EVANSTON, Ill. — Arizona State is undefeated this morning, an important road victory in its hip pocket, and for that the Sun Devils can thank their tour guide, coach Dirk Koetter.
Koetter went into Big Ten country Saturday and did what Big Ten teams do:
Win with defense, the rushing game and special teams.
It was the stuff Andrew Walter's dreams are made of, and while the 30-21 victory over Northwestern doesn't mean the Sun Devils are posing at Muscle Beach, perhaps their days of getting sand kicked in their face are over.
Granted, Northwestern isn't Iowa. The Hawkeyes come to town Saturday, and we'll know then if ASU is truly a different team than the one physically abused by Iowa last season.
So far, though, Devils fans have to like what they see.
Walter got his numbers Saturday — three touchdowns, 292 yards passing — but for once he wasn't ASU's leading man.
And that was fine with him.
“Last year I remember being asked about throwing for 400 yards when we lost,” Walter said. “I'd rather throw for 200 yards and win.”
He got his wish because ASU displayed a toughness and ferociousness that's been missing the last couple of years.
The Sun Devils pounded out 157 yards rushing on 41 carries. Most impressive was their final possession, a 14-play, 81-yard drive that ate up more than six minutes on the clock and resulted in the game-clinching field goal.
Koetter eschewed his beloved passing game and ran the ball 11 times, including eight straight carries by backup tailback Randy Hill.
It was in-your-face, on-your-back football, and somewhere, Frank Kush was smiling.
“That was very satisfying,” Koetter said. “That was a great job of controlling the ball.”
The game ball, though, goes to ASU's defense. A unit that allowed 30 points or more in six of its final nine games last season — renewing calls for the firing of coordinator Brent Guy — is showing its teeth.
Northwestern put up decent numbers — 463 total yards, 269 yards rushing — but they require some perspective.
The Wildcats scored 45 points at TCU in double overtime last week despite missing five field goal attempts.
Consider, too, that ASU played almost all of the final three quarters with just four defensive linemen after end Kyle Caldwell injured his hamstring early in the game.
To hold Northwestern, then, to 21 points and just 228 yards passing?
Nobody's screaming for Guy's head now.
“We're still way too inconsistent, but we're making the plays when we need them,” Guy said.
Like safety Riccardo Stewart drilling Northwestern running back Terrell Jordan and forcing a fumble at ASU's 20-yard line with less than eight minutes in the game.
If Northwestern scores on the drive to take the lead, who knows what happens?
“I've been waiting to hit someone like that since Washington State (Stewart's final game last season). “When I saw our guys jumping up and down I said, ‘Man, this is better than I thought.' ”
Stewart has become the emotional leader for a defense that's playing harder and hitting harder than it did at any point last season. Koetter counted 27 big hits against UTEP and guessed the Devils had another 20 on Saturday.
What's the difference?
Guy said switching from the 4-2-5 to the more simplified 4-3 has allowed the Sun Devils to play faster because they're not having to think as much.
Here's another reason: ASU is nastier. Stewart said the defense has four simple rules:
1) Do my job.
2) SOB. Speed on the ball.
3) Out-hit your opponent.
4) Create turnovers.
“If you do one and two, three and four will take care of themselves,” Stewart said.
So they will: In two games, ASU has forced five turnovers.
It also helps to have Dale Robinson on your side. The former junior college linebacker led the Sun Devils with 13 tackles Saturday, including two behind the line of scrimmage.
He's not Derrick Rodgers, but he's close. And he plays with a mean streak. Robinson drew an unsportsmanslike conduct penalty for leveling Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez after Basanez had run out of bounds.
A stupid play? Probably.
But it sent a message, not only to Basanez but to the rest of the Devils.
“I think that feeds on itself,” Koetter said.
The Devils were 2-0 last year and no one believed in them.
They're 2-0 again.
Feels better, doesn't it?