When a football team is schizophrenic, that is a bad thing. But Arizona State’s football team discovered that being the opposite is worse. During the first five games of the season, the Sun Devils did not possess multiple personalities.
They had no personality at all, almost a shell of a team — very little passion and mistake-prone, even during victories.
The result: two straight embarrassing defeats when ASU lost its identity, the high-powered, downfield passing game, and players questioned their own intensity and preparation habits.
It took yet another defeat to change the Sun Devils’ mind-set, but a hard-fought loss at superpower Southern California, in which ASU erased a 21-point deficit, has the squad hopeful for a renewal.
“It took six games, but I think we’ve finally found the personality of this team,” coach Dirk Koetter said.
The Sun Devils began the season ranked in the top 25 and with a goal of joining USC, California and Oregon among the Pac-10’s elite. After playing and losing to those teams in their last three contests, it is clear that more improvement — much more — needs to be made.
But after struggling mightily on offense, ASU started the rehabilitation process against the Trojans. More important, Koetter said, the players are determined to save a season whose halfway point sees the Sun Devils at 3-3 overall, 0-3 in conference play.
Asked to define the new-found personality of his team, Koetter, who is in his sixth season in Tempe, said:
“First of all, after the two weeks (against California and Oregon) we had, there is a lot of soul searching going on. When you lose two games in the way we lost, there are always guys who question whether it’s worth it, or ask if we should just bag it and throw in the towel.
“Over the course of the weeks leading up to USC, I could see by the way we were practicing that these guys care and are committed to each other and getting this right.
“Everything they did in the days before the game, in the locker room, on the sideline, even after we were down 21-0, I finally could see that we are committed to each other and committed to getting this done.”
After the Sun Devils criticized their practice intensity following the 48-13 home loss against Oregon on Sept. 30, recent workouts have had more chatter and yelling, and the players say their execution is crisper.
“Talk to the coaches, talk to anyone that has watched us practice lately,” safety Zach Catanese said. “The intensity and effort are there. I know that it’s six games down the road, and it’s a little late, but I feel we’re coming together. The 2006 season is starting for us.
“We haven’t played our best game yet. Down the road, we’re going to jell, and good things are going to happen.”
Now, the disclaimer: After disappointing losses to USC and Oregon last season, ASU followed up with what Koetter called the team’s best week of practice since Camp Tontozona. When Saturday came, the Sun Devils fell behind 45-7 en route to a third straight loss.
The opponent that day? Stanford, which visits ASU this week.
Still, a significantly softer schedule, beginning with the winless Cardinal, is another reason the Sun Devils are optimistic.
“Everyone has been more upbeat than during the previous two weeks,” quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. “We all know we had a rough part of the schedule, and now we have a lot of teams that we believe we can play well against. There’s no reason we can’t win those games.”
A fast finish would save Koetter from further criticism and speculation concerning his job security, though — barring a complete meltdown the rest of the season — a change is unlikely.
Koetter, 47, has the support of ASU’s boosters and a contract stating that the school owes him any remaining salary should it fire him. His deal — which in March was extended two seasons — runs through 2009, with an annual salary of $950,000.
That means a $2.85 million buyout if he is removed after the season.
ASU athletic director Lisa Love will not comment publicly on the performance of Koetter and the team until after the season.
“It wouldn’t be fair for her to chime in on something that is not finished,” a school spokesman said.
As for Koetter, he is focused on the last six games of the season, hopeful that the level of conference competition the Sun Devils have faced so far has toughened them.
“That’s the zillion-dollar question,” Koetter said. “On all levels of sports, you get asked if you are better for playing certain teams at a certain time of the year. Yeah, you learn lessons that carry over, but at the same time, do you lose confidence?
“You look at the Pac-10 standings, and us and Stanford are the only ones that haven’t won a game. Yet, I know we’ve played three good teams, and I don’t think that six games from now, we’ll be in the same place.”
