collarbone (the Sun Devils won that game 26-16), but he returned to the lineup last year and passed for 279 yards as USC snapped a five-game losing streak with its 44-38 double-overtime victory over Arizona State.
The most imposing aspect of USC's offense is its wide receiver corps, particularly junior Kareem Kelly and sophomore Keary Colbert. Kelly isn't even midway through his junior season at USC and is already the school's #5 all-time leading receiver with 132 catches. A three-time California prep sprint champion who also runs on the Trojan track team, Kelly is an outstanding talent, as is the 6'1' Colbert, who almost came to ASU and is the cousin of Sun Devil DT Tommie Townsend (himself an ex-Trojan). How well ASU's youthful secondary defends against Kelly, Colbert and the USC wideouts will go a long way in determining who wins this game.
The strength of USC's defense appears to be a veteran secondary, led by an intriguing safety tandem. Strong safety Troy Polamalu is the second-leading tackler in the Pac-10, while free safety Antuan Simmons is just happy to have a chance to tackle anybody, after nearly losing his life in 2000. Hospitalized with a benign abdominal tumor, Simmons endured a series of life-threatening complications to his illness, before his condition stabilized to the point where he was able to return to football in 2001. One other name to remember on the USC defense: true freshman tackle Shaun Cody, who was named by 'USA Today' as the national high school defensive player of the year in 2000 at Los Altos H.S. in southern California.
In my opinion, the next two weeks will go a long way toward determining the success or failure of ASU's 2001 football season. The Sun Devils historically have played well against USC, in fact, they are the only Pac-10 team with an all-time series advantage (9-8) over the Trojans, including a 4--3 edge in games played at the L.A. Coliseum. Though they've been close in all five of their games this year, the Trojans have just one victory. They're struggling now, as is next week's opponent, Oregon State, which is clearly a notch or two below the caliber of its outstanding Fiesta Bowl champion team of 2000. If the Devils can't win these two games, it's hard to like their chances in the following three weeks when, in succession, they play three of the Pac-10's best this year (Washington, at Oregon, and home to Washington State, which in my opinion is the surprise team in the nation). Conversely, with victories over USC and Oregon State, the Sun Devils would be 5--1 when Washington comes to town October 27, which should have Sun Devil Stadium rocking.
But first things first. USC. Saturday. Has the spectacular offensive success they've had against weak non-conference opponents given the Sun Devils the confidence they need to play well in the Pac--10? Or will this team get 'stage fright' playing against a quality foe in an historic venue like the L.A. Coliseum? If they are self-assured and avoid the costly mistakes that plagued them at Stanford, the Sun Devils would appear primed to make a Trojan conquest.
Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU football for the Sun Devil Sports Network. Tim's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.