SUN DEVIL SUNDAY MIDSEASON ANALYSIS

As the ASU's 2007 football season reaches its halfway point, there have been ups and downs, however even the most die-hard fans of the maroon and gold would not have dreamed that the Devils would stand ranked as high as 13th in the nation midway through the year, with an unblemished record of 6-0.

In a college football season that has provided more national drama through six games than most do after a full slate of 12, Arizona State University, under first-year head coach Dennis Erickson, has widely been recognized as one of college football's surprise stories of 2007.

Prognosticators will persist that the Sun Devils' first-half schedule was been tailor-made for the maroon and gold to win its first six games. However, the Devils have won in a variety of ways, some of which were not prevalent among teams led by ASU's previous coaching staff. Heck, how good does ASU's 41-3 smashing of Stanford look now?

Blowout victories, come-from-behind wins and, most recently, a last-minute nail-biter have painted the picture of ASU's perfect first-half record. The resilience and focus that the Sun Devils have exhibited during the year's first six contests have outweighed any major shortcomings the team may have shown during that span.

This year's start marks only the third time since entering the Pacific-10 Conference in 1978 that Arizona State has began the season 6-0, and the other two seasons (1982 and 1996) were two of the three seasons in that span that the Sun Devils won 10 or more games. The third 10-plus win season in that span is the Devils' Rose Bowl season of 1986, in which ASU tied Washington State in the season's third game on Sept. 27, 1986, thus starting the year 5-0-1.

Things from this point get very real, as the following six games include three teams currently ranked in the nation's top-ten, as well as road trips to Oregon's Autzen Stadium and UCLA's Rose Bowl, the latter of the two remains a location that the Sun Devils have won only once in their past five tries, while last year, the Ducks handed ASU one of the most embarrassing losses the team has suffered in recent memory.

Add in home games against an improved Washington team, as well as California, who was an LSU loss away from being the top-ranked team in the nation, an unprecedented Thanksgiving evening match-up with USC and a season-ending rivalry showdown with struggling Arizona. Overall, the Devils have their work cut out for them to have the second half of the season conclude as excellently as the first.

Six games are in the books, and all are down as "W's". Bottom line, although the ride has had some bumps, it's becoming fun to bleed maroon and gold again, and the nation is beginning to take notice. With no further delay, I present to you my midseason review and award winners…

Most Valuable Offensive Player

The Sun Devils have had a number of contributors on the offensive side of the ball thus far, but quarterback Rudy Carpenter and running back Ryan Torain have played effectively and consistently through the first six games, and share offensive MVP honors.

Carpenter's sophomore slump is well-known, and entering the season there were great expectations for him to improve and become the leader and playmaker that he was predicted to be after an historic redshirt freshman season.

To put it plainly: so far, so good.

The first freshman to lead the nation is pass efficiency with a national freshman record of 175.01 in 2005, Rudy is currently ranked 11th in the country in the category with a 162.17 ranking, vastly improved over last season's mark of 133.68. Also, Carpenter ranks in the nation's top-20 in touchdowns (16th; 14) and completion percentage (17th; 66.7 pct.). Statistics aside, Carpenter has played more confidently and effectively, and while his decision-making has not been perfect, it's greatly improved.

He's a competitor, he's a leader and he's regained the confidence of fans and critics. There's a little Jake Plummer in the Sun Devils' signal caller, and he's maturing before our collective eyes. His greatest series of tests on the field are yet to come, but after a difficult 2006 season, the optimism is back for Rudy Carpenter.

"The Train" just gets the job done, plain and simple. Underrated on the national scene, but Pac-10 defenders need not be reminded of the nightmare that Torain provides with his total-package combination of size and speed, with lethal abilities as both a runner and a receiver. Despite missing ASU's match-up with San Diego State on Sept. 15 due to injury, Torain has totaled 524 yards on 100 carries with five scores on the ground, in addition to 79 receiving yards and a pair of touchdown catches.

Reliability is the name of "The Train's" game, whether grinding and stiff-arming his way to crucial first-downs or simply making something out of virtually nothing. A legitimate first-day NFL draft pick, if the Sun Devils can shore up some woes along the offensive line, Torain's stock and national prestige will skyrocket in the season's second half.

Honorable Mention

Although he was very limited in games at Stanford and Washington State, junior wide receiver Michael   Jones has shown the ability to be the go-to receiver that the Devils lacked last season, totaling 21 catches for 357 yards and five scores, ranking third in the Pac-10 in touchdown catches and seventh in receiving yards.

