Baby Steps Or A Giant Leap?

Last week's win in Evanston showed that this year's ASU team is much improved from the 2003 season. This week, Sun Devil fans will find out just how much improvement has been made.

The 2003 Sun Devils probably would not have beaten Northwestern on the road last weekend. That team seemed to fold under any sort of adversity, such as a special teams' mistake and two unanswered touchdowns by an opponent. Last year's squad just didn't have the right mental approach to overcome these sort of intra-game setbacks.

Last weekend, the 2004 squad proved that it can and will persevere, thereby answering one of the main concerns ASU fans had coming into the season. They wanted to know if a Dirk Koetter coached team could be mentally strong. "So far, so good" is the current answer to that query.

Now the main question for the Sun Devil faithful is, "How much did this team improve?" Sure, they beat up on a below average UTEP team and took care of business against a Big Ten opponent that is usually dwells in the lower half of that conference. These are nice, notable improvements but not something the fans can boast about.

However, something that would be genuinely exciting is on the horizon, in the form of Kirk Ferentz and the #16 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. And as luck would have it, the Hawkeyes are on Tempe's horizon – not Iowa City's. This Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium, ASU will battle one of the proverbial "big boys" and the maroon and gold clad fans will learn a lot about what heights this year's team can reach.

A win would show that Dirk Koetter's fourth year could potentially produce nine wins. A loss probably indicates that seven wins is a more realistic expectation. In other words, ASU fans will learn whether this team's improvement will continue via baby steps or a giant leap forward from the dismal 2003 campaign.

A big part of what will decide how good the Sun Devils can be wears a #16 jersey. Senior quarterback Andrew Walter is considered by many to be one of the top two pro signal caller prospects in the country. He returned to ASU after his junior season forgoing a possible second round selection in the NFL draft. His reasoning for that move was so he could finish what he started here in Tempe. Oh by the way, he also wants to move up into the first round.

In other words, he returned for games just like this Saturday's one.

After two games, Walter's stats are decent…for him. For most other quarterbacks they would be very good to great. He has thrown for six touchdowns with no interceptions, while completing over half his passes and averaging more than 250 yards through the air (all while not playing an entire quarter against UTEP). So why are many Sun Devil fans wondering, "What is wrong with AW?"

The answer is easy. The ASU faithful know that a 300-yard day can be the norm for Walter and that he can go for 400+ when he's in a zone. His arm strength allows him to make passes that other QBs would decline to make or would regret not doing so. Up until this point, Walter has looked very average. That's something that neither Andrew nor Sun Devil fans expected.

So what's going on here? To paraphrase Eminem, "Will the real AW please stand up?"

There is hope, though. Walter was an abysmal 9 for 20 in the first half against Northwestern and many of his passes just didn't look like his typical darts or laser guided deliveries. However, he came out of the locker room to have his best half of the season, completing 12 of his remaining 16 passes to close out the game. Suddenly, he looked a lot like that guy ASU fans saw on the field before his ankle injury last year.

Saturday is Andrew's opportunity to show why he returned and that he deserves to be a first round draft pick. The Sun Devils know that he can get white hot and carry a team to victory. He has done it before. He needs to do it again, and this time against a great defense.

By doing so, in front of a dozen or more NFL scouts in attendance, Walter will catapult himself into a likely first round pick and also show that this year's version of the maroon and gold has the potential to be an unexpected big success. Walter's ability to take his game and leadership abilities to the next level will be huge factors in the outlook for the rest of the season.

With a win, the Devils gain valuable confidence and prove they can play with and beat anybody on any day. A loss, even a hard fought close one, indicates that ASU is just not quite ready for prime time.

So what is it going to be, Devils? Your fans are waiting for an answer.

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