Tag Archives: Sun Devils

Arizona Needed This Cardinals Redemption

The state of Arizona was poised for a big weekend of football, with its two programs in major College Football hosting conference foes from Southern California’s City of Angels, and since Los Angeles offers no chapters in the NFL, fans of the Sunday game had to settle for the Cardinals’ division rivals from the Golden State’s northern region.  Saturday’s prime-time game in Tucson was so hyped, in fact, that the folks in Bristol decided to host their morning road-show at the University of Arizona, while the Trojans visit to Tempe was more of a night-cap than anything else.

Even Sunday’s game, FOX decided, was worthy of the network’s #2 broadcast team of Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, and Tony Siragusa.  Ceding “A-team” status to the Chicago-Seattle game was probably more about the uncertainty of the 49ers, after a surprising Monday Night opener that may have dispelled everyone overreaction to their tumultuous off-season and the quite unsurprising egg they laid in a Week 2 loss at Pittsburgh.  It was difficult to doubt the merit of the Cardinals, who appeared to be every bit as good as their 2-0 record, entering play this weekend.

A Solemn Saturday

The thing about College Football, and I preach about this all of the time, is that you almost need to see the complete body of work to truly evaluate how good, or not good, a team is.  There’s a lot of fool’s gold to be offered from early season games, especially when you’re dealing with the PolyTechnics and directional state schools, which are not created equal.  Numbers next to school names on the schedule make for good marketing, but they never dictate how well a team is going to play on any given Saturday.  It’s a fallacy to look at the previous year, which we often do early in the season, since there’s so much turnover with graduation alone.

Coming into the year, five different people may have given you five different answers, when discussing the class of the Pac-12 South, which includes two Arizona schools, two Los Angeles schools, Utah, and Colorado.  Colorado was probably the only name not given during the time to predict a division champion.  Looking at Rich Rodriguez’s improvement, year over year, since arriving at Arizona suggested there was something there with the Wildcats.  Todd Graham’s Arizona State team looked decent on paper coming into the year, but a Week 1 thrashing from Texas A&M, paired with underwhelming home performances against Cal-Poly and New Mexico had many dismissing the Sun Devils.  However, ASU has handled themselves at home against USC, during what has obviously been a couple of down years for the Men of Troy.

Tucson got the pep rally from ESPN, they had the number by their name, and the football program had the requisite number by their name, which may or may not have made them worthy of the smack-talk towards their neighbors to the north and west.  They played in the Fiesta Bowl on the last day of 2014, and remain in possession of the Territorial Cup after winning their annual clash at home last November.  The Sun Devil faithful in the Phoenix-area returned the smack, because that’s how it goes out this way.  At the end of the night, neither fan base had anything of substance to say to the other.

In a game that resembled a track meet early between UCLA and Arizona, quickly became a touchdown marathon for the visiting Bruins, who made a similar statement at Arizona State in late September last year.  UCLA overcame the absence of 2-way star Myles Jack with the sensational and consistent play of Josh Rosen, the true freshman quarter, who was given the keys to the offense by head coach Jim Mora.  There was some euphoria before the game for the home team, who had star linebacker Scooby Wright back in the fold, but when Arizona lost their third-year starter Anu Solomon at quarterback, it was curtains for Week 4’s hosts of College Gameday.  Ultimately, they dropped this one 56-30, quickly reminding everyone that UCLA is a different ball of wax than that of Northern Arizona, Nevada, and Texas-San Antonio.

Arizona State fooled no one with their 2-1 start, and there’s little point in doing anything to reset their 42-14 defeat on Saturday night.  USC led 35-0 at halftime, and quite frankly, it actually could have been worse.  Sometimes decent teams play poorly, but this was just a case of the visiting team being better.  No one like going from National Championship contender to questioning bowl eligibility, but this is the bed that Arizona State has made for itself.

There will be a National Championship played in Arizona on January 11th of next year, but it will very likely feature two teams from outside of the state, at Univeristy of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.  Fortunately, the locals can enjoy the building’s primary tenants on Sunday afternoons.

A Sensational Sunday

In both the real world and the virtual one, the one where everyone’s name begins with an “@”, I am privy to discussions that compare and contrast the college game and the NFL, as if everyone can only choose one.  I tend to play the role of Switzerland in those conversations.  I like the volume of College Football, though I must acknowledge a gap in the quality of play, and in most cases the disparity with the level of competition.  I like that the staggered starts mean not every game is at the half at the same time, and over the course of 45 minutes, you can watch exciting finishes in 3 or 4 games, in their entirety.  I could do without the endless halftimes, one of several contributing factors to 4-hour games.

