SUN DEVIL SUNDAY

Usually Sun Devils fans grin in reminiscence when they hear the score 19-0, however the start of Saturday's game against Oregon State almost spoiled the same margin of ASU's legendary 1996 victory over top-ranked Nebraska. ASU's never-say-die mentality enabled them to advantageously seize momentum and defeat Oregon State University, 44-32, in ASU's 2007 Pac-10 Conference opener.

Despite the Beavers jumping to a 19-point, first-quarter lead, the Sun Devils kept their collective cool, took advantage of a number of mistakes by the OSU offense and followed the direction fired-up leader Rudy Carpenter, playing perhaps his finest game since the end of his freshman season, helping ASU redeem itself from the 44-10 shelling it received at the hands of the Beavers last season.

As a result of the spirited comeback, the Sun Devils now find themselves ranked in both major polls, standing at No. 23 by the Associated Press and No. 25 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll. Ironically, the last time that ASU was nationally ranked was prior to last year's Pac-10 Conference opener, one year ago today at California, in which the Sun Devils were bounced from national recognition after falling to the Bears 49-21.

Perhaps the presence of Jake Plummer, newly inducted into ASU's Athletic Hall of Fame and also the engineer of ASU's upset victory of the Cornhuskers in ‘96, fueled the Devils' no-quit mindset, especially in Carpenter. The junior simply took control of the game, carrying the Sun Devils on his back and making several Plummer-esque plays, turning plays which were seemingly dead-on-arrival into huge momentum-shifters. For the game, Carpenter completed 25-of-36 passes for 361 yards and four touchdowns, his fourth-best passing yardage total of his career and the third time he's thrown four or more touchdowns. Touchdown passes of 64-, 43- and 48-yards largely helped enable ASU to erase the early Beaver lead, as the Sun Devils went on an amazing 44-7 scoring run, including a trio of Ryan Torain touchdowns (two receiving, one rushing) over the course of less than seven minutes of play during the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth.

Carpenter is quickly beginning to live up to expectations to be tremendously improved from last season, ranking 14th in the nation in pass efficiency (166.29), tied for 11th in touchdown passes (11) and has made the most out of every passing opportunity this season, as only three passers in the nation who have thrown for 1,000 yards this season have attempted fewer passes than Carpenter's total of 1,027 yards on 114 tries (Paul Smith, Tulsa, 98 attempts/1,111 yards; Sam Bradford, Oklahoma, 96 attempts/1,067 yards; Tim Tebow, Florida, 95 attempts/1,096 yards).

What it has come down to so far is that Carpenter has simply made plays at key moments, converting on a high-percent of third down passes and helping lead ASU to scores on all but one of its 17 red-zone opportunities to date. He's tough, he's emotional, and finally Rudy can be recognized for his play on the field instead of the flurry of controversy that clouded his sophomore season.

Michael   Jones continued to shine in a major way, collecting 124 receiving yards on only four catches, including two touchdown receptions. Increasingly becoming the go-to target that he was expected to be last season, his receiving yardage Saturday night is the most since Matt Miller's 135 yards against Rutgers in the 2005 Insight Bowl, and Jones has now caught multiple scoring passes in two of this season's four games. Saturday marked the first time Jones has surpassed the century mark in receiving yardage and he currently has collected 17 catches for 324 yards (19.1 avg.) and five touchdown catches.

The numbers are staggering when compared to those of last season, as no Sun Devil made more than four touchdown receptions for the year, while Jones has already nearly surpassed all of his figures from last season (20 catches, 318 yards, three touchdowns) and he was ASU's second-leading receiver behind All-America tight end Zach Miller. With the season one-third over, Jones leads the Pac-10 Conference in touchdown catches and yards-per-reception, while ranking third in receiving yards.

Both Carpenter and Jones are legitimate contenders for the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week Award which will be announced Monday, while Jones is on a first-team All-Pac-10 pace, with Carpenter not too far behind.

Despite having very little room to work with, Torain gained 150 total yards and three scores, including 91 on the ground and a career-high 55 receiving yards and two touchdowns, raising his total on the year to seven total touchdowns, only three shy of his team-leading 10 total scores last season.

