December 25, 2008

Part I: Sun Devil season review

The season was not supposed to turn out like this.

The Arizona State football team headed into 2008 with high expectations that were never met; certainly nobody in the program was pleased with the team's 5-7 record.

The Sun Devils were ranked No. 15 in the nation before the season began, but just about four months later they find themselves home for the holidays and not preparing for a bowl game.

ASU was never able to recapture the magic that led it to a 10-win season in 2007.

A year ago every little thing went right and the Sun Devils had an undeniable swagger.

This season it almost seemed as if the players no longer found joy in playing football and it showed in the record.

Just three games into the season, whispers of a possible BCS berth faded in to talk about benching the starting quarterback and firing the offensive coordinator.

Clearly, the 2008 season was a disappointment for ASU as it never came close to accomplishing the feats many thought it could.

Here is a week-by-week analysis of what went wrong:

Week 1: August 17-23

ASU closed out its final week of fall camp on a high note with the offense finally clicking in the final intra-squad scrimmage.

Several key players including wide receivers Mike Jones and Chris McGaha and running back Keegan Herring appeared to be in relatively decent shape health-wise after being nicked up with various injuries and they were rounding into form.

Another reason for the development of the offense was the fact that the line was finally starting to come into its own.

"The offensive line did an awesome job tonight," quarterback Rudy Carpenter said after the final scrimmage. "They've been doing a great job all camp. If they can continue to do that I think we can be pretty good."

And while the offense was starting to find its identity, the defense had been performing well for weeks.

There were competitive position battles at three spots and every defender was feeling more comfortable in the second year under coach Dennis Erickson and coordinator Craig Bray.

There was more buzz around the 2008 Sun Devils than there had been about any ASU football team in about a decade. There were high hopes in Tempe.

Week 2: August 24-30

The players were getting sick of lining up against each other and were very eager to open their season against NAU.

The Sun Devils were obviously big favorites over the Lumberjacks, but in the days leading up to the game Erickson was unsure exactly what to expect out of his team.

But when ASU took the field he liked what he saw.

Erickson played the starters for about the first two and a half quarters, and when they left the game ASU was up 30-0.

Carpenter was extremely efficient going 22-of-28 for 388 yards and one touchdown.

The Sun Devil wide receivers looked as talented as any in the Pac-10 with Jones making six receptions for 162 yards and Kerry Taylor emerging as a playmaker with four catches for 93 yards and a touchdown.

The offensive line held up well only allowing one sack and the starting defense held NAU scoreless.

The only problem ASU found in its 30-13 win was the inability to run the ball.

The Sun Devils only amassed 94 yards on the ground, and Carpenter was the leading rusher with 40 yards.

However, Herring and Shaun DeWitty both had nagging hamstring injuries and did not play.

Week 3: August 31- September 6

ASU knew the importance of winning its Pac-10 opener and made easy work of Stanford by taking a double-digit halftime lead and expanding that into a 41-17 victory.

Once again Carpenter was brilliant throwing for 345 yards and three touchdowns. At that point there were even whispers about Carpenter for Heisman.

The running game woke up and ASU rushed for 127 yards on the day.

Dimitri Nance was the top rusher with 75 yards, and Herring returned from his injury to chip in 59 yards of his own.

The defense had a phenomenal performance as well collecting three interceptions and holding Stanford running back Toby Gerhart to just 67 rushing yards.

At the time many believed Stanford was a much-improved team that would find its way into a bowl game. So in the minds of many, the Sun Devils' big victory over the Cardinal showed ASU was going to be a legitimate threat to make a push for the Pac-10 title.

Week 4: September 7-13

All week long, the players and coaches promised they wouldn't fall into the trap.
They promised they were focused on UNLV and that they weren't looking ahead to No. 3 Georgia.

But the Sun Devils didn't stick to their word.

ASU came out flat, didn't execute well and lost 23-20 in overtime on a blocked field goal attempt. After that loss ASU fell out of the AP top 25 and never returned.

Throughout the game, ASU failed to take advantage of its opportunities and seemed to believe it could win the game just because on paper it was the better team.

Early in that game ASU had some red zone woes as it was stopped at the 3-yard line.
Also, Carpenter committed two turnovers and never seemed to have the poise he had in the first two games of the season.

And the offensive line which garnered so much praise in the first two contests allowed lots of pressure to get to Carpenter.

The running game was alright, but it didn't show up when ASU needed it to. The Sun Devils had the ball for just 3:43 in the fourth quarter, which allowed the Rebels to mount their late comeback.

With the lack of possession time, the ASU defense got tired and noticeably wore down as the game went on. It allowed 255 yards in the second half.

After the game, players and coaches said they would not be fazed by the loss, but that was not the case.

Practice was still intense, they looked like they would regroup just fine, but ASU never got its confidence back after this one.

They were as deflated as the Devil Dome and it would take ASU five more losses before it would work its way out of the its funk.

Week 5: September 14-20

Following the UNLV debacle, Erickson knew he had to make changes.

