NCF Nation: Saia Falahola

Pac-12 'tease' team: Arizona State

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
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In 2008, the then-Pac-10 blog noted that "If you Google 'Arizona State' and 'sleeping giant,' 3,400 articles come up."

If you did it this week, you get 85,900 results (in 0.23 seconds! Technology rocks! Though it doesn't seem as if all the matches are relevant, Google).

In 2008, we wrote, "If a Pac-10 team has a chance to break USC's choke-hold on the conference title -- or at least to regularly challenge the Trojans for the top spot -- it's the Sun Devils."

Drrrrrr.

We were wrong. Somehow I want to blame Chip Kelly.

We are considering programs that are "teases" in the Pac-12, which my new boss, Ruthless Reynolds, described as "teams that always look great in the preseason only to underwhelm when play starts."

Sun Devils, why can't we quit you?

Well, lots of reasons.

You have the only coach in the conference who's won a national title in Dennis Erickson. As a resident of north Scottsdale living in the shadow of Black Mountain, I can confirm that the weather -- though a bit toasty in the summer -- is just about perfect eight months of the year. Tempe is just a short flight from the recruiting hotbed of Southern California. The, er, scene at Arizona State strikes this codger as something that might appeal to an average 18- or 19-year-old male. Academic standards don't typically limit recruiting options.

And the program has been there before, becoming a national power in the 1970s under Frank Kush and then again in the 1996 season, when it lost a national title in a thrilling Rose Bowl defeat to Ohio State.

Still, it's one of the great questions in college football: Why doesn't Arizona State win more consistently?

Of late, the Sun Devils have typically underperform compared to expectations. In four of the past six years, they've finished below where they were picked in the Pac-10 preseason media poll, most notably in 2008 -- that year! -- when they were picked second in the conference but finished sixth with a 5-7 record.

To be fair, though, they've eclipsed their preseason prediction in two of the four years -- 2007 and 2010 -- under Erickson.

And so we have 2011.

The Pac-12 blog started touting Arizona State as a 2011 contender before last season was done. Why? It wasn't just that the Sun Devils went nose-to-nose with some of the best teams in the country -- Oregon, Wisconsin, Stanford -- it was coaches from other teams specifically noting how talented the Sun Devils were.

Then you looked at the 2010 depth chart: Everyone was coming back. Seriously: The only senior starters last year were receiver Kerry Taylor and defensive tackle Saia Falahola.

Wow. To be honest, my thought process immediately saw 6-6 in 2010 and thought Rose Bowl shot in 2011.

But after a nice finish to the 2010 season, little has gone right for the Sun Devils. Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy made a poor decision and entered the NFL draft. Quarterback Steven Threet was forced to retire due to concussions. Fellow quarterback Samson Szakacsy left the team. Unanimous All-Pac-10 cornerback Omar Bolden blew out his knee at the beginning of spring practices, followed shortly thereafter by top returning receiver T.J. Simpson. Starting defensive end James Brooks quit, and the status of talented running back Deantre Lewis (gunshot wound) remains up in the air as he might redshirt this season.

That's five starters, a co-starter (Lewis) and an experienced backup quarterback. So, Sun Devils fans, you have a ready-made excuse if the season falls short of expectations and you end up only wondering what might have been.

That said, Arizona State, despite these major personnel losses, is still good enough to win the South Division. It also helps, by the way, that USC's ineligibility means it's only a five-team race among squads that each have significant holes.

But every time you start to think they'll be OK, something else happens, such as All-American linebacker Vontaze Burfict fighting a receiver he outweighs by 50 pounds in the locker room last week, or linebacker Oliver Aaron suffering a high ankle sprain, or backup defensive tackle Joita Te'i suffering a foot injury that will sideline him for seven weeks.

Still, 28 seniors back in the locker room, five starters back on the offensive line, Burfict leading impressive talent in the front seven, an underrated running back in Cameron Marshall and a quarterback in Brock Osweiler who looks ready to lead.

Sun Devils, why can't we quit you?

Arizona State loses D-line coach

February, 8, 2011
2/08/11
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Arizona State is looking for a new defensive line coach after Grady Stretz was hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a school spokesman confirmed.

Stretz, who was also the Sun Devils recruiting coordinator, spent five seasons at ASU. He signed a three-year contract with the Buccaneers, according to the Arizona Republic, which includes a significant raise.

Whoever replaces Stretz inherits one of the few questionable positions for Arizona State, which welcomes back 19 starters and is the probable favorite in the Pac-12 South Division. Two of the three lost starters -- other than both specialists -- are at defensive tackle: Lawrence Guy, who opted to enter the NFL draft a year early, and Saia Falahola.

Arizona-ASU: Present, future at issue

December, 1, 2010
12/01/10
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On page 13 of Arizona State's weekly release you find the team's depth chart. You don't need to review it now. We'll come back to that in a bit. The immediate business at hand for the Sun Devils is their game Thursday with rival Arizona.

The matchup is meaningful, and not just because it's a rivalry game that divides the state. It's also meaningful because the Sun Devils are still angling for a bowl berth.

