What a difference two weeks makes. Sitting at 6-2 and one win away from basically wrapping up the Pac-12 South championship, the overwhelming majority of ASU fans were all for a contract extension for Dennis Erickson sooner rather than later. Fast forward two weeks and two inexplicable losses to UCLA and Washington State and the ASU head coach is very much on the hot seat.
Without a doubt his job is in jeopardy right now and a loss in one of the next two games should spell the end of the Erickson era in Tempe. Will an 8-4 record grant him an extension? That's anybody's guess right now. Finishing at that mark should in all probability net ASU a Pac-12 South championship (unless UCLA can go into the Coliseum and upset USC) but will the powers to be at ASU still view the season as a disappointment and pull the plug? That is without doubt a plausible theory.
The only scenario I can see that will be a slam dunk to grant Erickson an extension and yes it's an unlikely one, is for the Sun Devils to not only win the Pac-12 South but also win the Pac-12 championship game.
What has happened to ASU's defense as of late?
Excellent question because their performance in the last two games has been in sharp contrast to their performance the first eight contests. All season they have been the proverbial "bend but not break" defense and were very opportunistic with turnovers in the red zone and were leading the league in 3rd down defense. As of late, they have been giving up one big play after another, allowing drives to be extended and hasn't been able to force turnovers. I'm seeing just a lot of assignment errors in the secondary, and the front seven just seems to be outmuscled and not being able to disrupt opposing quarterbacks or slow down ground attacks due to being out of position.
How much have the injuries affected the secondary?
When Omar Bolden went down in spring practice, ASU didn't only lose its most talented secondary player but also its leader. Granted, for the first part of the season this group has more than held up their own even with a shallow depth chart. The only serious injury this unit has suffered was their fourth corner, Rashad Wadood, who tore his ACL last Saturday. Yet, in times of adversity your leadership is tested and I don't think this group is fairing too well in that area and the results unfortunately are speaking for themselves.
What is different from ASU last year to this year?
I think there is more talent across the board but you can still find pockets of problems all throughout the team. The running backs group is very suspect once you get past Cameron Marshall and they are sorely missing Deantre Lewis who had a solid freshman season last year. Brock Osweiler is a much better quarterback than he was last year and has made noticeable major strides. Red zone offense has improved as well.
On defense, the front seven isn't doing as good of a job stuffing the run and linebacker Vontaze Burfict has undoubtedly regressed from last year. Pass rush may not be strength of this defense but is somewhat an improvement over 2010. As I mentioned, the secondary for the most part has done a good job and probably overall performing at a higher level than last season.
On special teams, the return game may be even better than 2010 but the coverage teams have definitely taken a step back.
Who has the potential to somewhat breakout in the Arizona game?
With the struggles the Arizona has had in their pass defense, I would probably look for any of the ASU wide receivers to have a big game. If I had to pick one receiver, I'd probably say it would be Mike Willie maybe because he's due for a big game after being fairly quiet in the last few weeks.
Willie is a tall and physical receiver who is a matchup nightmare for any secondary. He may not always run the crispest routes but is the type of receiver who a quarterback can throw a less than perfect ball to and as long as he's in the vicinity there is a good chance he'll make the reception.
How would you classify Brock's season?
Osweiler hasn't been consistent by any means, but you would be hard pressed to complain much about a signal caller who is still relatively inexperienced and hasn't always had much support from the ground game, and yet is ranked in the upper echelon of the Pac-12's statistical categories. The junior has improved his accuracy, pocket presence and does a much better job going through his progressions. He has shown to be an above average mobile quarterback and his leadership has been undeniable. At the same his inexperience will show up occasionally.
It may have been hard for him to really distinguish himself this year with projected first round quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley, but barring unforeseen circumstances he should be the conference's top quarterback in 2012.
Strengths and weaknesses?
While I think ASU's offense can be a very balanced one, and Cameron Marshall is a very underrated running back in the conference, it's clear that the Sun Devils' passing game is the strength of this offense. Statistically, Osweiler is in the upper echelon of the Pac-12's quarterbacks and does a great job distributing the ball among several different receivers each game. Gerell Robinson is having a career year and is line for post-season conference honors at wide receiver.
ASU's running game has been inconsistent all season, and part of that is due to Marshall's injury, but it will be interesting to see on Saturday whether they can exploit an Arizona rush defense that has struggled in their own right.
The Sun Devils' rush defense has been underwhelming. The pass defense is an enigma. Up until two weeks ago, it was arguably the biggest surprise of the season. The last two losses have obviously put that group in a whole different light and ironically validating the pre-season concerns coaches and fans had regarding this unit.
Special teams are the classic bag of mixed goods. Jamal Miles is leading the Pac-12 in both kick and punt returns and punter Josh Hubner has been doing a great job pinning his punts inside the 20-yard line. On the other hand placekicker Alex Garoutte's struggles have been well documented and the kick and punt coverage teams have generally left a lot to be desired.
What were expectations like and has ASU generally met them?
The expectations at the very least were to win a Pac-12 South championship, and even though ASU is trying very hard to deny themselves that honor they still have a good chance to achieve that feat. Yet, as I mentioned in another answer, given the Sun Devils' inability to wrap up the division championship earlier in the season this accomplishment probably doesn't look as impressive anymore.
All in all, whatever ASU will or won't accomplish following a Pac-12 South championship (which naturally isn't a given) will determine if expectations have or haven't been met for the 2011 season.
Who is the best player ASU has that may not get as much attention?
Easy answer here – linebacker Colin Parker. Obviously, playing in that group he's constantly overshadowed by Vontaze Burfict in terms of publicity. However, when it comes to play on the field the senior has shined and leads the team in total tackles (58) and is among the squad leaders in tackles for loss (5.0).
Parker is a player that missed part of his high school junior season and all of his senior season after tearing his ACL twice. His first few years in Tempe his contributions were minimal at best due to his health but ever since last season he has been one of the standouts at linebacker and has picked up some of the slack following the season ending injury to Brandon Magee back in August.
Parker will never wow you with his strength or athleticism, but is a very cerebral player who's is assignment sound and has a high football I.Q.