At the same time, I appreciate the lack of volume of NFL games, the highest quality talent, and how neatly everything seems to fit three-hour windows, give or take 20 minutes.  I like that Power Rankings mean nothing, and that a win is a win, regardless of the week’s opponent.  I like that, if properly equipped, you can watch every game in its entirety, without the necessity of a website or mobile app.  Of course, this means that you have to reset from end-of-game mode to start-of-game mode around 4pm Eastern Time.

On Sunday, during that transition from thrilling finishes in Cleveland and Cincinnati, to the beginning of the 49ers and Cardinals NFC West match up in Arizona, the Cardinals decided they had no interest in waiting for the early game audiences to take a deep breath.  Despite taking the opening kickoff and getting things going early, between Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona’s first drive stalled, but it was a couple of Colin Kaepernick throws that equaled crooked numbers on the scoreboard for the home team.

The first pass thrown by the San Francisco quarterback was picked off and returned 21 yards for a touchdown by Justin Bethel.  The fifth-year player from Nevada was fortunate to complete a couple of throws to his teammates, before Tyrann Mathieu stepped in front of his fourth pass of the day, running that one back 33 yards to paydirt, giving the home team a 14-0 lead without any serious aid from Palmer and the offense.

When Arizona’s offense finally got on the field, Palmer got to work, throwing to Fitzgerald a few more times and letting Chris Johnson do the rest on the ground.  On the first play of the second quarter, Johnson ran one in from six yards out, and the rout was on.  The Cardinals would pick off Kaepernick 4 times, sack him twice, and generally controlled the game in every way possible, on their way to a 47-7 victory, making them 3-0 in this young season.  This takes me back to a conversation I had over the summer with a friend, and long-time fan of the Cardinals.

At the time, this is a guy who could have stood a break or two in life, but it’s like John McCain told Chris Berman on the eve of Election Night in 2008; hope springs eternal with the Arizona Cardinals.  Those bastards went to the Super Bowl that year1They aren’t really bastards.  It’s just that I’m still waiting on the Browns to accomplish that feat; 46 seasons and counting., and they came damn close to winning the thing.  Back to that conversation over breakfast last summer, one of the things that kept this friend ticking was the statement that the Arizona Cardinals had a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl.  This time I didn’t doubt him, and it wasn’t because I dismissed the conversation we had at a bowling alley before that miraculous 2008 season and playoff-run.  The crux of our prior discussion was to put that team in a vacuum; take away the Arizona, take away the Cardinals, and really think of Ken Whisenhunt’s team as a potential playoff team that year.  I wasn’t buying it, and I think it would have been foolish to believe anything of the sort, knowing the stigma of the Bidwill-owned Cardinals.

It was a different time back then, as we weren’t far removed from the forgettable Sun Devil Stadium Era Cardinals.  They weren’t just forgettable, but nearly unlikable.  I liked hearing stories from the season ticket holders, those who endured the days on the hot metal benches in Tempe, only because it was essentially the only evidence that the team played home games prior to 2006.  I’d seen video evidence of the Cardinals playing there just three times2It would be four, if we’re counting that Monday Night Football game from Jerry MacGuire, a sympathetic lifting of the league-mandated blackout for Sunday Night Football in Week 3 of the 2001 season, a Browns game that I watched from Cleveland, and Josh McCown’s Hail Mary to Nate Poole to end the 2003 season (and the Minnesota Vikings playoff hopes).

Even on Sunday, while the Cardinals’ defense was spotting their offense 2 scores early, we were talking about how there’s an actual home-field advantage at University of Phoenix Stadium, something that was virtually never true for the Birds at Sun Devil Stadium, at least when you considered the ratio of home team-to-visiting team fans.  People like me, the transplants from elsewhere, will never fully come around, but this is a team and a culture that should deter young people from choosing the Cowboys, Steelers, or Raiders.  It’s okay, and probably even cool, to like the home team.  Lord knows this market isn’t getting it on Saturday nights.

Bruce Arians has something special cooking for the fans in these parts.  Small sample size or not, what we’re seeing from the Arizona Cardinals is no fluke.

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1. They aren’t really bastards.  It’s just that I’m still waiting on the Browns to accomplish that feat; 46 seasons and counting.
2. It would be four, if we’re counting that Monday Night Football game from Jerry MacGuire

Bowl Time for The Sun Devils

It’s quickly approaching. Sun Devil fans are eagerly anticipating their beloved team in action one more time in 2014. What do the Sun Devils need to do to win the Sun Bowl? Execute. I know it’s that is a pretty obvious answer, but the Devils really have not executed that well at the end of this season.

