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November 17, 2011

Erickson running out of opportunities

Fifteen years prior to Arizona State's critical loss to UCLA two weeks ago, what could have been the program's most magical of all seasons was derailed in similar fashion in the same stadium.

With his team driving into the Ohio State red zone in the final two minutes of the 1997 Rose Bowl, then-ASU coach Bruce Snyder took an unnecessary and ill-advised timeout presumably to preserve clock when instead he should have intentionally expended as much of the remaining time as possible.

On the third down play immediately following the timeout, in one of the most indelible plays in program history, Jake Plummer scored from 11 yards out to give the Sun Devils a 17-14 lead with just over 90 seconds remaining in their bid for a perfect season and National Championship.

As Snyder and the Sun Devils found out, that's an awful lot of time in college football. Aided by multiple pass interference penalties, Ohio State quarterback Joe Germaine found David Boston in the end zone with 17 seconds remaining to give the Buckeyes a sensational win.

Snyder's timeout was all it took to give Ohio State the extra half minute it needed to bring the Sun Devil Nation to its knees.

Fast-forward to Nov. 5 of this year. With ASU leading on the road at UCLA 28-23 late in the fourth quarter, the Bruins converted an improbable third and 29 to give them a first and goal situation at the ASU 6 yard line.

After being stopped for a 2-yard gain on a run play with 1:27 remaining, ASU coach Dennis Erickson -- who later said of the sequence, "It kind of happened fast on me" -- allowed roughly 23 seconds to elapse before taking the first of his three timeouts. ASU again stopped the Bruins short of the goal line on second down and Erickson's attempts to get officials to see him signaling for his second timeout -- he apparently did not tell officials following the first down play that he would take another one after second down -- caused an additional nine seconds to run from the clock.

UCLA scored on third down, which stopped the clock on change of possession and gave it a 29-28 lead, with the Sun Devils' final drive starting at their 24 yard line with 42 seconds left. In just 38 seconds, ASU drove to the Bruins' 29 yard line -- a 47 yard span -- only to see redshirt freshman kicker Alex Garoutte miss his third field goal of the game as time expired, this one from 46-yards out.

Blaming Garoutte is an easy thing to do and certainly he was responsible in some measure. But what if ASU had those extra 30 seconds lost to inefficient clock management during the Bruins' final drive? Considering ASU moved the ball 47 yards in 38 seconds, and would have had first and 10 at the 30 yard line with the Bruins reeling, it's reasonable to surmise at the very least it could have moved the Garoutte attempt to a much more manageable distance.

Thirty seconds of excellent coaching. It's easily capable of being the difference between a perfect season and a bitter pill; the difference between a stranglehold of the Pac-12 South race and a potential spot in the unemployment pool.

The Sun Devils followed up their heartbreaking loss in the Rose Bowl with a nightmarish showing at Washington State last Saturday, another game in which they had ample opportunity to win deep into the fourth quarter. In just a two-week span, Erickson went from being a shoe-in to receive a coveted contract extension, to potentially needing a 2-0 finish to the regular season to keep his job.

The razor's edge is that narrow in college football, especially in places like Tempe, Ariz. Had the Sun Devils won even one of their previous two games and subsequently finished the season with wins over Arizona and Cal, a 9-3 season and Pac-12 title berth would have been considered a success by most, especially in light of the key injuries ASU has been faced with and its costly kicking game.

Erickson was 3-0 in games decided by seven or fewer points in his first ASU season -- a high-achieving regular season that netted a share of the Pac-10 Conference title -- when everything seemed to go about as well as it could have. It's not unlike that special season ASU had in 1996 that led to the aforementioned Rose Bowl appearance.

In that year, ASU nearly lost the opener, saved only by a field goal in the waning moments. It easily could have lost at UCLA if not for a furious late rally that saw the Sun Devils come back from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter, aided in part by a trick play that saw Plummer catch a touchdown on a halfback pass. The following week, the Sun Devils needed double overtime to pull out a thriller at home against USC.

A play here or there, 30 seconds added or lost, those are the things that change a season from decent to good, from good to great and great to unprecedented. Luck plays a greater role than most would know or be comfortable with.

The 'what if' game is easy to play. If the Sun Devils had a kicker who was halfway decent under pressure or senior defensive leaders Omar Bolden and Brandon Magee and potent offensive weapon Deantre Lewis available for the last three months, their record right now would probably be better. And if those 1996 Sun Devils had lost three comparable players or had faulty kicking in the clutch, theirs wouldn't have been special.

But ultimately, as the saying goes, you make your own luck.

What if seniors Bo Moos and Gerell Robinson hadn't received 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that proved devastating in ASU's loss at Oregon this year? What if Erickson had taken that first timeout right away at UCLA? What if members of the defense were more compelled to study extra film in advance of their collapse at Washington State?

In a broader context, what if the Sun Devils were a little more disciplined, a bit more cerebral?

This team doesn't have athletes like Erickson had in Miami, when he won National Championships in 1989 and 1991, or even in 2000 at Oregon State, when he won the Fiesta Bowl, but he's upgraded the talent enough to be successful. Now, when the Sun Devils lose, it's usually something other than the quality of ASU's players that gets pointed to.

For Erickson, that's a good thing in one respect, but bad in another. Unlike in some of his best career seasons as a coach, his ASU teams, as yet, haven't had enough of that talent to overwhelm their other problems.

In the last four years, ASU is 3-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less and 5-16 on the road. They've consistently been one of the most penalized teams in the conference, including 11th out of 12 this season through 10 games.

In Miami or at Oregon State, Erickson's teams were also heavily penalized, but it almost never mattered because their talent was so superior. At ASU, where there's always been a razor's edge difference between decent and good, good and great, great and unprecedented, that hasn't been the case.

It's sort of like when Roy "Tin Cup" McEvoy said, "When a defining moment comes along, you define the moment or the moment defines you."

Erickson and these Sun Devils have had many moments and their identity to this point has been clearly defined for them as opposed to by them. They lose too high a percentage of their close games and games played on the road, and too often are able to identify lapses of discipline or focus as the primary culprit.

And time is running out.


(This is the second part of a multi-part series on the Dennis Erickson-era at Arizona State as it enters a critical phase.)


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