Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Welcome to another Spring Fish Wrap. This time we take a gander at the ASU Sun Devils, approaching year three in the Dennis Erickson experiment, coming off a year-two season that has to be considered a disappointment among fans of the pitch-fork.
Hard to believe it's already going to be year THREE for Erickson in the valley of the sun? Boy does time fly. I guess this is the year to start cranking up the old rumor-mill. You know, Erickson to ______. I mean let's face it, he's been there for TWO FULL years now. He's obviously become bored with Tempe.....
2008: 5-7, 4-5 in the PAC-10, home for the holidays. An extremely disappointing year two of the Erickson era. Why? Well, 5-7 and no bowl pretty much sucks, no matter who you are. After a quick 2-0 start, they lost a "shocker" to UNLV - AT HOME NO LESS - in a total "lookahead" game prior to the Georgia Bulldogs coming to town. But that UNLV loss started the downward spiral, Georgia pretty much dominated them the next week, and with their confidence meter suddenly on empty, the team would overall drop six in a row.
ASU dealt with some injuries as well, along the way playing TEN true frosh, most in a season in school history. But you know, after being left for dead at 2-6, they did circle the wagons a bit. ASU would win their next three games to make the finish of the season mildly entertaining. The whole thing collapsed at the end, in a 31-10 thrashing at the hands of the hated Arizona Mildcats. To top off the agony, the 31-10 loss was their worst to Arizona since 1964. Ouch.
Last year vs. WSU: A 31-0 shutout. But the Cougs kept this one somewhat interesting. ASU would outgain WSU 398-130, but it was "only" 10-0 at the half. Hey, being down by two scores at the half? Sad to say it, but something like that was a moral victory for the '08 Cougs. WSU once again lost the turnover battle, giving it away twice with zero takeaways. But the running game was BRUTAL in this one, where the Cougs would get just seven net rushing yards on the day.
At least QB JT Levenseller got into the game for his first heavy dose of playing time. Sure, he was a rather ineffective 7-for-14 for 41 yards and a few turnovers. Not a great day to burn a redshirt. But at least he saw some real action in what will hopefully benefit him in the coming season....right??
ASU FANS ARE: Disappointed, to say the least, about 2008. The losing season smarts, sure. But for ASU, you must consider the level of expectation for last year to get your arms around this thing. For you see, many, many websites, blogs and such had fallen for ASU during preview season. Coming off a surging 10-win 2007 season, with a decent amount of returning starters, including QB Rudy Carpenter, there were a lot of reasons to like them. Then you consider that the second year of Erickson should see an uptick in performance, combined with seven home games, including the entire first month of the season in Tempe? Again, a lot to like. And a LOT to be disappointed with a 5-win season.
OFFENSIVE SYSTEM: The Erickson one-back offense, albeit slightly modified. Last year, in an effort to keep QB Rudy Carpenter upright and out of traction, the offense was fine-tuned to include more short passes and quick-hitters. Rudy and the rest of the QB's took a beating in 2007, so it sounded like a good idea. And on paper, at least sacks were down (34 allowed in '08, a dramatic improvement from 55 allowed in '07). But...
'08 OFFENSIVE RATINGS: 309.4 yards per game of total offense, good for 100th in the country. 100th!? With Rudy Carpenter, Michael Jones at WR, Erickson's modified offense, etc? The passing offense was OK, with an average of 220.3 yards per game, 4th in the PAC-10. But the running game? Forget it. ASU would average just 89.1 yards per game, just 2.9 yards per carry. They would finish ahead of only UCLA in the PAC-10 in rushing yards per game, and behind teams like WSU and UW. Without a doubt, lack of a running game ruined their '08 offense. In another disappointing area, they would finish 9th in the conference in the all-important 3rd down conversion rate, moving the chains just 29% of the time on 3rd downs.
'09 RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Seven. Not bad. But that number of seven returning starters does not include QB Rudy Carpenter or play-making WR Michael Jones.
TOP RETURNING OFFENSIVE PLAYER: On a team returning a solid number of starters, but losing leading passer Rudy Carpenter and leading WR Michael Jones, one has to dig a little to find the top guy. I almost went with returning senior WR Chris McGaha, but his '08 season was down in terms of numbers as well as being beat up most of last year. Instead, we'll go with running back Dimitri Nance.
Nance is a tough, physical back with some pretty good quickness. A stout 5-10, 220, he packs a punch and is tough to bring down. He led the team in rushing yards (410) and tied for the team lead in rushing TD's last year (3). But he shared the bulk of the carries for the most part with Keegan Herring in '08. But with Herring now gone, it will be Nance's chance to carry the mail. Combine the idea of a new starting QB, and Nance might not be just the best player on offense, but also the most important. A big year out of him could go a long way to getting back to a bowl.
DEFENSIVE SCHEME: Traditional 4-3 look. Some blitzing, but they rely on the front four to get pressure. Some good speed and some outstanding talent at d-tackle and d-end, they will come after you big-time.
'08 DEFENSIVE RATINGS: Pretty solid across the board. ASU was 4th in the conference in scoring defense, 4th in rushing defense, 7th in passing defense and finally, 5th in total defense. They were third in the conference with 16 INT's, and led the conference with four INT's for TD's in '08. They even had one game where they scored four defensive TD's, a new school record.
'09 RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS: Six. Not bad. But some big-time returners are back, especially up front along the d-line and at linebacker.
