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October 18, 2009

More than just vanilla from ASU in win

Vanilla -- a delectable additive to many calorie-laced treats found in Sun Devil Stadium -- is not so palatable when discussed in accordance with an offensive football scheme.

For the better part of two years, offensive coordinator Rich Olson's game plans had led many of the most hardcore Sun Devil fans across the nation to sleepless nights, broken remotes, and overall disillusionment with a coaching regime that showed so much promise.

A shutout at the hands of USC and back-to-back dismal offensive performances in the last two games of the 2008 season gave many ASU fans renewed hope that head coach Dennis Erickson, a noted offensive guru, would henceforth be calling the plays for the offense in 2009.

However, through the season's first five games, not much had changed: ASU was still struggling mightily on offense; a player publicly chastised the two-time national championship head coach's ingenuity in the game plan and wound up missing the next contest; and the team was coming off perhaps its worst performance in the history of the program -- a six turnover effort against the nation's worst defense in Washington State.

Funny how things can change so much in one night.

Three ASU trick plays -- highlighted by a 38 yard touchdown pass from Kyle Williams to T.J. Simpson -- accounted for nearly a quarter of the team's offense through three quarters.

The pass by Williams marked the first time in the Erickson era that a receiver got his name in the passing section of the box score.

"I probably shouldn't have thrown it," Williams said after the game. "It was a terrible throw."

Lucky or not, what's noteworth is that Erickson was willing to try such an exotic play, especially considering his recent flair for the generic.

"We've been trying to get them [big plays] ever since we started the season. We've added some things and we were able to get them," Erickson said.

More creativity, including third-string quarterback Samson Szakacsy making his first career appearance for an option try, and the use of true freshman wide receiver Jamal Miles -- who had two electrifying spin moves in his NCAA debut -- only added to the promising offensive night for ASU and its fans.

Erickson called Miles's performance "amazing" and said that the offensive flow in the first half was "better than it's ever been since I've been here."

Despite Erickson's admission that ASU "left a lot of points out there," it was a remarkable performance considering the fact that 2007 Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber (who missed two typically routine field goals) was clearly favoring his hip and top receiver Chris McGaha battled a nasty case of the flu for much of the week.

Erickson said later that McGaha only played in tonight's game because of the overall fatigue of the receiving corps.

What a key part he would play.

The ending of tonight's game, Arizona State's sixth victory in a row against Washington, could not have ended on a more fitting note when one thinks about the newfound offensive originality.

With thirteen seconds to play, and everyone in the stadium thinking it would be a pass to set up a field goal, Erickson gave the Sun Devils a chance for more.

Much maligned quarterback Danny Sullivan's connection with Chris McGaha prompted Erickson to attempt to rack his brain to find a similar ending in his decades of coaching experience.

"I've been in a lot of games," Erickson said, "...[but] I don't know that I've ever won a game on the last play of the game like that."

Rest assured, and creativity aside, ASU still needs to improve in many areas.

The defense has been outstanding, but penalties are creating many extra opportunities for opponents.

True freshman Vontaze Burfict was called for three personal fouls, and although immensely talented, sometimes more closely resembles an animal released from his cage in the zoo than a middle linebacker.

Danny Sullivan came into the game expecting that "the fans will probably boo me," which was about as encouraging to hear as seeing Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt almost engaged in a mid-game fight with a TV cameraman.

But tonight, the most important thing to note is that ASU just may have found a new recipe for success: some sprinkles to go with that vanilla.


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