Circle the Wagons!

<I>The Sun Devils came home from LA licking their wounds after a 45-7 butt kicking administered by the Trojans. ASU enters the last five games of the season -- a stretch of games that have not been kind to them under Dirk Koetter – with a great season still within their grasp. How well the Devils rebound from their first defeat of the season will decide how the 2004 campaign will be viewed.</I>

Well, opportunity knocked for the Sun Devils last week, but nobody was awake to answer the door. The team slept-walked through a sound drubbing by the Trojans on national television. Mercifully, USC decided to put the offense on cruise control in the second half and the Devils only lost by 38 points. It really wasn't even that close.

To me, this game was especially disappointing. I came into this season with two goals for the team:

1) Win at least seven games; and
2) Sustain no blowout losses similar to the Cal game last year.

It appears that goal #1 will be achieved. The Devils only need to win two out of the last five games to make it happen. However, I can't help but feel that the second goal has now been lost. ASU's play, or lack thereof, this past Saturday reminded me of last year's performances against Cal and the first half at Stanford. Basically, the Sun Devils looked lost, unprepared, and generally uninterested in what was undoubtedly their biggest game of the year. Unfortunately, a TV audience that included parts of New York and Florida got to witness the debacle.

I'm not going to overreact to this, but it does raise a red flag. Every season is seems that there is at least one game in which the Devils come out lethargic and uninterested. To not be mentally prepared for a game is very different than being out-manned. Even out-manned teams can put up a fight. ASU does not have the talent to be able to afford these mental errors if they want to consistently place in the top three of the Pac-10. The Devils' talent level is not going to be so much better than the rest of the conference that a mental letdown can be counteracted by a big advantage in talent. The Devils must come ready to play every week, something that USC showed us they don't have to do in their game against Stanford.

The good news is that the mental lapse did not cost the Devils a game they probably would have won otherwise. USC put together its most complete (and dominating) performance of the season on Saturday. ASU could have played well and still lost by two or more touchdowns. So, as the cliché goes, a loss is a loss, even a lopsided one. They all count the same.

Which brings us to this weekend's game at Sun Devil Stadium against UCLA, which is also televised on ABC. This is an opportunity for the Sun Devils to show that the game against USC was an aberration and that they can bounce back from adversity. Once again, they can prove that they are able to "answer the scratch." In many ways, this game is the most important game of the season.

A win gives the Devils six victories going into the Cal game, which could potentially be for a berth in the Rose Bowl. A win also means that the Devils will be favored in three of their last four games, making a nine win season very realistic.

Conversely, a loss would require ASU to beat a very good Cal team in Berkley to reach nine wins. It could also give the Bruins the nod for a Holiday Bowl berth should both ASU and UCLA finish with identical Pac 10 records. Finally, it gives Koetter's critics even more ammunition when discussing the Devils' late season record under his tutelage. Honestly, it would be difficult to disagree with their assertion that Koetter-led teams fade down the stretch if the Devils can't muster a winning record over the last five games of the season.

So, with these implications being understood, ASU needs elevate its play and take care of business at home for the remainder of the season. If the Devils can win out on Frank Kush field, then the worst record they will end with is 8-3 and that record would include a loss to Arizona, which is unfathomable for most Sun Devil fans. In other words, winning at home most likely means a nine win season and an invitation to at least the Holiday Bowl. It also means that the Devils could potentially end up in the Rose Bowl if they can find a way to beat Cal in addition to holding serve at home.

When I say the Devils need to elevate their play, I am specifically referencing the offense. So far, I think it is safe to say that the offense has not lived up to fans' expectations this season. As the leader of this group, Andrew Walter needs to step up his play. The senior signal caller is playing nothing like a Heisman-caliber player. Walter still throws a great ball and has not made costly turnovers, but he also hasn't put the team on his back and won games. If anything, the defense has taken the lead in this department. So, with five games left in his senior season and his worst game of the year just completed, it's time for AW to step up and make plays.

Admittedly, the WRs didn't give Walter much help last week, but he has not been "in the zone" in any game except for Iowa and maybe the second half of the Northwestern game. We've seen him uncharacteristically overthrow open receivers and just generally not look like the Walter all Devil fans have come to love over the past three seasons.

UCLA presents a stiff challenge. Their offense has started clicking as of late and they are getting their starting WRs back for the game to go along with their productive running game. So, as usual in the Pac-10, the defense will have their hands full trying to stop what should be a balanced Bruin attack. It would be nice if the offense could relieve some of the pressure on the defense this week by putting up points early and often. If there is a week to do it, this is the one. UCLA's defensive line has been porous and teams have been able to run the football at will against them, which in turn opens up the play-action passing game. A good offensive performance is there for the taking.

The Sun Devils slept through their opportunity last week. Although Saturday's game will not have national implications, it is important if ASU wants to reach the goals that any 5-1 team should have.

I'm guessing they will regroup, refocus, and pull out the W. Someone just make sure they all hear the wake up call at the hotel this week!

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