Junior running back Keegan Herring (361 rushing yards, three touchdowns), wide receiver Kyle Williams (18 catches, 256 yards and three scores) and center Mike Pollak have also been key contributors for the Sun Devil offense.

Most Valuable Defensive Player

No need to weigh the options on this one, senior linebacker Robert James has been simply dominant in every game so far. Considered to be a "bonus" if he was healthy for the season due to injuries suffered prior to the spring, "The Beast" has recorded no fewer than nine tackles in a game this season, and currently leads the Pac-10 Conference in total tackles (59), is tied for second in tackles-for-loss (7.5) and leads linebackers nationwide with three interceptions.

The unquestioned leader of the Sun Devil defense which currently leads the Pac-10 and is ranked seventh in the nation in scoring defense (14.2), and stands ninth in the country in rushing defense (80.8) and ranks 20th nationally in total defense (307.0), the local product of Phoenix's Maryvale High School provides a punch from the linebacker position that is reminiscent of former Sun Devil Dale Robinson, recipient of the 2005 Pac-10 Conference Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year Award. After totaling only 68 tackles and 10.5 for loss in 29 career games entering the season, James was named U.S. Bank Pac-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his season-opening effort against San Jose State on Sept. 1, and is well on his way to All-Pac-10 accolades as he closes out his Sun Devil career.

Honorable Mention

After virtually coming out of nowhere to demand playing time in the spring, junior safety Troy Nolan has started all six games, leading all Sun Devil defensive backs with 25 tackles, and ranks third in the nation with a Pac-10 high four interceptions.

Newcomer Morris Wooten took control of the starting middle linebacker position upon arrival to ASU after transferring from nearby Glendale Community College in January, and has steadily improved throughout the early portion of the season, ranking second on the squad with 35 total stops, two of which for loss.

Senior Justin Tryon has been the Devils' top cornerback, totaling 21 tackles and two interceptions, ranking eighth in the country and first in the Conference with 113 interception return yards, while defensive end Dexter Davis is following up his excellent redshirt freshman season with an impressive sophomore campaign, ranking fifth in the Pac-10 with 4.5 sacks.

Most Valuable Special Teams Player

Now that half the season has unfolded, can you believe that Thomas "Don't Call Me Wee-burr" Weber was fighting for the life of his job as recently as Camp Tontozona? Two failed extra point attempts from a perfect kicking record, Weber has connected on all 11 field goal attempts, including three over 40 yards and easily blasted the game-winner from 37 yards at Washington State.

It's unbelievable that a redshirt freshman could kick more consistently than his four-year predecessor, Jesse Ainsworth, but Weber has nailed each field goal attempt with room to spare, and has laughed in the face of the more distant kickoff tee placement. The former walk-on's repertoire grew more diverse at Washington State as he was entrusted with the team's punting duties, but continued to excel, averaging 41.5 yards on six attempts, placing two inside the Cougar 20-yard line. As the competition stiffens, the Sun Devils will need Weber to continue to be consistent in all facets of the kicking game as large-margin victories may be difficult to come by.

Honorable Mention

Sophomore Kyle Williams has quietly become a potentially dangerous punt return threat, currently leading the Pac-10 with a 12.6-yard average on nine punts, with a long return of 48 yards.

Budding fan favorite and Tempe native, walk-on fifth-year senior Brett Nenaber has gained notoriety for his kamikaze special teams coverage skills, leaving opposing return men in the dirt after they've been "Nenabered!" according to Sun Devil broadcasters.

Most Valuable Freshmen

Only seven scholarship true or redshirt freshmen have seen action thus far in 2007, however several of the seven have earned significant playing time. Among the most noteworthy contributors are heralded true freshman Omar Bolden, who has started the past two games at cornerback and has tallied 10 tackles and a tide-turning 29-yard interception return for a touchdown at Stanford, while redshirt freshman Jon Hargis has started twice at defensive tackle, totaling 12 total stops.

No freshman has had a greater impact than redshirt freshman kicker Thomas Weber, a former walk-on who has exceeded all fathomable expectations in his first year at ASU.