Even though it’s probably not going to happen, the Sun Devils need to switch up the quarterback for this game. They need to start Mike Bercovici instead of Taylor Kelly. For me, Bercovici is much better passer and leader of the offense. Bercovici and his complete quarterback skills, in terms of footwork, stronger arm, and his intensity as a leader is a much more positive influence on the offense. I think the offense just moves better with Bercovici calling the signals behind center.

The other area that the Devils have to get better at is on defense. They have allowed close to 28 points a game and when you allow that many points a game, that puts a lot of pressure on the offense to score every time out. They are playing a Duke team that averages 32 points a game and that is something that the defensive coaches at ASU have been trying to figure out how to stop. The defense has been progressively better since they were destroyed by UCLA back in September at Sun Devil Stadium. The defense has been playing with greater “attitude” during 2014. They had to replace nine starters from the 2013 squad and that was a major concern coming into this year, but has turned into a positive for the Devils. Let’s hope that the defense for the Sun Devils has a positive outcome against Duke.

DJ Foster. He needs to get going in this game. Period. He is a very good runner in space and is a great target as a receiver because of his speed. Foster is a player that is thinking of leaving early for the NFL and for him to be taken somewhat early in the draft he needs to have a special game against Duke. He rushed for 1,002 yards and caught 59 passes for 646 yards, but if you look at his rushing stats, more than half of his yards came in the first three games. Since then Foster has been held in check on the ground. He’s been missed used in my humble opinion. He’s a guy that needs to be used in the slot and in space and not trying to punch him in between the tackles where he can’t utilize his amazing speed. Fly sweeps, slants, regular sweeps are what you need to use DJ Foster properly. Anything that puts him in space will be a positive for Arizona State. I am hoping this happens and that Foster realizes he needs to stay for his final year in Tempe.

Jaelen Strong is the man for the Devils. He’s everything you want in a receiver. He’s big, strong, athletic, and has tremendous hands. He’s gained a lot more notoriety nationally since he rescued the Devils against USC with the “Jael-Mary” pass that won the game for the Devils. He’s going to be doubled team for sure, so the Coach Norvell is going to have to figure out a way to get him the ball. They may have to spread the ball around at first to soften up the defense and keep the double team off of him and then hit him with some post or fly routes down the field. However, he’s big and physical and may be able to create some spacing on his own because I have a feeling that Duke will try and jam him at the point of attack, so he doesn’t get downfield with the timing routes that ASU likes to use in their offense. The other receivers for the Sun Devils need to step up their game to help Strong get his in this game.

The match up that will intrigue me the most is the Sun Devil defense against the Blue Devil offense. ASU has more weapons on offense than Duke has, so I think the Sun Devils will be able to score, but can their defense make enough stops? I believe that they can, but it will still be the thing I will be looking at during this game.

When the final gun goes off, I think Arizona State will be the winner in a very entertaining game for fans. ASU wins this game by about 10 points and heads into the 2015 season on a high note with two 10 win seasons behind them and can work on getting a Pac-12 South division title and possibly more. Fear the Fork Duke.image

It's Always Sunny in Tempe, Arizona

Not many people spend much time thinking about Arizona State University. In fact, if you aren’t a local, whether or not you’ve seen Jerry Maguire probably influences how much or how little you know about the game of football in the Grand Canyon State. I’d go as far as to say that the school in Tempe gets confused with its in-state rival, Arizona, more than any other “State” in the country, and not in a “let’s keep referring to the Buckeyes as Ohio to be a jerk” sort of way. For many years, the Sun Devils didn’t really deserve much recognition in the College Football world, but maybe that’s beginning to change.

