"I've been involved in two unbelievable finishes in my life," said Koetter. "Once on the losing end, the fifth down game Missouri-Colorado, and the other one was yesterday. The chain of events that happened in the last minute – holding them on third and one, the punt return by Daryl Lightfoot, and 61 yards in 36 seconds culminated by Andrew Walter to Skyler Fulton at the back of the end zone, when things have been going against us all day…it seemed like an eternity for the officials to look at each other and decide if they would raise their hands or not. It's even prettier on film…that's what makes college football so great."
Amid the reports by the North Carolina media that Koetter avoided the traditional post-game handshake with Tar Heels' coach John Bunting, the ASU coach offered his recollection of the events on Saturday. "I did go the 50-yard line to shake Coach Bunting's hand," stated Koetter. "When that game was over, our whole team went to the corner (if the end zone), and I went to the 50-yard line to shake his hand. Their whole team was stunned. Most of the team was either on the sidelines or on the bench. I was standing there between 30-45 seconds. I was the only guy close to the 50-yard line. I couldn't find him. I looked all over him. At that point, there was no use waiting around - I didn't know if he was coming out. That stuff about me not shaking his hand – we may have just missed each other. I don't think I showed any lack of sportsmanship. I have respect for Coach Bunting."
Game balls were given to Derek Hagan and Loren Wade on offense, R.J. Oliver on defense, and Daryl Lightfoot on special teams. The extra captains for the UCLA game are R.J. Oliver and Regis Crawford. Players of the week on the scout team were Rudy Burgess on offense, Josh Barrett on defense, and Jermaine McKinney on special teams.
Much has been said about the officiating in the North Carolina game. Because it was a non-conference game on the road, there's really nothing that can be done due to the fact that the crew was from the ACC conference. Nevertheless, Koetter said that he would send the game tape to the Pac-10, so they can offer their opinion on the questionable calls that occurred during the game.
Koetter was cautious with his criticism, but did point out some key plays where he felt that the officials' ruling might have been wrong. The alleged fumble by Mike Karney is one of those instances. "One of the biggest plays that went against us is when we were ahead, and it was third and ten and Andrew throws the ball to Karney in the flat, and they call it a lateral. That was a big momentum shift." He added that on film the ball looks to be thrown at least two yards from the line of scrimmage, and should have been ruled an incomplete pass and not a fumble. Consequently, the ball was scooped up by a Tar Heel player and returned deep in the Sun Devils' territory, and eventually led to a score.
Another blown call by the men in stripes, was not having both teams line up for the extra point following Fulton's touchdown. "As I was going to the 50-yard line, three of the officials came running right past me," exclaimed Koetter. "I was shocked they didn't make us line up for the try. The rulebook says, if the team trailing doesn't leave the field, you are required to line up for the try. We would have taken a knee. They should have had us line up for the try, and give us 15-yards for celebrating in the end zone – which we would gladly have taken."
The officiating was not the only adversity that ASU was fighting. The long cross-country road trip, which required a rare Thursday afternoon departure (a move that Koetter felt good about in retrospect), was another element that the Devils were facing this past weekend. "I saw a stat last week that 70% of teams that travel across two time zones lose the game," exclaimed Koetter. "We certainly had plenty of chances to fold up yesterday. When it was third and one. All they need to do is make a first down, and we're out of time outs. So it's looking bleak, but our players believe."
This victory, according to the ASU skipper, could turn out to be a positive character building experience on and off the field. "When you're in athletics, there's just so many nay sayers out there saying ‘you should do this…' That's very tough on the players. For them to hang in there and keep believing, and win one like that at the end…it's just a great lesson about your life, as well as just athletics." When asked about the winning drive of the game, Koetter said that the team does practice such situations every week. Thus, the fact that the team executed doesn't surprise him.