Also earning time have been redshirt freshman Jeff Bereuter, who has appeared in all six games on special teams and as a reserve linebacker, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Saia Falahola who appeared in the past two contests, however he again suffered an arm injury at Washington State, and his availability for the remainder of the season is in question. True freshmen defensive tackle Jonathan English (one tackle in six games) and wide receiver Kerry Taylor (five catches for 32 yards and one touchdown in six games) have also earned time in their rookie seasons at ASU.

The fact that only seven true and redshirt freshmen have seen action this season may seem disappointing and perhaps even an indictment on the effectiveness of past recruiting. However, of the 21 official members to enroll of ASU's 2006 signing class (linebacker Mike Nixon was technically considered a walk-on), nine of which were junior college transfers and six players earned time as true freshman last season.

Only seven scholarship freshmen redshirted last season, and currently tight end Lance Evbuomwan, wide receiver Rodney Glass and defensive lineman Zach Niusulu remain on the practice squad and have yet to see the field in 2007. Linebacker Jamarr Robinson was positioned to be an integral part of ASU's linebacker depth; however a spring injury placed his availability for 2007 in serious doubt.

Conversely, the Sun Devils' 2007 signing class included only five junior college transfers, and 14 of the 17 true freshmen to enroll at ASU haven't seen game action this season and are scheduled to redshirt. So much for Dennis Erickson's reputation to sign an exorbitant amount of junior college players!

Most Improved Players

Any time a team experience a change in coaching staff, there will be players who, for a variety of reasons, excel who previously achieved at a lesser level under the previous staff. The 2007 Sun Devils are no exception, as surprise contributors have surfaced on offense, defense and special teams.

Those who have become the most rejuvenated under Coach Erickson and staff are tight end Tyrice Thompson, who has started three games and totaled nine catches for 121 yards after catching only one pass in the previous three seasons, earning time predominately on special teams. Tight end Andrew Pettes, cornerback Travis Smith and tight end Jovon Williams combined to play only one game last season; however each of the three has seen the field extensively and have added reliable depth in their respective positions.

Senior Brady Conrad has appeared in four games with one start and was a key ingredient in ASU's close win over WSU, catching a career-best four passes for 36 yards, including his first collegiate touchdown reception.

Wide receiver Kyle Williams and defensive tackle David Smith are among the most improved starters on either side of the ball, each in his first full season as a full-time first-stringer.

Williams, along with the majority of the entire wide receivers group, has advanced wonderfully from last season, in which he was brought into the mix at receiver and in the return game during the second half of the year. The Scottsdale native was thrust into action late in the season and stripped of his redshirt due to his excellence on the offensive scout team, however the six games he played in 2006, followed by an incredible off-season, enabled him to become a major offensive threat for the Devils.

Smith, also a local product from Chandler Hamilton High, has started all six games at defensive tackle in replacement of departed three-year starter Jordan Hill, totaling 10 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and ranks second on the squad with 3.5 sacks.

Midseason Surprises

The surprises and positive aspects have been plentiful so far, which is expected of an undefeated team ranked inside the nation's top-15.

Offensively, although it's not completely surprising, the efficient and effective play of quarterback Rudy Carpenter is a breath of fresh air after a tumultuous season on and off the field in 2006. Aiding Carpenters resurgence is his greatly improved wide receivers unit, which provides a chicken-and-the-egg situation regarding the struggles in the passing game last year which have been largely remedied in 2007.

The overall quality of the defense has been the greatest surprise, ranking in the top-three in the Pac-10 in scoring defense (first; 14.2), pass efficiency defense (first; 96.5), opponent fourth-down conversions (first; 25 pct.), pass defense (second; 226.2), opponent third-down conversions (second; 29.5 pct.), rushing defense (third; 80.8) and total defense (third; 307.0), sacks (third; 17).

Robert James has been the obvious catalyst of the defense, but ever-improving players such as linebacker Travis Goethel and defensive end Luis Vasquez, joined by reliable starters Dexter Davis, Troy Nolan, Justin Tryon and Morris Wooten all have surprisingly turned ASU's no-name defense into one of the nation's finest.

In projecting the team's midseason numbers to full-year totals, ASU is on track for a legendary defensive season. Only twice in school history has a Sun Devil team allowed an average of under 100 rushing yards per game, doing so most recently in 1968 (57.0) and 1967 (79.8). Not since ASU's Rose Bowl season of 1986 did a Sun Devil squad allow fewer points per game (13.9) than the Sun Devils' current average, and not since ASU's second Rose Bowl year did the team allow fewer total yards than the Devils are thus far.