Though I’m sure it’s mostly forgotten by now, it was only 18 years ago that Arizona State was mere minutes from claiming an undisputed National Championship at the 1997 Rose Bowl with Jake Plummer, Pat Tillman, and company. An undefeated season was taken away from an Ohio State team led by their former head coach on the sidelines and a quarterback who went to high school down the street in Mesa on the field. It stung, and the locals, mostly ASU alumni in Phoenix, reminded my happy Ohio-born ass of this any time I wore my scarlet and grey around town, even five years later in 2001, when I first arrived in the Valley of the Sun.
By then, the program had faded into obscurity. Jake “The Snake” was still around and playing his home games at Sun Devil Stadium, but he was literally always a day late, playing for the even further obscured NFL chapter in Phoenix. Gone was Bruce Snyder, the head coach that took them to Pasadena after the 1996 season, but was let go prior to the 2001 season, after 3 straight 6-loss seasons. Enter Dirk Koetter, the offensive genius from Boise State, stage left. He put together some nice seasons, but he was 2-19 against ranked teams in his six seasons in Tempe, and an incredible 0-for-12 in the state of California, where four of his nine conference rivals reside.
Though I lived what some would consider walking distance from Sun Devil Stadium from campus, Saturdays that you’d find me at Sun Devil Stadium were few and far between. As a die-hard football fan, albeit one with very casual allegiances to any team in my new hometown, the fact that I didn’t want to throw the cost of about four 12 ounce Bud Lights at a ticket might tell you all you need to know. One notable exception was the big game with the big, bad USC Trojans in 2005.
The sports network from Connecticut decided the #1 Trojans and the 1-loss Sun Devils were worthy of a site visit, so Chris, Kirk, and Corso set up shop in a parking lot north of the stadium for their uber-popular College Gameday show. By the way, that incredible tailgating parking lot no longer exists, having given way to new corporate office building being erected between Tempe Town Lake and Sun Devil Stadium. Back to October 2005, Gameday airs at 7 AM out west, so that meant a 5:30 AM wakeup call for a noon kickoff. I try to take the “act like you’ve been there” attitude with most things in life, but I have to admit I was overwhelmed with how cool this experience was.
We stood to the left side of the stage, our signage viewable over Herbstreit’s right shoulder on close-ups in orange hard-hats with the logo of the show’s title sponsor, Home Depot, on each side. Now, I know it looks like chaos and near-anarchy on TV, but there are rules to being a part of the pep rally. The show was doing a feature on a terminally ill boy that called Notre Dame’s first play for Charlie Weis, but didn’t survive to see it, so Chris Fowler asked for quiet and decency while that ran. The fun police were there too, making sure our signs weren’t inappropriate.
Back then, Trev Alberts was the muck-raker that Mark May is now, though probably a lot more mild than the constant troll-job we see from May these days. He was replaced by Lou Holtz for the studio show with May and Rece Davis, beginning in that 2005 season. Signs noting this, “Why Does Trev Alberts Look Like Holtz” and “Trev Works at McDonalds Now”, were against policy. The sign comparing alumni, specifically with the faces of Pat Tillman and OJ Simpson side-by-side, was held proudly and without objection from ESPN. I was given a sign with a picture of Sean Penn and Ray Walston from Fast Times at Ridgemont High that read, “USC is Bogus, Mr. Hand”.

The students had to get creative, and some of them took it seriously, making sure to poke at Mike Stoops, the head coach at Arizona, citing it being about recruiting. Nine years later, I’m not sure that Gameday signage serves as a recruiting tool, but whatever. I had to scalp a ticket for $90, which is a lot of 12 ounce Bud Lights for a nose-bleed seat in a section that was torn out of the stadium last summer. Predictably, ASU lost, the consensus prediction on the show, but they hung for a half. If you take a few Sun Devils miscues and a lot of LenDale White on the ground, it explains how 21-3 halftime lead turns into a 38-28 defeat for their second loss of the season.
Koetter would last one more season, but in 2007, it was time for the big name hire. He went by the name of Dennis Erickson, who won at Miami and even won at Oregon State. He did his fair share of winning right away in Tempe too, but you tend to remember the disparaging losses more. Erickson technically led the school to a Pac-12 title in his first season, but they lost, and lost badly, to their co-champs on a nationally televised Thanksgiving Night game at home, so I’ve always believe that 2007 Conference Championship banner is held up with a grain of salt, but it’s there. Erickson took them through a couple of unremarkable seasons, but was on the right track in 2011, where the local media was lobbying for him to get a contract extension after a 5-1 start. Then, they pooed the bed.
Enter Todd Graham, a head coach who’d earned a reputation as a mercenary for leaving Rice and Pittsburgh after just one season, but he claimed that this was his dream job. You know everyone took a wait and see approach to that line, back in 2012. He has since put his money where his mouth is, quite literally. While his first season in the desert wasn’t spectacular by most standards, he came up one win shy, a heart-breaking, last second field goal loss to UCLA at home, from winning an admittedly weak Pac-12 South and reaching the conference championship. A year ago, it came down to taking down those same Bruins in the Rose Bowl, and they got it done with 38-33 victory.

