Swami has been in hiding the past couple of weeks. After attending the early portion of the Sun Devils 2006 schedule, he found himself with writer's block, unable to say much about what he'd seen.
It was confusing - the team leading the country in sacks while falling down on the job offensively. It was depressing - watching QB Rudy Carpenter struggle through the early portion of the season, suffering a perhaps inevitable sophomore slump which culminated in an extremely embarrassing and depressing showing against Cal last weekend. It was exciting - watching the emergence of a rushing attack the likes of which has not been seen at ASU in perhaps a decade. And it's been "reassuring" - noting the same-old/same-old inconsistent special teams play which has contributed to both victory and defeat.
As Swami thought about Oregon arriving in the Valley today and taking the field tomorrow morning, however, it occurred that perhaps he, maybe, hmmmm.....the Sun Devils are going to right this ship, take the Ducks and perhaps show up in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks having crossed a huge hurdle. To wit:
The key is simply Carpenter's play. If the Devils take care of the ball, they win. If not, the Devils start conference play 0-3 (that's not a typo).
There are things which will help Carpenter. That emerging rushing attack is the primary help. Swami wouldn't be surprised to see a 60-40 split between rushing and passing plays in this game. Ryan Torain's breakout game against Cal was no fluke as it followed a very, very decent effort by the Devils against a Colorado squad which stymied the highly-ranked Georgia Bulldogs. Some have said that a good rushing attack will help wilt the Ducks. Like all the other pundits, Swami wonders about the effect of the heat on gameday. Most assume, as they assumed last year when the Trojans slipped their way into Tempe, that the visitors will have a difficult time with the heat. Swami assumes, as was evident in last year's Trojans game, that the team with better depth will handle the conditions better. That may be the Devils, it may not. Last year it wasn't. This year, with the depth and talent at tailback, Swami thinks it is the Devils.
Swami also thinks that there will be three very important pieces in the passing attack, as limited as we expect it to be. Their names are Burgess, Lewis and Miller. Pick-a-Miller is the watchword here. Rudy Burgess' return we think allows Koetter/Wittke to employ the bubble screen and Jamaal Lewis' and Brent's and Zach's size allows Carpenter to look for middle targets in medium-range areas.
The Ducks counter with offensive weapons of their own. However, Swami thinks the Devils' emerging defensive prowess will be on display once again at Sun Devil Stadium. While we may be crazy - actually we are - we think the spread is a cousin of the pistol and the Devils handled that one fairly well. Dennis Dixon is a dual-threat QB; the Devils handled the Buffaloes' running QB very well on the road. Jonathan Stewart is a demi-god, but we saw how well the Devils handled Marshawn Lynch in his own house. While he ran well, Torain ran better and the Bears didn't beat the Devils on the ground. The defensive backfield will be stretched by the performance of Jaison Williams. We don't know what will happen there, but if the performance Cal's DeSean Jackson laid on the Devils is any indication...the front four had better pressure Dixon early, often and hard.
A couple of things to consider:
The Devils obviously play better at home than on the road (in California). Last season, the Devils played a somewhat lackluster game against Oregon following a highly emotional game against the Trojans. Was last week's debacle against Cal "emotional" in the same sense? It could have been that the Devils' psyche was damaged last week. Coach Koetter was noted to have said the week prior to the Cal game that he didn't yet have a sense of his teams' swagger and confidence, that he felt his team was still finding its personality. The Devils will know much more about themselves come Saturday evening.
It is simply premature and irresponsible to be jumping on any sort of "can Koetter" bandwagon. Call me again after the season. If the Devils fall apart and finish the season with a sub-.500 record, maybe we'll talk about what needs to be improved going forward. It was evident from the start that Dirk Koetter was a wait-and-let-him-develop hire. Koetter was thrust into a high profile position in a major conference with relatively little head-coaching experience.
Close observers of the program have noticed a steady improvement in the program over the time of his tenure. Swami himself repeatedly has commented on the positive changes in the assistant coaching personnel and the recruiting results.
There have been positives on the field which are perhaps lost in the glare. Consider the start to this year's game in Berkeley and compare that start (long drive for a TD followed by a 3-and-out by the defense) to the two starts made by the 2004 Devils in Berkeley at Los Angeles that year. While the control didn't last, the Devils didn't self-destruct in Berkeley as a team. They fell to a collection of individual miscues, something which is a whole different animal than team implosion.
Koetter himself has shown improvement in everything from game management to his relationship with the media.
There have been positives off the field as well. The Sam Keller situation was handled remarkably well under the circumstances.
The bottom line is that the program is making the right strides - compare and contrast the Devils' situation to what's been going on down south in Arizona.
With a win this weekend against Oregon, the Devils will have picked themselves up from a disappointing and embarrassing loss to a solid Cal team and will again be on their way to a respectable showing in the conference. In his preseason predictions, Swami noted that this portion of the season would define the Devils for 2006 and that he expected the Devils to move through with perhaps one or two losses. That is still achievable with a win against Oregon.