BERKELEY, Calif. - Rudy Carpenter leaned dejectedly against a wall outside Arizona State’s locker room. His left leg was bleeding. His left hip hurt. So did both his hands.
Carpenter was beaten up in the Sun Devils’ 49-21 loss to the California Golden Bears on Saturday, but ASU fans should be more alarmed by what he said than how he looked.
If six words can cause panic, it might be these:
“I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Dirk Koetter will have to wear a flak jacket around town the next few days, for he’s going to be pounded again — and deservedly so — with the criticism that he can’t win a big game.
Koetter is now 2-17 against ranked opponents. He’s 0-11 against Pac-10 teams in the state of California. And to lose like ASU did, trailing 42-14, at halftime?
That’s not progress. That’s the same quicksand Koetter’s teams have been sinking in for six years.
“There’s nothing wrong with our season,” Koetter said. “Today hurts, today’s disappointing, but we’re 3-1 with nine games left.”
So they are, but that one loss is far more damning than those three wins were encouraging. At this point, ASU is no better than the fourth best team in the Pac-10, behind USC, California and Oregon.
The Las Vegas Bowl, anyone?
There’s not enough room in this column — or the newspaper – to list all the ways ASU was exposed Saturday. So we’ll just focus on the most unsettling news; that Carpenter may not be the quarterback ASU thought he was.
Scream for Sam Keller all you want, but he’s seeing red in Nebraska. This is Carpenter’s time, his team, his legacy.
And right now, he’s a shell of the quarterback he was last season.
Carpenter was 16 of 36 Saturday for 177 yards, with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Cal defenders dropped two other passes. Carpenter has thrown eight interceptions in four games, compared to two picks in five games last year.
Carpenter is making poor decisions. He’s making poor throws. He looks confused when he drops back, as if he’s reading defenses for the first time in his life.
“Obviously, I’m not as good as I thought I was,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter is brutally hard on himself, but in this case, he may be right.
In retrospect, it appears his unworldly numbers last season — 17 touchdowns, 68.4 completion percentage — were swelled artificially by the quality of opponents he was playing against.
Carpenter picked on teams that ranked sixth (Washington), seventh (Stanford), eighth (Washington State) and ninth (UCLA) in total defense in the Pac-10. He also tore up Rutgers, which isn’t in the same league as ASU.
But against the one quality defense he faced — Arizona — he was a pedestrian 18 of 37 and didn’t throw a TD.
Carpenter clearly misses wideout Derek Hagan, who not only was a security blanket but had the ability to beat cornerbacks one-on-one, something ASU’s current receivers can’t do consistently.
As a result, teams are playing more press coverage against the Sun Devils, which takes away the intermediate passing game Carpenter excels in.
“If you had said teams would play against us the way they’re playing, I’d have thought the coaches were crazy,” Carpenter said. “I thought we’d eat their lunch every time we played like that.”
In a way, Carpenter’s success last season is working against him. Teams weren’t sure what he could do when he replaced the injured Keller, so they didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about him. This year, he’s the focus of every defensive meeting.
“I’m seeing a lot more funk,” Carpenter said.
To hear Carpenter talk after the game was to listen to a quarterback that’s questioning himself for the first time in his career.
His honesty — and self-criticism — was astonishing.
“I’m putting the defense in terrible positions.”
“I don’t think we’ve been in a rhythm all year long. A lot of that has to do with the decisions I’m making and how I’m playing, period.”
“Throwing the ball has been the weakest part of our offense this year. I never would have imagined that especially because I’m playing quarterback.”
ASU has a myriad of issues to resolve before Oregon comes to town Saturday, starting with a suddenly shrinking defense and an offensive line that may be missing two starters.
But nothing is more important than rescuing Carpenter from the whirlpool of doubt that’s engulfed him.
For if he’s lost, so is ASU.