ASU - an up-close and personal look

With the bye weekend and much to the chagrin of my wife Kim, I decided to do a football ‘Road Trip'. What better destination than Pullman, Wash. to attend Washington State's homecoming game against Dennis Erickson's latest resurrection project, the Arionza State Sun Devils.

It was a long trip, a somewhat boring game, and a wonderful time. Mostly because we stopped in Ellensburg on the way over and on the way back to visit three of our grandchildren and our daughter. We also took along a former Cougar teammate of mine, Wayne Foster.

Wayne and I had played together many years ago on the 'Cardiac Kids', the 1965 Cougar team that made a habit of coming back to win games in the fourth quarter, including three on the road against Big Ten opponents. We definitely talked about the need for the Huskies to come back and win a game in the second half.

Wayne is one of the best defensive linemen ever to play at WSU and was selected first-team All-American following his senior year. His nickname of 'Fearless' Foster pretty much says it all. He was a Steve Emtman-like player from a different era and was unquestionably the toughest player on a very tough football team. We had to be tough just to get through practices. He is also one of the few Cougars who fully understood and appreciated my conversion from Cougar to Husky.

Face it, I really can't ever go back - simply because I am considered a turncoat traitor of the worst degree. I've come to live with it, and being a 'Husky Honk' only heightens their resentment, because I am clearly an out-and-out Husky fan. That said, I also went to tell my friend and Cougar Head coach, Bill Doba, good luck and best wishes. As most of you know, the heat is on Bill. But I can tell you he is unquestionably one of the finest men in the conference. We coached the same position and recruited the same areas for many years and I also really liked him because he was the only assistant coach in the conference who was older than me.

I also went on this road trip because ASU is the next team on the Huskies' schedule and I had started my coaching career under Pinky Erickson, Dennis' father. Pinky and I ran the freshman team for Jim Sweeney in his first year as the Cougars' coach in 1968.

I came away from this game believing that, regardless of ASU's 6-0 record, the Huskies can beat the Sun Devils. Of course, I thought they could beat USC and everyone thought I was crazy. After the Huskies lost to USC, I still believe they could have beaten them and were only a few plays away from doing so. I was not impressed with John David Booty that night in Seattle and thought the Trojans were a sloppy, careless, arrogant team. I knew they would lose in the conference but I never figured it would be to Stanford.

Go figure.

I'm sure it has a lot to do with the parity of college football. Everyone has the same number of scholarships, and if the right things fall into place, any team can beat anyone else - so long as they believe. Look what happened to Michigan.

Defensively, the Sun Devils are really pretty good, although it is hard to say if they will play the same schemes against Washington that they used against the pass-happy Alex Brink and the Cougars. They play a similar defense to Washington's, but probably a little more vanilla in that they didn't blitz as much as the Cougars did. They have a really active linebacker in Robert James, number 29. He was all over the field and can really run to the ball. They play a standard four-man front most of the time and use Cover-2 behind it, and a lot of the time they play man-to-man in the secondary, as well as the two-deep look and occasionally what looked like a man-to-man, three-deep look with a free safety in the middle. They also played a Cover-2 man, meaning they manned-up all receivers underneath and had two safeties over the top. It held up for a while until Brink lit them up in the second half and finished with over 50 attempts.

Regardless, they had an excellent game plan going in, so that the Cougars ended the first quarter with five yards rushing and five yards passing. Brink went 1 for 7 in the opening frame. Of course, the Cougars defense was likewise stoning the Sun Devils, and the score was knotted 0-0 after the first. When ASU did blitz, it was usually with man coverage behind it and it was largely ineffective in that they finished the game with only two sacks.

At the same time, the Cougars decided to bring the 'heat' and often rushed with five, six or seven defenders, and ultimately sacked the ASU quarterback - Rudy Carpenter - seven times. The Cougs had Carpenter guessing the whole night and his offensive line looked confused on more than one occasion. I would have to believe the Huskies will bring the heat, if for no other reason than to see if Arizona State have fixed their protection schemes. They like to 'turn protect', which is a simple scheme in that all the offensive linemen sort of pass protect block towards the same direction while the one back blocks opposite.

Offensively, one back is what you are going to see. ASU runs primarily out of only two personnel groupings. They are almost in '11' or '12', meaning that they will almost always be exclusively in one back with one tight end or one back with two tight ends. That means in '11' there will be three receivers and in 12 there will be two receivers. Both personnel groupings can have 3x1 or 2x2 receivers to each side. That's about all you will see, except there will be an occasion where they will take out the TE and go with four wide receivers - or '10' personnel.

ASU basically runs about four or five running plays, and they run them well because they run them a lot. Now, they can add a reverse or fake reverse on occasion, but basically Dennis Erickson is a one-back running coach (Always has been and always will be). Arizona State will run the zone play as their primary play. That means all the offensive linemen again block their area in the same direction. They will all step the same direction and block or push any defender in their area. The back will get an open handoff from the quarterback and will dive inside or 'stretch' the play to the outside.

The Sun Devils will also start one way with the handoff, then hand back to the running back while he is cutting back, looking for a seam in the zone blocking but going back the other direction or straight up the middle.