Although the front four did not create a significant pass rush (will be addressed further down), ASU's secondary took advantage of Beaver miscues, while its linebacking corps continued to be the clear-cut defensive strength.

Starting ‘backers Travis Goethel, Robert James and Morris Wooten combined for 24 total tackles, led by Wooten's 10 total stops (seven solo). James yet again was the striking force that his early-season efforts have created the expectation for him to be, totaling nine tackles, an amount that he has not fell behind in any one of ASU's first four games, while also adding a pair of interceptions.

Adding to the interceptions party were cornerback Justin Tryon and safety Troy Nolan, both creating big-time impact, as Tryon's 44-yard return (plus an additional 15-yards due to a late-hit penalty) created a huge momentum swing, as the Devils would ultimately take possession at the Oregon State 22-yard line, and Torain's seven-yard touchdown reception gave ASU a 34-26 lead. Nolan picked off a pair of Canfield's passes, for a total of 68 yards in return yardage.

Nolan is currently tied for second nationally with a Pac-10 best four interceptions, while James is the national leader in interceptions among linebackers, with three. Also, ASU joins Cincinnati as the only teams in the country to boast two players with three or more picks each.

It is certainly uninspiring to see ASU immediately fall three-scores behind, with slow starts being too familiar this year as the Sun Devils have allowed 39 first-quarter points so far, compared to only 23 points in the final three quarters combined. However, much as they did after trailing Colorado 14-0 two weeks ago, the Devils exploded during the remainder of the game and ultimately won by a large margin. ASU has time and time again showed an undying sense of determination, but it will suffer greatly in upcoming games if the team can't avoid first-quarter deficits.

One of the oldest football adages is that games are won and lost in the "trenches", and coming away from ASU's Pac-10 opener, what can be considered most disappointing is the line play on both sides of the ball, particularly the offensive line. Tremendously experienced and consisting of three starters who have earned All-Pac-10 accolades, quarterback Rudy Carpenter was sent running for his life on several occasions, and took a series of serious hits, and even for the gritty junior it will accumulate quickly if it continues, as his 6-2, 199-pound frame can only withstand so much punishment.

To date, Carpenter has been sacked more times (nine) than any starter in the Pac-10 (including four on Saturday), which is basically amazing given the expected consistency and depth of the Sun Devil o-line. The holes were also limited --if existent at all-- for Sun Devil running backs, reducing Torain's output to only 3.5 yards-per-carry, well below his career average despite carrying the ball a career-high 26 times.

Defensively, the Sun Devil front four wasn't able to create a significant push and Coach Erickson's intent not to frequently blitz created too much freedom for Beaver quarterback Sean Canfield, who bailed out the Devils' defense on several occasions, throwing several horrible passes, including five interceptions. ASU's defensive line has totaled only five sacks in the first three games; however it has been without its most talented player, senior tackle Michael Marquardt, for the past two contests.

Hopefully, the early-season experience by linemen Jonathan English, Dane Guthrie, Jon Hargis, Paul ‘Unga, Luis Vasquez --each playing his first season as a defensive player at the major college level--can benefit the team as its Pac-10 schedule progresses.

Sun Devil fans may be asking themselves the same question that they have following each of the first three games, wondering just how good is the opponent we just faced, where does Oregon State stand among other Pac-10 competition, and how should ASU's potential be gauged after this game?

The answers will come as the season unfolds, but as long as this Sun Devil team does not give up and keeps its composure under fire, there is room for realistic optimism. ASU finds itself in a very compelling position as it prepares to take to the road for the first time in 2007, as the next two games are very winnable, and it is now nationally-ranked and that 6-0 starting record that fans and critics have suggested since the start of the season begins to look logical.

There is room for improvement on a variety of fronts, however the Erickson factor is undoubtedly being felt across the entire team, and things could get very interesting from this point.

Joe Healey is a 2006 graduate of Arizona State University and will be a guest contributor to Devils Digest during the 2007 football season. He currently writes for ASU's Maroon and Gold Illustrated and his work has also been featured in Sun Devil football media guides and other official team publications.

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