Half Way There

Okay, we're half way through the season now. Optimistic Sun Devil fans could have predicted a 6-0 start. It was not out the realm of possibility given the favorable schedule, including four straight home games to start the season. But you have to be pumped that ASU is undefeated at this point, especially given the come-from-behind victories. ASU has won when they've played well.

They've won when they've played poorly. And they've won when they've fallen behind in the first half. So it's nice to see the team play with poise and confidence.

This past Saturday, the Sun Devils traveled up to Pullman, Washington, and walked away with a hard-fought 23-20 victory against Washington State. The critics will point out that this was not a great Cougars team. But as the past few weeks have proven in college football, you can't take any game for granted. WSU was a dangerous opponent, especially after getting humiliated by Arizona the week before. And just ask USC how difficult it is to beat an opponent how was just embarrassed (Stanford against ASU).

Not to mention, winning on the road in the Pac-10 is never easy. Just ask head coach Dennis Erickson, who knows a few things about playing football at Washington State.

"I told our team there isn't going to be a tougher place to play," said Erickson, who coached at Washington State 1987 and 88. "I've been there on both sides of it. A lot of people have left here with their heads between their legs. That's just how it is."

ASU got the victory after WSU kicker Romeen Abdollmohammadi missed a 46-yard field goal with 12 seconds remaining that would have sent the game into overtime. Instead the Sun Devils were victorious and remain unbeaten on the season (and in the Pac-10 at 3-0). Only 40 seconds earlier, ASU's Thomas Weber's 37-yard field goal gave ASU the lead.

So as ASU heads back home to take on Washington this weekend, we can reflect on the effort Saturday. As usual, there were positives and negatives. On the bright side, the defense kept ASU in the game all day. While the defense played conservatively at times, the bend-don't-break philosophy of DC Craig Bray worked well in this contest. Though late in the game, it seemed Bray was playing not to lose (instead of playing to win). But a couple of late blitzes forced WSU quarterback Alex Brink to make a couple errant throws late in the game. I would like to see ASU be a bit more aggressive against some of the tougher opponents. But overall, the defense played excellent and the entire unit deserved a game ball.

Cornerback Justin Tryon made perhaps the play of the day when he stepped in front of an out pattern thrown by Brink and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown. Of course, he followed that excellent play with a bone-headed decision to taunt Brink on the way to the end zone and drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Fortunately, that mistake did not come back to haunt ASU, though it did anger Erickson and the entire coaching staff. There is no place in college football for that type of behavior, and Tryon was apologetic afterward. Hopefully, he'll get more chances to make big plays like that and respond with grace and sportsmanship.

On the negative side, ASU's offensive line was awful. It took three quarters for the O-line to open up any holes for back Ryan Torain. And quarterback Rudy Carpenter was under siege all afternoon. WSU linebacker Andy Mattingly was in the backfield all game, and every time Carpenter dropped back to pass, it seemed Mattingly was in the pocket with him. Mattingly had four of the Cougars' seven sacks, a number that has to pester the coaching staff this entire week. Offensive line coach Gregg Smith won't be sleeping easy this week. He has his work cut out for him this week in practice.

Granted, WSU was very aggressive and blitzed on almost every passing down. Three things are clear: First, ASU offensive coordinator Rich Olson better be prepared for the blitz the rest of the season, because ASU's upcoming opponents are almost certain of copying WSU's strategy. It seems the best way to stop Carpenter is to blitz him.

Second, Carpenter has to recognize the blitzes and audible with a screen pass or draw play. There are ways to counter a heavy blitz package, and screen passes are the most effective way. Hopefully, Olson and the ASU offense will work on implementing bubble screens, crack screens and jailbreak screens into the offensive game plan this week. Former ASU head coach Bruce Snyder was a master at implementing the screen play into ASU's offense. Get the screen pass off, and ASU has enough playmakers at the skill position to make the yards-after-catch.

If you don't counter the blitz, teams will keep blitzing and blitzing. Carpenter won't be able to take that type of punishment all season. And the offensive line could use all the help it can get.

Third, Carpenter has to deliver the football quicker. It's obvious that the offensive line is playing sub-par football right now. Carpenter has to deliver passes quicker and get the ball into the hands of receivers, backs and tight ends, who can then make something happen with the football.

So Washington is up next, followed by a much needed bye week before the team takes on Cal. To all Sun Devil fans ... let's pack the stadium and rock the house. Remember that the last time ASU was 6-0 to start the season was 1996, and you know the rest of that story. If you also remember, the fans played an integral part in the team's success by being an effective 12th man. Let's do the same this Saturday! Get out there this week and support your team.

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