They will also run a toss sweep to the single back with two pullers in front and a reach block by the tight end. If they are in '12' personnel, then both tight ends can line up on the same side like a wing set, and that adds an extra blocker to that side. They can also motion the extra TE and he can be an insert blocker, similar to a fullback. It's not real complicated, but like I said they do it a lot so they get pretty good at it.

The tailbacks are Ryan Torain (26), and Keegan Herring (24), and the Cougars did a pretty good job of containing them, as well as putting heat on Carpenter, the quarterback.

Dennis Erickson's teams have always thrown the ball well, and this team is no exception, especially because they have a veteran quarterback. It was obvious that Carpenter made a lot of checks at the line of scrimmage, and made some excellent 'hot' throws. He also got rattled and I thought was a bit of a jerk to his teammates, losing his cool with frustration. I think the Huskies can get to him, and I think they can bat some balls down. A big part of Dennis Erickson's offenses is to use the three-step quick throws. They will also throw quickly when they empty the backfield. Getting a hand up could really help the Huskies, as the Cougars deflected one that they intercepted and it led to a score.

I thought that it looked like the Sun Devils came into Pullman a little overconfident, and can't imagine that playing the Huskies at home will change that attitude. They played really good zone defense, and have been really good at intercepting the football, with 11 on the year so far. They are one of the league leaders in that all-important category - turnover ratio.

They are really explosive and jumped all over Stanford 41-3 two weekends ago. You know what happened the next weekend with the cardinal. ASU also put up 44 on the Beavs, who came back last weekend and smacked the Wildcats of Arizona.

They did lose a number of players before they played the Cougs, including their starting TE and right offensive tackle. That created a shifting of personnel in their offensive line, and that may have explained their inability to pick up the Cougars' blitzes.

The Sun Devils have played arguably the friendliest schedule in the conference to date, playing their first four games at home, then going on the road for Stanford and Washington State. Washington will need to protect the football to win this game, and will need to try to keep their offense on the field more than it has the last few games. This means running the football, moving the chains, and trying to make something happen in the kicking game. The ASU kicker - Thomas Webber (28) - is perfect on field goals this year, but is far from perfect as a punter. I think he is more uncomfortable punting, and that could be a plus for the Huskies. The Cougs blocked one extra point and that almost won the game for them. Washington can not afford to give up a big return to Arizona State's returner - Rudy Burgess - or have any sort of break down in the kicking game and expect to win this game. On the other hand, if Washington could return a kick or block a punt, it could really help.

I think the receivers for ASU are really good and was most impressed by number 13, Chris McGaha. He has excellent hands and runs good routes, even though Burgess - a converted running back - gets more press. Burgess is number 3, and like I said also returns kicks. The TE - Brady Conrad (83) - who replaced the injured Brent Miller (87), is the main threat on drags on bootlegs. But all their receivers can run, and Carpenter is really good at finding the open man - especially when he runs or scrambles. Keeping Arizona State's passing game in check will be a big challenge for Washington's secondary, which is minus Jason Wells at free safety. Pressuring Carpenter may be the ticket, but he will go deep. They opened the Washington State game with three vertical routes and almost hit on it.

The Sun Devils have not lost this year, but I sincerely believe they can be beaten by the Huskies. Dennis Erickson is a really good coach and has won every where he has been, including the Seattle Seahawks. He knows the game, and inherited a lot more talent at Arizona State than Tyrone Willingham did at Washington. This is a pivotal game for the Dawgs, and a win in Tempe will be huge towards the team's stated goal of winning a post-season bowl.

I had the opportunity to talk with both Dennis and Bill Doba before the game and that was special for me. Dennis' team did what they had to do to win the game. They definitely struggled with their protection schemes, and ended up giving up a ton of yards passing to Alex Brink. But they did win, and even though Brink became the greatest passer in Cougar history, he has not been a consistant winner for Coach Doba.

Unfortunately, statistics are ridiculous in that they can be so deceptive. The only stat that is important is the one in the left-hand column, right below the word 'wins' Offensive or defensive stats are great if you are a numbers person, but to put another mark in the left-hand column will take the Huskies to 3-3 and that means Washington is back to an even start. Win the majority of those games yet to be played, and they will be bowl-eligible. I think this is the biggest game of the year for the Huskies, and I don't think the Sun Devils feel that way because they play California and Oregon back-to-back following the Washington game.

This sets up perfectly for Washington.

They have had two weeks to prepare, and to enhance their belief system that they can indeed get a win. The Cougar game will go a long ways to show them how, because the Cougars damn near beat ASU.

Oh - and by the way - Wayne Foster decided at the last minute to watch the game in one of the local bars, rather than fight the crowd. When he sat down, a young waitress walked up to him.

"What'll it be Pops?", she asked.

No respect.

As for me, I watched the game by myself, because my wife has refused to go into Martin Stadium since the infamous "Snow Bowl". WSU students threw frozen Dog-doo at her and other Husky fans that day. I tried to explain, but she just drove off through the wheat fields, taking photographs. She didn't miss a thing.

I love road trips. Top Stories