Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011 | 5:30 p.m.
Arizona State players can provide an overload of explanations for why they were able to find so much early success and start the season with a 5-1 record.
They reference a 30-29 double overtime victory over rival Arizona to close the 2010 season as the starting point.
“That kind of propelled us into the offseason,” quarterback Brock Osweiler said. “It gave us a lot of momentum and energy throughout those dark winter hours when you’re in the weight room at 6 a.m. every day.”
Osweiler and his teammates have a much tougher time rationalizing the collapse that saw them go 1-5 to end the season. A winless November, particularly, stumps the Sun Devils as they head into the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas against Boise State at 5 Thursday at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Osweiler said. “We’ve tried to put a finger on it over these last few weeks, but we really can’t. We came into the building the same way. We were focused the same way. We practiced all week, intensity was high, we studied the same amount of film. The ball just didn’t roll our way in the month of November.”
As cliché as the sentiment may sound, Osweiler’s assertion contains some truth. The Sun Devils were extremely fortunate during the first half of the season before some of their goodwill faded down the stretch.
They had one of the best turnover margins in the nation at +8 during their 5-1 start to the year. The number regressed to even the rest of the way. Two of the last four defeats came to Arizona and UCLA in games that, statistically speaking, Arizona State outplayed its opposition.
The Sun Devils squandered what at one time looked like a certain Pac-12 Championship Game berth. They don’t want to take the postseason game they did earn for granted.
“It’s an opportunity for us, a challenge, to come and play in this football game,” Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. “We’ve been through quite a lot of things these last couple of weeks.”
Erickson lost his job because of the way the season played out. Arizona State has already hired former Pittsburgh and Tulsa coach Todd Graham, but Erickson will finish his tenure with this year’s bowl game.
Osweiler said the Sun Devils were motivated to perform well for Erickson, who hasn’t won a postseason game since the 2000 Fiesta Bowl with Oregon State. The MAACO Bowl Las Vegas is just Erickson’s second bowl in five years at Arizona State.
He’s gone 31-30 in Tempe, Ariz., and posted only one winning season. The 64-year old Erickson has expressed mixed emotions about meeting his end at Arizona State this week and wouldn’t rule out coaching again.
“You never know when something like this is coming or when you’ll get to this,” Erickson said. “I think it will probably hit me harder after our final football game when I’m sitting at home watching bowl games because that’s what I do.”
Even with Arizona State’s upheaval and late-season swoon, the chances of Boise State overlooking the matchup are slim. The Broncos have praised the Sun Devils all week and particularly mentioned their dangerous offense. Boise State defensive end and Las Vegas native Billy Winn even compared Osweiler to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Arizona State’s offense was its more consistent unit. Its production only dropped slightly between the first and second half of the season, averaging three less points per game. Despite standout linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Colin Parker, the Sun Devils defense gave up 33 points per game in their final six contests as opposed to 19 points in the first six.
“They have a lot of talent,” Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore said of Arizona State. “They competed with everyone well and beat a great team in USC,”
But that victory came when Arizona State looked like one of the better squads in the country. The MAACO Bowl Las Vegas should show whether or not any remnants of that team remain.
“I know the talent and potential this football team has,” Osweiler said. “I saw it the night we played Missouri. I saw it the night we played USC. I saw it the night we went on the road against Utah. I understand what this team is capable of.”