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September 25, 2010

Coaches believe Sun Devils capable of much more

After going in as an overlooked two touchdown underdog at Wisconsin only to lose by one point on a late point after attempt block last Saturday, most observers probably had a couple thoughts about the Arizona State performance.

Wow, they had so many chances to win the game but couldn't get it done.

They played really well but came up just short.

The most telling thing about the game though, wasn't the game itself. It wasn't the 380 yards of offense, the 169 rushing yards or even the 333 kickoff return yards or holding Wisconsin to 20 points.

It was what ASU's coach said afterward.

"We played okay," Dennis Erickson said.

Okay.

That one word tells a lot. It tells you everything you need to know, really.

The Sun Devils lost by a point in Madison, Wis., against the then-No. 11 team in the country in front of 80,000 red-clad, "JUMP AROUND!"-crazed Badgers fans after being totally dismissed as having no chance by the vast majority of national pundits and their coach wasn't impressed.

Not hardly.

Instead of throwing praise around the post-game press conference room in the bowels of Camp Randall Stadium Erickson talked about missed opportunities. On offense, solid drives that should have produced points stalled out in the red zone or very near it. On special teams, a missed 25-yard field goal and PAT breakdown proved devastating. On defense, linebackers biting on play-fakes allowed a Badgers tight end to have over 100 receiving yards.

In other words, it was far from a clean performance; far from impressive in the eyes of its coaches.

That reality was apparent several days later when ASU resumed practices in preparation for hosting Top-10-ranked Oregon. Two players were replaced on the field goal unit. Defensive tackle Saia Falahola and linebacker Shelly Lyons were bumped from first-team to third-team in much of the team's activities.

Those aren't the actions of a pleased coaching staff.

Privately, ASU's coaches will tell you their players made a significant number of mistakes, especially on defense. Defensive coordinator Craig Bray doesn't believe his unit has come even close to putting together an impressive full game performance as yet.

But there is a faint notion that it's there, billowing somewhere close to the surface.

For a program coming off back-to-back losing seasons, there is a sense this team doesn't exactly know how to win big games like that yet, but when it does, it could happen a lot.

The most important Wisconsin outcome may not have been the result itself, but the belief inspired in the Sun Devils by the result despite not playing extremely well.

Instead of returning from the trip in dour sorts, they've been relaxed and yet focused all week, resulting in perhaps the best three days of practice since the season started.

The Ducks are a formidable opponent to put it mildly. Having outscored their first three opponents 189-13, coach Chip Kelly's squad has seemingly answered the questions about how it would respond to the dismissal of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and reliance on new personnel on both sides of the football.

Erickson called Oregon arguably the best football team in the country. But it's also perhaps the measuring stick by which he'll truly have an idea of where his team is at.

Especially if it plays better than okay.

"I feel like we're almost there," Erickson said. "There's a feeling in our football team that for the first time in a couple years, our team felt like we were going to come in (against Wisconsin) and win, and not just come in. They had confidence in themselves and believed in each other. That's where I'm at right now. Obviously we've got nine games, hopefully 10 games left and we've just got to get better. There's a lot of things you'll learn on tape from that kind of a game that I think will make us a heck of a lot better I think than the first two football games."

A heck of a lot better?

That might be pretty good.

It'd certainly beat okay.


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