Though bitter feelings resonate throughout the Sun Devil nation following a loss in a winnable game in Athens against Georgia, when ASU fans step away from the frustration of Saturday's defeat, the Sun Devils' stance after three games is no different than what a vast majority of fans and critics predicted prior to the season's start. In fact, cumulatively the first quarter of the 2009 season has collectively panned out in a fashion above most preseason expectations.
The pitchfork in the road at this juncture would be the long term, intra-conference expectations which are grossly unpredictable based not only on the ups and downs of the Sun Devils, but also of the league as a whole. At this point, it is feasible that nine of the Pac-10 teams could be viewed as legitimate bowl game contenders, although certainly less than that amount will ultimately qualify for a postseason appearance. Additionally, the teams which recent history places among the Pac's elite have all had embarrassing losses in the early season stanza; creating no invincibility among the league.
For ASU, the current focus must purely be on the immediate task at hand, which for the Sun Devils may prove advantageous as they face a slipping and banged-up Oregon State squad in Sun Devil Stadium, with history largely on ASU's side when on home turf against the Beavers as the Devils carry over a 40-year win streak against the Beavers In Tempe.
Saturday's game will be a clash of strength versus strength, with OSU's Rodgers brothers pacing the Beaver offense in both rushing and receiving, while the tenacious Sun Devil defense looks to continue the heat generated by the first three games, especially its stingy effort against an offensively potent Georgia team.
This week will surely be an important series of practices for the Sun Devils, most notably on offense because defensively from top to bottom ASU has proven to be as complete as any Pac-10 squad, however the offense definitely has room to improve – and quick – to enable the Devils to maintain or seize victories backed by their punishing defense.
Adding a dash of long-term value to this weekend's game is the expected official visit presence of a handful of Arizona's most prized prospects for the 2010 recruiting cycle. Hopefully the people of Tempe and the surrounding areas wake up and realize that football in Arizona is not only played in Glendale on Sundays.
ASU's pathetic two-game home attendance average has been reminiscent of the futile NFL games previously played in Sun Devil Stadium during the majority of the past two decades – unbelievably, ASU reportedly played in front of nearly 6,400 more fans at Sanford Stadium than in its first two home games combined. Sadly, that total reflects as a knock against the Sun Devils, but the truth is there are tens of thousands of would-be ASU fans not doing their collective part. Keep in mind folks, real football fans in the state of Arizona wear Maroon and Gold – tell your friends who may have sold out for a red colored bandwagon ticket a year ago.
With abundant youth and inexperience across the Sun Devil roster, it is absolutely crucial that the entire team – from the full-time first-stringers to those who have received less time than expected – turn disappointment into intensity on the practice field and in each game ahead and not let the frustration of a near win in SEC territory paralyze their focus.
Perhaps with the exception of Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., the pageantry and intensity found in Sanford Stadium – which the Devils were able to silence for much of the contest – will not again be experienced by ASU on the road, making their ability to stand toe-to-toe with one of the SEC's traditional powers one that can undoubtedly be used productively.
Ironically, if many fans had been told that ASU would leave Athens with a three-point defeat, one would have assumed the Sun Devil faithful would be unconditionally encouraged. Funny though, is when a team plays well enough to win despite being an underdog in hostile territory, even close losses sting and the dreaded moral victory label usually fails to sweeten the sour taste of defeat.
Focus is clearly the name of the game this week. The talent, in general, certainly exists on the roster to make this season a very successful one, but organization, discipline and improvement will be needed to ensure that the Devils enable themselves to be a force, not a farce.
Oregon State has struggled through its past three games, dropping two in a row and showing signs of a team that ASU can bounce back against. However, as many questions prevail as answers at this point and the onus of responsibility lies in the hands of the coaches and players to determine the fate of the Sun Devils' 2009 season in their highly unpredictable conference.