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December 12, 2011As head coach of the Arizona State football team, there is no more wall to which Dennis Erickson's team is backed up against, no future to look into and just one final statement to make.
With his tenure at ASU defined indelibly as the lines on his face have deepened and the hairs on his head grayed, the once great coach may soon be left to reflect upon the opportunity he missed, and because of it, the kind he may never have again.
For now, however, there's no fear and loathing in Las Vegas, just a bowl game against Boise State.
"It's an exciting opportunity for our players to play a great team like that," Erickson said.
Never before had the meaning behind the coded coach speak that Erickson deftly sprinkles into his press conferences -- sometimes concealing the truth, sometimes suppressing his team's collective hubris - been so transparent.
It's the last 'one game at a time' time, and at one of his final Sun Devil practices, Erickson showed exactly why he was so popular among his players.
"It's not the easiest situation for everybody involved, "Erickson said. "It's mainly our players. That's all I care about. I don't care about anybody else. It's a great opportunity for them to go to a bowl game to play a great football team."
Erickson was given the chance to speak in an unencumbered fashion about linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whom, according to sources within the program and on the sideline, told his position coach he didn't want to go back into the California game after being pulled in the third quarter (and he didn't reappear) and whom was (coincidentally) with the second team defense much of Saturday's practice.
"No, he is going on the trip (to Las Vegas)," Erickson said after being asked about Burfict's refusal to return to the game against Cal. "There is no truth to any of that. I mean that. It's amazing the rumors that are created in your business. But he is here and we will see how he practices. And if he practices hard then he will play."
His willingness to obfuscate the obvious on his player's behalf, even when that player was like a madman cutting the breaks on a bus veering into oncoming traffic, is public proof of his undying loyalty to them -- strongly reciprocated and expressed by most.
In Burfict's final game under the head coach, should he appear, he could for once reveal introspection and responsibility, and if so, some hope for his future, either at ASU or in the NFL. Burfict can show remorse for the role he played in the bizarre situation the actual ASU football team finds itself in, one where his coach is forced to answer for his performance-- past the point where the overturned, flame-engulfed bus has rolled onto its final resting spot, bells tolled.
"He was pretty average," Erickson said of Burfict's 2011 season. "He just didn't play like he did a year ago, basically."
Others perhaps hinted at what Erickson never would.
"Everyone that wants to play is going to play and the cancers on the team are going to sit down," safety Eddie Elder said of the upcoming bowl game.
Whatever happened in the Sun Devils final four games may never be fully understood, and while Erickson can't vindicate his coaching style in Tempe, the currently leaderless defense has a chance to at least make fans, if not brass, second-guess themselves if only for a moment.
What if ASU had its defensive leaders, linebacker Brandon Magee and cornerback Omar Bolden, if not for the whole season, the final four games?
"Those were the two key players on our defense that we truly do miss," Elder said.
While the Sun Devils lost talent at all three levels, it's easy to see that their drop from 57th to 88th in total defense demands further explanation.
"We just need to finish strong get back to the basics and have fun," Elder said of the final game. "That's what we've been lacking in November is fun and excitement, passion for the game desire for the game."
Brock for Mazzone
Quarterback Brock Osweiler told the gathered media that he was one of nine juniors who asked athletic director Lisa Love to promote offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to head coach.
"I'd be the first to admit I would not be here today without him," Osweiler said. "He's a tremendous quarterback coach and father figure. He's a great guy and I'd love for him to be here."
While the most glaring statistic in the ASU's collapse is found in the turnover margin, which was plus 10 in a five game stretch that moved its record to 6-2 and negative six in its final four games, there are some numbers ardent Mazzone supporters should be aware of as the Sun Devils continue their coaching search.
ASU ranked 60th in red-zone offense despite ranking 28th in total offense, a trademark disparity in Mazzone's offense, though some of the Sun Devils red-zone issues had to do with missed kicks.
Many spread offenses struggle in the red-zone given their tendency to build around lighter, quicker offensive players.
The top two red-zone offenses in 2011 were Wisconsin and Stanford, both pro-style teams with much larger and stronger personnel.
It should also be noted that while ASU's offense built upon its transformative season under Mazzone in 2010, increasing its points per game total, it also showed the same weakness it did in 2010 -- fourth quarter struggles.
In ASU's defining four-game losing streak, it scored just one touchdown in 13 fourth quarter drives.