After looking lost for much of the first five games of the season, the Sun Devils appeared confident and avoided mistakes against Southern California last week. But do not rush out to buy stock in this unit just yet. ASU managed just 245 yards of offense — 75 in the second half — and a single sustained drive against the Trojans.
Quarterback Rudy Carpenter appears to be approaching his 2005 form, but if the wide receivers cannot escape from their funk, the Sun Devils will be hardpressed to develop an intermediate and deep passing game that is so vital to their success. Tight end Zach Miller has been his dependable self, but he cannot do it all.
The running game has been outstanding — the best in the Dirk Koetter coaching era — but ASU has not parlayed Ryan Torain’s 361 rushing yards in the last three weeks into victories. As an assistant at Missouri and Boston College, Koetter worked with run-to-win offenses, but that will not get it done in the Pac-10, even against the lower-rung teams the Sun Devils face the rest of the season.
The Division I-A statistics sheet indicates ASU has made a modest improvement in this unit, going from 114th in the nation a year ago to 80th (allowing 354.3 yards per game).
On the field, the gains have been more impressive. Save for the Oregon contest, the Sun Devil defenders have done what was begged of them coming into the season — don’t get overwhelmed, because the powerful offense (or, what was expected to be) will provide a comfy point cushion.
Koetter points out, correctly, that a lot of the points scored on ASU the first four weeks were due to turnovers or bad field position from the offense. But there have been signs of concern the last two games — Oregon averaged 76 yards on its six touchdown drives, and USC marched 75, 67 and 74 yards for three of its scores. That is not on the offense.
Though the Sun Devils have 20 sacks, just two fewer than all of 2005, nine came against Division I-AA Northern Arizona. The start of Pac-10 play has resulted in the same pass-rush problems that existed a year ago.
After a quiet start, junior safety Josh Barrett has come on in recent games, and three true freshmen — linebackers Gerald Munns and Travis Goethel and safety Ryan McFoy — have promising futures.
Special teams are like an officiating crew — if you don’t notice them, they are doing their job. After anxious moments last season with the punt team, ASU has been, for the most part, sound in the kicking game.
Save for his misplay on a punt at USC last week, Terry Richardson has remained an effective returner who has scored one touchdown and been close to breaking a few others. The Sun Devils are third in the nation in average kickoff return yardage.
Junior-college transfer Jonathan Johnson has been an upgrade at punter, but kicker Jesse Ainsworth has not validated Koetter’s long-distance faith in him. He is 0-for-3 from 40 yards and beyond and has missed his last 12 attempts from that range, dating back to the 2004 season.
The success of ASU’s running game has been a surprise, especially given that the offensive line has been banged up. Sophomore Paul Fanaika has been one of the most consistent linemen since filling in at right guard for Stephen Berg (first due to Berg’s concussion, then when he moved to right tackle to replace Andrew Carnahan).
Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, there has been more disappointment. Richardson hoped to replace Derek Hagan as the Sun Devils’ downfield receiving threat, which has not happened, and Jamaal Lewis — who missed the first two games after a criminal speeding arrest — has not found the rhythm to build on his electrifying 2005 season.
Two of the three highly touted transfers on the defensive line have been nonfactors: Loren Howard (Northwestern) has not played due to a nagging quadriceps injury, and fellow defensive end Tranell Morant (Florida) has been unable to crack the starting lineup.
After licking their wounds following a three-game Pac-10 gantlet of California, Oregon and USC, the Sun Devils have all winnable games for the rest of the season. However, save for this week’s contest against a pathetic Stanford squad, none is considered a sure thing.
ASU visits the Pacific Northwest in consecutive weeks, facing a Washington squad that has been a surprise but will be minus quarterback Isaiah Stanback (foot), then going to Oregon State. After home games against Washington State and UCLA, the regular season ends with the Territorial Cup game against Arizona in Tucson.
For the first time since joining the Pac-10 in 1978, ASU will not culminate a year ending in “6” at the Rose Bowl. But the Sun Devils should get at least three wins the rest of the way, good enough to qualify them for a fourth bowl trip in five seasons.