Second Phase Winding Down

<I>The second phase of the season, starting with the USC game and ending with this weekend's contest against Washington State, is winding down. Saturday's game will determine if the Sun Devils end this phase of the season above or below .500 for the five game stretch.</I>

ASU was perfect in the first phase of the season, completing the string of games with a record of 5-0. The Devils then enjoyed a bye week before heading into the second phase of the 2004 campaign and sit with a 2-2 record over the last four games, including two blow out losses and two other victories by a total of four points.

In other words, the second phase of the season has been much harder on the Devils than the first phase.

Some believe the Devils are "lucky" to have won the two games they did over that span, having to mount game ending drives to secure come-from-behind victories over two of the conference's mediocre teams – Stanford and UCLA. I don't think there is any doubt that ASU has not played as well over the last four games as they did in the first three, but beating the Trees and Bruins in any fashion is something to build upon, especially considering the Devils' situation at the tailback position.

So, the focus is now on the game against Bill Doba's Cougars, who visit Sun Devil Stadium on Senior Day and the day the university retires Pat Tillman's #42. All things point to an emotional game for the Devils against a team that is improving, but really doesn't have any wins other than UCLA to hang their hat on.

It should be a romp for the Devils, right? Wrong.

Doba does a great job getting his defense ready to play. Additionally, WSU had a break out game running the ball last week (who doesn't against the Bruins?) and will be looking to utilize the ground game to take pressure off their inexperienced signal caller. Finally, the Cougars and Sun Devils always seem to play tough, close games and WSU's bowl hopes rely on winning their last two contests. They have a lot to play for.

Of course, the Devils have a lot to play for, too – the seniors, the Tillmans, and a potential trip to San Diego to play in the Holiday Bowl against a very good Big 12 team (probably Texas A&M).

Speaking of the seniors, ASU will honor a small but productive group before Saturday's kick off: Riccardo Stewart, Manny Franklin, Drew Hodgdon, Justin Burks, Chris McKenzie, Ishmael Thrower, Jimmy Verdon, and of course Andrew Walter all play significant roles on this year's team. It is important to note that they will be the first group of seniors to win more than six games in their tenure since the 1997 senior class, which included Pat Tillman and crew.

The most notable senior is Andrew Walter. He now holds most of ASU's passing records, passing ASU greats like Plummer, White, and Van Raaporst in many different categories. He also owns some Pac 10 passing records, including the most TDs thrown over the course of a career (which he took from a guy named John Elway) and the most yards thrown for in a game (536 against Oregon in 2002). Many fans, including myself, have nitpicked at some of Walter's "non-strengths," but I don't think you'll find too many Sun Devil fans that believe ASU would be 7-2 at this point of the season without him. We've been very lucky to have him behind center for the last three years. As an aside, Walter will be the last QB in recent memory to lead the Devils to two seasons of more than six wins. He has laid a nice foundation upon which the underclassmen can build.

However, even the graduating seniors and the bowl consequences of Saturday's game cannot compare to the recognition and retiring of Pat Tillman's number on the press box of Sun Devil Stadium. This will be a very proud and memorable occasion for every Sun Devil fan. As has been well documented, Pat embodied what many, if not most, of us aspire to be and lived his life on his own terms by his own moral code. His sacrifice for our country is representative of what every American soldier has fought and/or died for while protecting our country and making this world a better place to live. Losing Saturday's game would put a definite downer on what will be a very positive night.

I think the Devils win a hard fought game against a very determined Cougar squad that seems to be hitting their stride at the right point of the season. However, I just think the emotions and stakes are too high for the Devils to let this one go through their hands.

Once the Devils take care of business against the Cougs, they can enjoy a bye week and focus on the third and final phase of the season – the game in Brown Town against the basketball school down south.

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