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Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Arizona State: What went wrong?

By Ted Miller

Guess what? There's a silver lining to Arizona State's crash and burn. It hasn't been due to sloppiness, which was a trademark of the program's struggles heading into the 2011 season.

During a three-game skid, Arizona State has just four turnovers. Sure, the team has created just three during that span, but a negative-1 margin explains little.

And the Sun Devils' penalty numbers are better during the three-game losing streak recorded against UCLA, Washington State and Arizona (combined record 13-20) than they were during a 6-2 start that pushed them to No. 19 in the BCS standings. Sun Devils opponents actually have produced more penalty yards (75.1 yards per game) than the Sun Devils have (74.9) this season.

Of course, this silver lining is wrapped around a heap of misery. And bad football.

Dennis Erickson
After a promising 6-2 start, Dennis Erickson's Sun Devils have lost three in a row.
That's the problem. Football, not miscues, has undone Arizona State. The Sun Devils are more talented than UCLA, Washington State and Arizona, but they played worse football against three foes who appeared to care just a little bit more.

Dropped passes, poor tackling, missed assignments and guys getting whipped at the point of attack -- surely every Sun Devils fan reads that and immediately recalls specific moments when those things happened.

Blame falls everywhere, but the defense is the top culprit. The Sun Devils were giving up 381 yards per game during the first eight games. Not exactly great, but the total ranked sixth in the conference. During the three-game losing streak -- against the conference's Nos. 8, 6 and 3 offenses -- they yielded 515.7 yards per game.

To parse the defense's failings, it's been about defending the pass. The Sun Devils yielded nine touchdown passes in the first eight games. They've surrendered eight in the past three. They had 13 interceptions in the first eight games, but zero in the last three. They've skidded from third in the conference in pass efficiency defense to eighth.

It's pretty obvious that opposing offensive coordinators figured out the Sun Devils were vulnerable in the secondary.

Further, Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic pointed this out in an article looking at the Sun Devils' collapse: "At one point this season, ASU led the nation in third-down percentage defense. The last three weeks the Sun Devils are 22 of 46 (47.8 percent). Spread out over the season, that percentage would rank 109th out of 120 FBS teams."

The offense also has slipped -- the running game has been less reliable and the performance in the red zone hasn't been nearly as efficient -- but it's less to blame. The ground game has actually gained more yards and been better on third down during the losing streak.

A common denominator during the losing streak has been fourth-quarter chokes. In every game, the Sun Devils not only were in the game, they led in the fourth quarter.

"It seems like early in the year when we were 6-2 and ahead in the fourth quarter, we won games," coach Dennis Erickson said.

Considering that the Sun Devils are actually healthier now than they were at 6-2, it's fair to wonder if something went wrong in the locker room. At the beginning of the season, the Sun Devils repeatedly talked about chemistry and senior leadership.

Where is that now?

Defensive tackle Bo Moos told Haller this after the Arizona loss. "We have a group of 30 seniors. You should expect it to be there, but something within the chemistry hasn't been right for the past month and I really cannot put my finger on what it is."

That seeming bewilderment, even as players and coaches try to put a happy face on their perversely resilient Pac-12 South Division championship hopes, is a main reason Erickson's situation is tenuous at best. No one can figure out why the most talented team in the South Division -- at least that isn't saddled with NCAA sanctions -- isn't playing good football.

What remains are players constantly peppered with questions about Erickson's future.

“That’s a situation that I don’t pay much attention to," quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "Whatever is going to happen is going to happen."

Resignation? Perhaps. But we still don't know what will happen with Arizona State. If it beats California on Friday, and UCLA loses to USC and Utah beats Colorado -- results the odds-makers predict, by the way -- the Sun Devils will be the South Division champions and will still have a shot at the Rose Bowl.

Hey, stranger stuff has happened. Not often, but it has.

But at this point, it's difficult to imagine this season won't conclude with a miserable "what might have been" and search for a new coach.