Returning to the Pac-12 Championship is obviously a goal for the Sun Devils, who currently sit at 3-0, but their #15 ranking headed into Thursday evening’s contest with UCLA is probably more about the 2013 Sun Devils than this year’s team that has only played Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado. The good news for ASU is that the Bruins, despite their #11 ranking, haven’t looked like world-beaters in their route to 3-0, with wins over Virginia, Memphis, and Texas. The bad news is, it might not take a national championship contender to take down the Devils, who will be without their dynamic three-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly. On the other hand, it might have been tough to picture their opponent taking down Texas without the services of Brett Hundley, who will start against Arizona State, but their backup got it done.
There is a reason they play the games on the field, and not on paper, so we shall see. The sun is shining, Tim Brando and Fox Sports 1 are here, and we’ve got a couple of Top 15 teams dueling it out, in what could be the de facto Pac-12 South Championship for the third consecutive year. For a couple of hours, Tempe should be the center of the sports universe. I wouldn’t want to miss it.

Across the Middle: Jaelen Strong

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All football coaches want that prototypical receiver that is tall, strong body, soft hands, not afraid to go into traffic and make a catch, and has that mental toughness to get open when things break down on a particular play.
Guess what football fans, the Sun Devils have that receiver in Jaelen Strong. This young man had a breakout season in 2013 and is garnering all sorts of buzz in the college football community. He’s put on a lot of muscle as well and that muscle will come in handy as he will get all of the attention from opposing defenses in the 2014 season.
Lets take a look at why the attention is coming his way. After a stellar stint at Pierce College he committed to ASU on Christmas in 2012. Once he committed to the Sun Devils he became someone that the coaches viewed as being a special kind of player, and he has not done anything to change that view by the coaching staff or the fans. He had seven games of over 100 yards catching and ended the year with 75 receptions for a total of 1,122 receiving yards. Five of those seven games of over 100 yards occurred in the first six games of the season. Out of his 75 receptions, 47 of those receptions resulted in a first down which tells me that Taylor Kelly was looking for him when the team needed that first down or when things on a particular play broke down. It also tells me that that Strong is a competitor and wants to succeed because he wants the ball thrown his way when things dicey and close in a game. He wants Taylor Kelly looking for him to keep the drive going. Against some of the best competition, Jaelen rose to the occasion. Case in point, against Stanford in September he had 168 yards receiving against a very stout defense. His 168 yards were 5th best for a single game in the Pac-12 conference last season. When the Devils took on Notre Dame he had 138 yards on only 8 receptions. That is over 17 yards per catch. As we can see, Jaelen has put stats on the board that will cause defensive coordinators some long, sleepless evenings.
He will certainly be looking to improve on those statistics and I believe he certainly can based on the type of offense that the Devils run. It will be tough though because he will get the best corner on the opposing team manned up on him with a safety over the top to help out in many circumstances, but with the resolve that this young showed last season he will work to get better at getting off the ball, avoiding the “jam” by the cornerback, and finding the soft spot in a zone defense to make that first down catch or touchdown catch.
imageJaelen Strong is that unique combination of size, strength, and speed that will benefit him for the 2014 and on the next level of football. If Strong stays healthy he will best his record performance from 2013 with ease and be a strong early round pick in the NFL. Go do your thing Jaelen and bring those Sun Devil fans to their feet game after game!
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Time to put up or shut up for the Sun Devils

In the last two years of Sun Devil football they have gone from an 8 win team to a team that played in the Pac-12 Championship game last year. Well, it’s time to see where this program is headed this year.
Since I’ve lived down here in the Valley of the Sun, there always seems like there is a lot of bravado coming out of Tempe every year. It’s always puzzled me because the Sun Devil program has been mired in a sea of mediocrity for a very long time.  When the team takes field this year I will be wondering whether Sun Devil fans will have something to cheer about and have more reasons to attend games and sell out Sun Devil stadium instead of leaving games early or seeing that stadium about half full.
This 2014 team is not perfect, they are not rolling out talent like an Alabama or Oregon, but they have learned that they can compete with anybody. They can compete with anybody given they play with a sense of urgency. That every play matters, every series they get matters because once they play like that, they can beat Stanford, Oregon, UCLA consistently and not beat them every so often. If they do not play with urgency then a repeat of last years Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech will happen. Texas Tech made them look like a JV squad in that game when it should of been the other way around. The Devils should have beat the Red Raiders down convincingly, but we all know it did not happen.
From the start of training camp, to the regular season, to the bowl season the Devils have to play with urgency. There are two people that should stress that urgent play and those people are: Head Coach Todd Graham and quarterback Taylor Kelly. They can not take anybody lightly, does not matter if they are playing the Colorado’s of the world or Stanford. Anybody can beat anybody on any given Saturday. Graham and Taylor Kelly have to get team ready to play every practice and every game and make them realize urgent play is what is expected with the Sun Devil football program. Here’s to hoping the program puts it up this year!  Just saying…