However, to reiterate, the level of competition will increase tremendously in the final stretch of the season, and if the team is able to maintain its defensive prowess, Sun Devil fans will likely be in for a big-time treat at the end of the year.

Efficiency is also the defining quality of ASU's special teams, as the Devils lead the Pac-10 in kickoff coverage, while Kyle Williams maintains a Pac-10 leading punt return average. Place kicker Thomas Weber, only a redshirt freshman, has become one of the nation's best, as he is the only kicker in the country with over 10 field goal attempts to have yet to miss, and ranks fourth in the country and tops the Pac-10 with 56 points by kicking. Not out of sight for Weber is ASU's single-season points by kicking record of 118 set by Mike Barth as a senior in 2002 – a season in which the Devils played 14 total games.

Midseason Disappointments

To find major disappointments throughout ASU's 6-0 start will require very disciplined pessimism, however the Devils' start has of course not been without flaw.

What has surprisingly become the team's most significant liability is the play of its veteran offensive line. Despite a starting lineup which began the season with 120 career appearances and 79 starts, the front five has not been able to consistently allow quarterback Rudy Carpenter enough time in the pocket or provide wide enough holes for ASU to best utilize its talented stable of running backs.

Seniors Robert Gustavis and Zach Krula have at times been replaced for the lesser experienced Shawn Lauvao and Julius Orieukwu, as the coaching staff shuffles the lineup to find the most effective combination.

Although other factors can make the offensive line play appear sub par, such as Carpenter holding onto the ball too long in the pocket and other players missing blocking assignments, Carpenter has been sacked 22 times this season, fourth-most of any starting quarterback in the nation and the most in the Pac-10.

There isn't much room for personnel change, as the Devils have only four scholarship reserves on its offensive line roster that aren't scheduled to redshirt (center Thomas Altieri, Lauvao, Orieukwu and tackle Richard Tuitu'u), and beside Orieukwu, the remaining three entered 2007 having combined to play in only 16 career games.

The blocking efforts have depreciated in recent weeks, as the Devils netted only 79 rushing yards (153 gross) and allowed seven sacks at Washington State after allowing six sacks at Stanford the previous week. Needless to say, ASU will face talented defenses in each of its remaining six games, who will take tremendous advantage of poor blocking of the Sun Devil line can't step up to the plate and provide Carpenter and ASU's running backs more breathing room than it recently has.

In terms of individual disappointments, tight end Brent Miller has had a shaky senior season due to early "fumbilitis" in addition to a nagging knee injury. Players such as wide receiver Nate Kimbrough, defensive tackle Michael Marquardt, linebacker Gerald Munns and wide receiver Brandon Smith have all suffered injuries to varying degrees which have limited each player's contributions.

The two most significant cases of players currently not living up to expectations would have to be seniors Josh Barrett and Jonathan Johnson. Both predicted to be All-Conference candidates and members of multiple national award watch lists, both seniors have been already been demoted this season.

After leading the Sun Devils in tackles and interceptions as a junior and earning honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors and team Defensive Player of the Year recognition, Barrett has started only three of six games and has recently been replaced in the starting lineup by junior Jeremy Payton, collecting only 14 tackles and three pass breakups. It's difficult to see Barrett struggle through his final season in Tempe as he is a legitimate leader with a tremendous team-first attitude, and the maroon and gold faithful are pulling for "JB" to end his ASU career on a high note.

Johnson, who helped dramatically improve ASU's punting efficiency in 2006, ranks eighth in the Pac-10 with a 38.2-yard average and was replaced at Washington State by kicker Thomas Weber who performed well and did nothing to lose his new-found punting position. Until he proves to return to last year's form, Johnson's role on the team may be relegated to holding for Weber's placekicking duties.

In Closing…

Not since its No. 8 preseason ranking prior to the start of the 1998 season has ASU been ranked higher by the Associated Press than it is today, on Oct. 7. What will it take for the Sun Devils to continue its rise in the national rankings? ASU will have to continue to play with fire and intensity on defense, continue its special teams and offensive efficiency and cut the bleeding in its lack of superior offensive line play.

Where do the Sun Devils really rank among the Pac-10's best and the nation's elite? Before long we'll all know, but what is certain is that ASU found an excellent leader in Coach Erickson, who has already made an indelible mark in his short time at ASU, and has worked his coaching magic before, which isn't out of the realm of possibility to be repeated down the stretch in 2007 for the Sun Devils.

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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