Rivalry Games Don't Necessitate a Close Contest

<I>Anything can happen in a rivalry game</I> is right up there with the most worn out clichés in football. ASU's head football coach tends to disagree with that notion.

"I think that when you go into a rivalry game where one team has a better record than the other," said Dirk Koetter during his weekly press conference, "it gives that team more incentive because you can always fall back and say, `This can make our season.' On the other side of the coin are some misnomers about a rivalry game. Everyone always tells the team on top that the rivalry game has to be close. It doesn't have to be close. There's no rule in the book that says just because you're rivals you have to play it close. If you're four touchdowns better, you can play four touchdowns better."

On the other hand, Koetter stated that playing your archrival carries an obvious degree of significance. "I think every coach in America knows whom his rival game is with and knows how important that game is," he said. "I continue to be impressed by how important this game is to the followers of both teams. There's not a day that goes by that I don't get reminded about it. I was at the grocery store the other morning getting coffee and a guy walked right up to me and told me that he could not live if we couldn't go down there and beat UA. That's a lot of passion right there."

Speaking of passion, Koetter does expect it in heavy doses during the first quarter of Friday's game. "I think that in games like this, the team that's favored has to overcome the initial frenzy of the underdog, especially on their home field," he explained. "I think that as the game goes on, every team, good or bad, returns to their true colors. The first 10 minutes of every game are important because crazy stuff can happen. There's always an initial frenzy for the underdog in a rivalry game and we have to survive that. In fact, we actually have to take the attack mentality."

While the Wildcats are clearly not having a good season on offense, The ASU head coach was very complimentary when describing their unit on the other side of the ball. "They are a good tackling defense," Koetter commented. "They really try to get after you and they try to bring it from every angle. When I say that with this particular team, it's usually in the realm of the zone blitz. They've got every zone blitz known to man, more than we've seen all year. They'll bring them at you on any down and distance on any spot on the field. Their defense has done a really nice job of creating turnovers, especially in the last couple games. They've got some things on special teams that are unique and we haven't seen before this year. They're a sound football team. There's no way to disguise the fact that they're struggling on offense. But they do have a homerun threat at tailback and all they have to do is turn around and hand it to him." Koetter added that the biggest improvements he's noticed with Arizona are its secondary and wide receivers.

With the media frenzy that took place earlier this year concerning the in-state recruiting battles between both schools, the inevitable question came up during the press conference as to what kind of influence will the ASU-Arizona game have on the state's recruits who are considering both schools. "I think that would vary by every individual recruit," said Koetter. "We've been very successful in the state of Arizona. In the past few years, we haven't really gone head-to-head with Arizona for recruits because we've been primarily an Arizona and California recruiting base and they've been primarily a Texas base. Under Stoops, they've put a lot more emphasis on Arizona and we're in some battles with them for top in-state guys."

The bye week did give the team much needed fresh legs for its last contest of the season. "We did have two days off and we returned to practice last night," Koetter remarked. "We had an excellent practice, maybe our best practice of the year. You could really tell the difference on how fresh our guys' legs were and we really had a bounce in our step last night." In light of the bye week the team enjoyed, Koetter doesn't mind playing a rare Friday game, and actually did welcome its benefits. "This rivalry gets a ton of national publicity because there aren't that many games on Friday. We get the main stage. It's a pretty fair trade off."

The Sun Devil skipper noted that all practices this week would be closed, but that the measure is a temporary one. "We've been getting so many people out at practice and I usually know everyone that's at practice, " he explained. "But since there have been so many people there that I don't know we felt like we needed to close it. As soon as we get back into bowl practice we'll open it back up again."

With a charged up rivalry game in the balance, emotions during the contest could run uncontrollable. Constant questions about the rivalry and the team's standing in the polls, can only further ignite that environment. Thus, Koetter said that the staff would emphasize the more pragmatic aspects of this game. "This week, we need to reinforce what our message is," he said." We can't control everything that the players hear. You have to hope that your main guys get the message and that trickles down into the leadership of your team."

"Our message is that number one, we've got to play our game," Koetter continued. "We have to play this game the same way that we have to play the other games. The emotion will be there. Arizona is not the only team that has something to play for. Just because we're 8-2 and they're 2-8 doesn't mean that we don't have anything to play for. We'd still like to be a 10-win football team and to be a 10-win team you've got to be a nine-win team. I feel like when it's all said and done, eventually we could rise in the polls. Three teams ahead of us lost last week and we didn't move ahead of them but we might if we just keep hanging in there."

While the ASU head coach wasn't in season review mode, it is quite clear to him how he would characterize the 2004 ASU football team. "At the end of every season, you look back as a coach and say, `Did this team overachieve or underachieve?' I've been the first to say that last year's team underachieved. When I say that, that includes me. I don't like that after my name. We did a lot of work on that in the off-season. I think our players bought into that and when this season is over, we'll look back and this team will be remembered as a team that overachieved. I think that is all you can ask for from any team."

When asked to reflect on the season his signal caller has had, Koetter wasn't only grateful to enjoy the services of Andrew Walter, but also projected a bright future for #16 on Sundays. "I think Andrew (Walter) has had an exceptional year," said Koetter. "Sure, there are a couple of games we'd like to have back. But there are plenty games that because of what he did is a reason we are where we are. Andrew is getting everyone involved. In the middle of the year, teams did a good job of taking the deep ball away from us. At the start of the season and in the last couple of weeks teams have given us some shots to throw the deep ball. That shows you why Andrew is such a threat. When he gets a chance to throw the ball over the top there aren't many guys better than him. He's done a great job this year and there's no question in my mind that he has dramatically increased his stock. I think that will show up in April when the draft comes around. He still has a lot of room to grow as a quarterback and he's going to be a great pro."

With the ugly NBA brawl still fresh on everybody's minds, the Sun Devil skipper was asked about any concerns he may have of fighting during the Arizona game. "It's always a concern because we've seen how easy it can happen," he replied. "I don't think in any of these situations that happened recently any of the coaches went in the locker room before the game and said ‘let's go out and have an incident like that'. In the day and age that we live in and these things happen they are shown over and over. We can't help but know that that's in the back of everyone's mind somewhere. Hopefully that won't happen. I know Coach Stoops doesn't teach his guys to play that way and we don't teach our guys to play that way. My first year (2001), there was a very ugly incident here that we're not proud of and we accept our part of the responsibility for that. I think you just have to continue to preach that it's not acceptable. I have no hatred for the University of Arizona."

In the begining of the his press conference, coach Koetter sent thoughts and prayers on behalf of the ASU football family to the East Valley Tribune's ASU beat writer Bob Moran who is currently in the hospital following a stomach cancer related surgery.

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