September 25, 2011

Burfict, Sun Devils make statement in win

Since arriving in Tempe, fingers have been pointed at Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict. There've been those of the foam variety, the thumbs-up of Roman Coliseum times, approving of the most savage of gladiators. There've been accusatory fingers too, coming from far-away and in all directions. Those fingers stretch like tentacles, and attach themselves onto the enigma of a middle linebacker -- defining the silent one and conveniently, the program he plays for all in one.

The hands from which those fingers extend come from self-serving sensationalists who don't know Burfict. Coming into Saturday's contest, Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley thought he did.

And so he pointed at Burfict through the media, calling him a dirty player based on prior experiences dating to high school, as well as reputation, no doubt.

On the third play of USC's first drive Saturday night, inches in front of center Khaled Holmes, Burfict got the chance to point back -- extending his index finger as if it were a dagger piercing Barkley's pads.

Burfict may not speak to the media, and may not have said a word to Barkley, but he knows how to deliver a message.

So does Arizona State, finally.

On his first day of official adulthood, his 21st birthday, Burfict and the Sun Devils grew up.

It was this group of 'not-quite-good-enough-for-USC' players that turned the Trojan's words of the week into a boomerang of self-fulfilling prophecy. It was these "cast-offs," as USC linebacker Chris Galippo essentially called them last week, headed by a quarterback who some once said should have been a basketball player, throwing to a receiver whom some once said was a better quarterback, and another two whom out of uniform are as tall as the average male gymnast, that helped finally turn 11 years of history into a thing of the past.

These Sun Devils would not be baited, shunted or bested against a once-proud program that on Saturday night resembled the team they thought they'd be playing.

They would stay disciplined, committing just six penalties on the night, one of which was a sideline violation on their coach. Yeah, No. 7 had an unsportsmanlike penalty, but so did the Trojans' No. 7, safety T.J. McDonald.

They would avoid critical turnovers and create them on defense. For those looking to apologize on behalf of the Sun Devils for a plus four turnover performance, a game that would have been much different without it, consider all the contests in recent years in which ASU outplayed the opponent only to lose the turnover battle and the scoreboard.

And unlike 2005, when ASU blew a 21-3 lead to the Trojans, the Sun Devils would not fall flat after taking body-blows in the third quarter.

After losing the lead and the momentum two Trojan drives into the third quarter, the Sun Devils came back with an eight-play, 76 yarder -- recapturing the crowd and perhaps, their self-confidence, riding it all the way to a blowout victory.

The Sun Devils fast-break offense was in rhythm much of the night; an interesting contrast to the Trojan's west-coast, Mike Shanahan-style zone and boot misdirection approach.

Coordinator Noel Mazzone's offensive attack turned out to be a blueprint against Monte Kiffin's USC defense, popularly referred to as the Tampa-two -- Mazzone's play-calling put it over the top.

The Sun Devils bathed their bread in butter on Saturday, spreading the Trojans wide and forcing them to cover the near 54-yard wide field with swing pass after swing pass. Once softened, the Sun Devils cut through its interior like a hot knife, using a -healthy Cameron Marshall to push through arm-tackles on hesitant defenders.

Later in drives, with the safeties reacting to screen and swing action towards the sidelines, Mazzone would call for play-fakes, or perhaps more appropriately, swing-fakes, allowing Osweiler to find open receivers between the safeties. And unlike last week, when the play was covered early, Osweiler stepped into the pocket, getting yards both by run and falling forward like a redwood tree.

While his scheme is often criticized for a lack of behind-center formations in the red-zone, the Sun Devils were perfect inside the 20 on Saturday without them, appearing to both wear down the Trojan defense and stay a step ahead of it. It's no small accomplishment to run a handful of plays successfully against a defense with as many high-caliber athletes as the Trojans possess.

While Osweiler brought his offensive line into the press conference to amend the grievances laid against them in last week's egg of a performance, and rightfully so as they outplayed one of the most talented fronts ASU will see all year, much credit goes to Jamal Miles.

Perhaps no one in the offense is more important. The swing pass and the threat of the swing pass set-up virtually everything the Sun Devils run, and that threat wouldn't exist if Miles was less capable of making tacklers miss, as he did throughout the night.

What is both symbolic and mechanistic of the Sun Devils approach is the trust Miles has in his receivers to block for him, which they've done throughout the year and perhaps never better then on Saturday. When Miles catches the football in the flat, he has to turn his eyes from the defense. In some ways, the swing pass is a more dangerous play than catching the ball over the middle because in order for it to be successful, Miles has to receive the ball facing downfield while exposing himself to head-hunters homing-in at full speed (as opposed to turning his back and protecting himself to catch the ball.)

ASU's offense is a fine-tuned machine that relies on every part working in unison, bonded only by the trust each player has in themselves and each other in fulfilling their assignment.

It's quite the juxtaposition with the Trojan offense, which despite having a dominant left-tackle that at times seemed to seal an entire side of the ASU defense, to go along with playmakers on the outside that would make some NFL teams giddy, a load at running back and a supposed Top-10 NFL pick caliber quarterback, all the Trojans could muster against a Sun Devils defense missing three starters was two touchdowns.

And that brings us back to the most interesting and perhaps important corollary from Saturday's win.

After the win, coach Dennis Erickson referred to the game as a "great recruiting night."

From the perspective of the ASU sideline, how could things not look great? On both sides of the ball, the Sun Devils have developed schemes that aren't overly-reliant on great individual play, and thus make it easy for a recruit to dream about fitting into.

And then there's Lane Kiffin. If you had the opportunity to hang around the USC sideline on Saturday, which was flat throughout, you'd have heard him incessantly whine to an official about Burfict's finger-point in the first quarter. Kiffin begged for a personal foul.

That's correct.

The coach with a team that does not start a single player below a four-star, who had tried to get his players Burfict-conscience and ready to Burfict-bait by simulating post-whistle "altercations" throughout the week, resorted to gamesmanship before his team had punted.

If that doesn't say something about the direction the programs are headed in, go back to Burfict's instinctual interception on Barkley's attempted screen pass in the second quarter.

After getting tackled, oddly enough with an assist from Barkley, Burfict got up from the ground before the quarterback.

What an opportunity to vindicate his naysayers.

Surely, there's a part of Burfict that wanted to taunt the quarterback who lay before him, the same guy who taunted him during the week.

But, perhaps that was the old Burfict, and by that I mean the young one. Burfict picked Barkley off the ground and patted him on the back.

Sure, it's good sportsmanship.

But maybe that was a statement.

Maybe the Devils have matured. Maybe it's about winning now.



 

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