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Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Do or die for ASU, Erickson?

By Ted Miller

On Oct. 30, a day after whipping Colorado 48-14, Arizona State was 6-2 and ranked 19th in the BCS standings. Looking at its four remaining games -- UCLA, Washington State, Arizona and California -- a 10-win season and all the rewards that brings seemed possible.

There was talk of coach Dennis Erickson signing a contract extension. A South Division championship seemed a near-certainty, which meant the team could feel free to dream about the Rose Bowl.

Dennis Erickson
After a strong start to the season, Dennis Erickson's Sun Devils have now dropped two-straight games.
More than a few scribes in the state of Arizona, in advance of the Nov. 19 showdown between the Sun Devils and rival Arizona, probably thought of tracing the divergent fortunes of both programs to last year's Territorial Cup, won in double-overtime, 30-29, by ASU due to two blocked Wildcats PATs.

Ah, but things do change, often dramatically, in college football, in both good and bad ways. While the Sun Devils might be able to console themselves with, "Hey, at least we're not as bad off as 2-8 Arizona," that's shouldn't offer much succor.

Arizona State's season has spiraled into the muck after consecutive losses to UCLA and Washington State. It's one thing to lose at Oregon. It's another to give up 494 yards to redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Halliday during a loss in Pullman.

“The last two weeks: not very good," Erickson said when asked to assess the season. "We had a chance to be where we hadn’t been before, but I still look at the light at the end of the tunnel."

The funny thing is that is mostly true. If the Sun Devils win their final two games, they still have a solid shot to win the Pac-12's South Division. All they need is for UCLA to lose once against either Colorado or at USC. If they win and the Bruins fall, then the Sun Devils would advance to the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2, where they'd most likely play at Oregon, where they'd have a puncher's chance at the Rose Bowl.

But there's a lot of "what could have been" lingering as the Sun Devils prepare for the Wildcats.

“We’re fighting through it," quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "Obviously, I don’t think we had thought that we would lose both of these games against UCLA and Washington State, but that’s life. Sometimes, life throws you a curve ball and it’s all about how you bounce back from it."

Offensive lineman Dan Knapp said he never imagined the Sun Devils would lose more than two games. And he admitted the players were down after losing their fourth.

“At the beginning of the season, everything was upbeat," he said. "Going to the meeting yesterday, everyone was down. No one was talking. There was no energy. That is something that we need to fix."

If they don't fix it, Erickson might be out of a job.

A few weeks ago, he was a candidate for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. No longer. This was widely viewed as a "win or else" season for Erickson. At first, he was winning. Now, anything less than a division title will feel like a failure.

Erickson, who's not a rookie with "hot seat" talk, said he's only focused on the game at hand. But his players admit they are aware of the frustration among fans and how that threatens Erickson's job status.

“I would be lying if I said that we weren’t aware of it," Osweiler said. "We are. That just goes with the game of football. If you don’t win, you’re probably going to get fired. If you don’t produce as a player, you’re probably not going to start. So, we are aware of it. But, that’s not the major concern."

The problem during the downturn, Erickson said, is the defense giving up big plays. UCLA had a 76-yard touchdown pass. Washington State had an 85-yard one. The Bruins converted on a third and 29 on their game-winning drive. The Cougars converted 8 of 17 third downs with almost no running game.

And passing is the one thing the Wildcats do well, with quarterback Nick Foles leading the conference with 360.7 yards per game through the air.

“I would think they’re probably licking their chops right now watching [the Washington State game]," Erickson said.

A lot is on the line. It's a rivalry game, for one, one of the nation's most underrated in terms of bitterness. The South Division title has yet to be claimed. And, it's hard to imagine that Erickson's job will be secure if he loses to his program's arch-rival when it is led by an interim coach.

It may be overstating things to call this one "do or die" for the Sun Devils and Erickson. But, then again, it might not.