TOP RETURNING DEFENSIVE PLAYER: This one's easy. Senior defensive end Dexter Davis is the top returner on D in '09, and maybe the top defensive end in the PAC-10 for this upcoming season. He's that good.
Not a huge guy for a lineman at 6-2, 252, Davis is strong as an ox and extremely quick. He finished with 11 sacks last year among his 15 tackles for loss, both tops on the team. The only player in the PAC-10 to have at least 10 sacks in each of the last two seasons, Davis is the top pass rushing end out west.
Don't take my word for it. Check out the video clip for more. He's coming from the defensive end spot on the bottom of the screen.
Watch Dexter Davis sack in Sports Online | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com
First you see his initial push on the tackle to get him on his heels. Then watch the hands, where he literally swats/swims/clubs his way past the tackle. It's REALLY fast, so you have to watch it a few times to see it. But it's that big-time move that has him right by the lineman, and in an instant that tackle is grasping at air. But not only does he have the strength and moves to handle a 300+ pound behemoth, he then has the closing burst to sack an awfully strong, mobile QB in Locker with a lightning quick change of direction. Yep, Davis is pretty much everything.
TOP THREE POST-SPRING PRACTICE QUESTIONS:
1) Can the running game get any better? Please??? It was a long year on the ground for the Devils, boasting one of the worst rushing offenses in the conference. They literally fell off a cliff with this part of the offense. The offensive line was young, breaking in some new blood here and there, so that had something to do with it. While they improved in the sacks allowed department, it never came on the ground. But all is not lost. Dimitri Nance is in position for a big senior year, and will have some help back there with returners like Shaun DeWitty. But the health of the o-line is an issue, this spring and potentially this fall. Three o-line starters sat out spring ball, and for a group still trying to establish itself, this isn't good news.
2) Is Danny Sullivan ready to replace Rudy? Or is there someone else in the mix? In a pretty strong showing this spring, senior QB Danny Sullivan went out and put himself in the lead for the starting job this fall.
Sullivan is a big dude at 6-5, 238, and hasn't played much over the last three+ seasons. He did throw 43 passes last year, but this will be his first shot as a starter.
Hang on a second. Big senior, with a strong arm, some surprising mobility, but hasn't played much while sitting behind an established four-year starter? SOUND FAMILIAR!?!
Not to suggest that Sullivan is the second coming of Gary Rogers....but....you know. Just saying.
3) So if the offense sputters with a banged-up line and inexperience at QB, is the defense good enough to save the day? Mmm, could be. ASU's defense is returning some serious talent, in all the right places. They will be strong up front with not only Dexter Davis, but defensive tackle Lawrence Guy will be a force. Guy was a frosh All-American last year, actually leading the ASU defensive line in total tackles while finishing second behind Davis with 10 tackles for loss. A huge-framed athlete at 6-5, 275, Guy looks like a rising star.
But they'll be strong at corner, where starters Omar Bolden (coming off injury) and Terrell Carr are both back in '09. And they'll be set at linebacker as well, where starters Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel return for their senior seasons. Nixon and Goethel combined for 161 tackles, 15.5 for loss, and SEVEN interceptions. One of the best all-around linebackers in the conference, Nixon actually tied for the conference lead with five interceptions on his own, and finished sixth in the conference with 90 tackles.
WSU FOOTBALL BLOG SEZ: I admit it. I picked ASU 2nd in the PAC-10 last year. They just seemed to have everything going for them, from the schedule to the returning starters to Erickson's second year. And I thought Rudy was just going to explode with the new wrinkles to the offense. But I know I wasn't alone out there. They disappointed a lot of people with their mid-season collapse, something that looked like a near-impossibility during "preview" season.
A glance at the schedule shows ASU with some soft landings to start the year, opening at home vs. Idaho State and after a week-two bye, it's a helping of Louisiana-Monroe. But then it gets tricky, with a road game at sweaty Athens, Georgia, where UGA and all that SEC speed will be waiting. After that, they host Oregon State to start October, then it's off to Pullman for the 10/10 showdown in Martin Stadium.
Speaking of Martin Stadium, the Cougars have done fairly well at home vs. ASU this decade. ASU won a squeaker in Pullman in '07, 23-20, on a missed field goal from going to OT (and a missed TD call from WSU winning the game outright?). But even in '05, WSU lost by just three points at home, 27-24. And WSU beat ASU in Pullman in both '02 (44-22) and '03 (34-19). So Pullman isn't exactly circled on the Sun Devil calendar as a place they love to be.
All told, ASU has seven home games. While that sounds great, remember they had seven home games last year, and we know how that turned out. And in a really tough stretch, they also get what are likely to be the top three teams in the conference on back-to-back-to-back Saturdays, in CAL (10/31), USC (11/7) and at Oregon (11/14). No doubt that stretch will make - or break - their season.
But I bet Erickson will have them with a major chip on their shoulder from the get-go. With a new QB, whether it's Sullivan or one of the others in the mix, they will recommit to establishing the run game, and will ride Nance early in the season while things settle down. And that defense looks especially good. Something tells me they might be a candidate to turn it around quickly in the muddled middle ground of the PAC-10. Things could be awfully fluid between, say, the fourth and seventh place teams, and it's hard to doubt the talent ASU has in the system. A 3-1 start heading into the WSU game isn't out of the question. But that's why they play the games! We'll see what happens.
That's it for a Wednesday. ENJOY your day, and as always, GO COUGS!