While there are already 70 bowl-eligible teams, and Arizona State can't win seven games, the amount required by NCAA rules on bowl eligibility when you play two FCS teams, as the Sun Devils have, they nonetheless have submitted a waiver to the NCAA Legislative Relief Committee for review, and the Pac-10 office is backing that appeal with "emails and phone calls," according to a conference spokesman, Dave Hirsch.

"It is our hope that the waiver receives full consideration," Hirsch wrote in an e-mail. This was first reported by the Arizona Republic.

[+] EnlargeDennis Erickson
Kyle Terada/US PresswireArizona State coach Dennis Erickson only has 13 seniors on his 2010 roster.
So the Territorial Cup may or may not serve as a launching point for the Sun Devils in 2011. For one, they could lose; they are the underdogs in Tucson, where the 'Zona Zoo can be a bit of a problem. And, if they win, it might not be their last game, with the Holiday, Sun or Las Vegas bowls being potential options if the NCAA grants the waiver.

But now let's return to that depth chart. Just two likely starting position players against the Wildcats are seniors: receiver Kerry Taylor and defensive tackle Saia Falahola, who is listed as a co-starter with Bo Moos. In fact, the Sun Devils only have 13 total seniors. The only area in which graduations hits hard is with the specialists: both kicker Thomas Weber and punter Trevor Hankins are seniors.

That youth, coupled with a 5-6 record that includes four defeats by four or fewer points, suggests the Sun Devils could be pretty salty in 2011. As in: Top-25, top-third of the Pac-12 salty.

But, alas, coach Dennis Erickson wouldn't play along with this line of thinking -- Thursday as a potential launching point for promising 2011 campaign -- which is probably wise. He does have a game to get ready for, you know.

"I don't know if you can look at it as that. You've got to look at it as what it is," he said. "We're worried about what is going to happen Thursday, not next year. But when they're young like that, with some of the guys we've got coming back, you look forward to the next year -- when this year is over with."

As for the Wildcats, the present situation is they are headed to a good bowl game, but they'd like to show up at that game without a sign saying "Four-game losing streak!" blinking over their collective heads. A win, and they likely head to the Alamo Bowl. A loss, and they might end up the Holiday Bowl if Washington beats Washington State.

Coach Mike Stoops doesn't beat around the bush when assessing why his team's fortunes have been sagging of late after they played into the nation's top-10 earlier in the season.

"We've played better teams down the stretch, teams that emphasize running the football," he said. "Our inability to stop the run consistently has led a little bit to our demise."

The last three foes -- Stanford, USC and Oregon -- each rushed for more than 200 yards in wins over the Wildcats, including 389 yards on the ground from the Ducks. But the Sun Devils, not unlike the Wildcats, are a passing team. Arizona ranks No. 1 (314 yards passing per game) and the Sun Devils second (288.2 yards per game) in the Pac-10 in passing.

Speaking of passing, both teams have interesting quarterback situations, which will be interesting heading into the offseason and spring practices as well.

When Sun Devils starter Steven Threet suffered a concussion early against UCLA, Brock Osweiler came off the bench and was brilliant, passing for 380 yards and four touchdowns. He'll start Thursday, and if he plays well, expect there to be another tight QB competition in Tempe before the 2011 season.

As for the Wildcats, Nick Foles is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and likely will get preseason All-American attention in 2011. He threw for a career-high 448 yards at Oregon last week. Still, backup Matt Scott did enough in two starts while Foles was hurt to make a big impression on Stoops.

"It will be a conversation for another day how we move forward with both of these players moving into their senior year next year," Stoops said.

In other words, he wants Scott to anticipate playing a role next fall as more than a pure backup.

Last year's game between these two was a defensive-minded thriller, a 20-17 Arizona victory that was heartbreaking for the Sun Devils. ASU receiver Kyle Williams made a spectacular catch in the end zone to tie the game at 17, but just moments later he muffed a punt that set up the Wildcats' game-winning field goal. Afterwards, their was a brief fight at midfield as tempers flared.

Expect another tight one in this underrated rivalry.

"They are much improved football team than they were a year ago," Stoops said. "They are way better offensively. They have an identity."

If Stoops' team prevails, it figures to return to the national rankings -- it's already No. 23 in the BCS standings -- and then play in a quality bowl game against a nationally ranked Big 12 team.

It's not yet certain what a win would mean for the Sun Devils in terms of the postseason. But an upset victory might be viewed this way in the big picture: As a launching point for justifiable optimism heading into 2011.

OSU's James Rodgers listed as questionable

September, 27, 2010
9/27/10
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Oregon State's loss at Boise State was costly in more ways than one.

First, All-American receiver James Rodgers is questionable for Saturday's home game with Arizona State after suffering a concussion in the loss to Broncos.

Second, linebacker Dwight Roberson, the Beavers' leading tackler, is doubtful with a sprained knee.

Those could be two big personnel losses heading into a game that is critical for both teams.

As for the hit on Rodgers that knocked him out, coach Mike Riley had this to say: “I don’t know what to say. It was definitely helmet to helmet. I don’t know if it was inadvertent.”

The Sun Devils, meanwhile, aren't exactly healthy after losing to Oregon. They might be without starting left tackle Dan Knapp, who also sprained his knee. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola also are banged up.

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