He opened up several position battles and Terell Carr started over Pierre Singfield at left cornerback in the next game.

Throughout the week the players and coaches said they were going to use the UNLV loss as extra motivation against the third-ranked Bulldogs.

Linebacker Mike Nixon said the loss to the Rebels was a "wake up call" and he was sure the team would come out fired up on Saturday.

But unfortunately for the Sun Devils there was perhaps no amount of extra inspiration that could have helped them achieve victory. The difference between them and Georgia was that great.

Georgia was bigger, faster, more athletic, but most importantly the Bulldogs executed better.

ASU fell 27-10 and was struggling to figure out exactly what kind of football team it was.

"We've got to find ourselves," safety Troy Nolan said after the game. "We have no identity right now."

Carpenter only totaled 208 yards through the air while the ground game produced a measly four yards.

Meanwhile Georgia's rushing attack racked up 176 yards which allowed quarterback Matthew Stafford time to sit in the pocket and find open receivers all night.

The Sun Devils were exposed on national television as an overrated team that was not yet ready to play with the top schools in the country.

Week 6: September 21- 27

This bye-week couldn't have come at a better time for ASU.

The team was sitting at 2-2 and had a tough schedule ahead of it. It needed to regroup.
All week long the Sun Devils practiced very physical and Erickson was pleased with what he saw.

"It's what we need right now," he said on Thursday of that week. "We need to be intense, we need to be physical. We need to do some things that are going to help us win some football games and get on the right foot. Last two days have been as good as we've had all fall."

For the second week in a row there were starting spots up for grabs and this time it appeared there would be more than one new starter.

Tom Njunge and Matt Hustad split first team reps at right tackle in place of Adam Tello.

Lawrence Guy moved to defensive tackle from defensive end and took first team reps there.

Clint Floyd spent time with the No. 1 defense at strong safety.

And Morris Wooten was named the starting middle linebacker when Gerald Munns left the team.

When the week ended Wooten was the only player who had officially earned a starting spot, but it was obvious all the other players who were taking first team reps would be in the starting lineup as well.

Week 7: September 28- October 4

Saturday's game at Cal was huge for ASU.
If the Sun Devils' had won, they would have been 3-2, 2-0 in the Pac-10, and back on the right.

But that didn't happen.

Even with four new starters (Wooten, Floyd, Guy and Njunge), ASU came out flat and lost to the Golden Bears 24-14.

The players seemed to have lost their swagger and confidence. Also the play calling was very predictable as the offense was as vanilla as ever.

But the biggest issues seemed to be with Carpenter.

The senior quarterback who was known for being a vocal and emotional leader on the field was suddenly subdued and couldn't make any big plays to get his team going.
And as the quarterback goes, so goes the team.

The big-play ability had vanished and the offense was in a definite funk.

After this game it was obvious ASU was in deep trouble.

Carpenter left the stadium on crutches and his status for the upcoming match up against USC was uncertain.

The team that thought it could earn a BCS berth in late August suddenly found itself below .500 and heading into possibly its toughest game of the year with a banged up quarterback.

Week 8: October 5-11

All week long the focus was on Carpenter.

Would he or wouldn't he start?

If he was able to play, how effective would he be?

And if he couldn't go, how would backup Danny Sullivan perform?

Carpenter sat out of Tuesday's practice and had a walking boot covering his injured left ankle. Then he took only several snaps on Wednesday and had a very pronounced limp.

"He's very doubtful," Erickson said of Carpenter after Wednesday's practice. "We'll see what happens tomorrow. Again, it's day-by-day. We still have three days. Our plan is that Sully going to play. That's where it's at right now."

Sullivan meanwhile was in the midst of a very good practice week. He was obviously benefiting from the first teamers around him and the coaching staff was very pleased with his play.

But Thursday Carpenter showed his toughness and practiced. He only took about one-third of the snaps, but afterwards he said he thought he practiced well and that he could play on Saturday.

"I personally always feel like I can play no matter what happens," he said.

And when ASU took the field Carpenter was behind center - but it didn't matter.
ASU got rocked 28-0 and suffered its first shutout loss since 2004.

Obviously the offense was anemic, but the defense showed signs that it was improving and turned out a relatively strong performance.

But when a team is in the midst of a four-game losing streak there are no moral victories.

Week 9: October 12-18

The season had reached its midway point and ASU was 2-4, however the team still seemed optimistic that it could turn things around.
The Sun Devils adopted the mantra that they were beginning a "new season."

The team had another much-needed bye-week and Erickson held very physical practices to try and get ASU back on track.

The offensive line had been struggling so the coaches moved guys around up front.
Also, Floyd suffered a lacerated kidney against USC so Keelan Johnson and Ryan McFoy were switched to safety to provide depth at the position.

But perhaps more important than the physical workouts, the off week afforded several important players including Carpenter (ankle), McGaha (toe) and defensive tackle David Smith (stingers) the opportunity to get healthy.

ASU began preparing for its upcoming opponent, Oregon, on Wednesday of this week with hopes of being prepared enough to snap the losing streak.

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