The lack of playmakers was a popular criticism of the team earlier in the season. Does the ASU coach feel that the squad has found those proverbial game breakers? "Definitely. I don't think we will be able to ever go out there and make it look easy. I don't think that's in our makeup right now. We'll have to scratch, fight for everything we get. But the fact that our defense played steady through out, and it took our offense a while to find their groove, and now that we're able to run the ball, which sets up our play action game…Derek (Hagan) and Skyler have emerged as playmakers. Daryl (Lightfoot) and Matt (Miller) are picking up the slack. Other guys every week getting involved. This week it was Loren Wade with a career best day. I'm confident that we can play with all the teams left on our schedule. But I also know that if we revert back to not doing the little things right, then we'll be in a struggle each week."
Never bask too long in the glory of victory or extensively sulk in defeat, is a motto coach Koetter believes in. Therefore, the enjoyment over this win is a short-lived one. "With victories you learn your lesson and move on. Already this afternoon we started to break the ice on UCLA, and they're already worried about the problems UCLA posses for us." Having said that, the ASU coach claimed that any talk about post-season play at this point of the season, would be jumping the gun. "Going through the hype that we went through early in the year," said Koetter, "And then having a three game losing streak – when you talk about bowls or the end of the season, it's just very pre-mature for us. I don't think we have the type of team that can think like that. We said that to get a string going, we had to get the first one, and that was Oregon. We said we had to get a win on the road, and that was North Carolina. Now we have to get a Pac-10 on the road, and we have three of our next five Pac-10 games on the road. We just worried about UCLA now."
In last year's North Carolina game, quarterback Darin Durant gave the Sun Devils all they could handle. However, on Saturday he was surprisingly less dangerous than expected. "Looking back, there was something that came out in one of the (press) releases, and I was wondering if he was hurt worse than they showed. That was not the same player we played last year, and the player I've seen on film. I think we did a decent job of containing him, but I didn't think throwing or running that it was the same guy."
On the other hand, Koetter did give credit for his opponent's running attack. "They ran the ball on us better than I thought they would. I think that was their game plan. I think they were more patient with their run game than they have been all year. He (Durant) made a couple of runs on draw plays, and one scramble. I thought we always had someone there to contain him."
North Carolina's effectiveness on the ground forced ASU to often mix in
a 4-3 defensive alignment. Koetter said that this formation is becoming less of a surprise for his team's foes. "Against USC and Iowa we've been using the 4-3 against personnel groups where the opponent has a heavy run tendency. I think that one thing that maybe has caught up to us a little bit, we used the 4-3 a couple of time sin the past, and now we used it four weeks in a row – the surprise factor is gone. This is the first game where you can see that North Carolina was really planning, and we didn't catch them off-guard with that."
ASU did solid job in the time of possession category. Koetter stated that having a balanced offense is only one of the causes for that feat. "The fact that we're doing a lot better in third down the last couple of weeks... we've risen up from three weeks being 23% to being 35% on the year. About 43% is usually the magic number that leads the Pac-10. We're not where we need to be, but we have been over 50% for the last couple of weeks. The running game has helped. Just the fact that Andrew is trusting the receivers to make plays. That gives me the green light to let go of the rains and be less conservative. All those things contributed."
Kicker Jesse Ainsworth had a less than average outing, but Koetter isn't worried about the kicker's mental makeup following the game. "Jesse is a good competitor," he said. "He doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve, so if he was shaken I couldn't tell by his face. He's a steady guy. He kicked the ball very well in practice last week. When that extra point was blocked – it was just a low kick. That guy barely jumps. The field goal he made before the half wasn't a thing of beauty but it counts. I try not to get inside a kicker's head too much, that's his job – just like Andrew Walter or Jason Shivers have a job. He did do a good job kicking off. We hope to get Jesse's rhythm back in practice."
It was naturally a cheerful plane right back to Tempe, and one which Koetter jokingly described as lasting only four minutes. The celebrations on the ride back home, were not long lasting. "Guys were tired. Right when we got on the plane it was pretty jovial. When we took off they started showing a movie, and they were watching the movie or falling asleep. In the last 20 minutes they woke up, and Jamar Williams was trying to lead the plane with a ‘Happy Birthday' for Coach Monachino and Kyle Caldwell. His voice cracked so bad everyone was laughing." Koetter added that during the flight he watched parts of the North Carolina game, as well as the UCLA games against Colorado and Oklahoma earlier in the season.