September 21, 2008

Loss has Sun Devils searching for identity

Following its second straight loss, the ASU football team is searching for its identity.

The Sun Devils' 27-10 loss to No. 3 Georgia dropped the team to 2-2, and now they are looking for answers.

"We've got to find ourselves," safety Troy Nolan said. "We have no identity right now."

Coach Dennis Erickson agreed with Nolan to some degree, but he said the team's biggest issues are on the offensive side of the ball.

"I'm not sure we do have an identity offensively," Erickson said. "I thought we did some good things on defense, [but] we missed some tackles. We mentally missed some things. So I don't know if it's an identity [problem] there, we played hard. But offensively I think we've got to find a little bit more of an identity."

All night long, the game was never really close.

The talent gap was obvious in every aspect; the Bulldogs were the bigger, faster, more athletic team and controlled the game play all night.

"I don't think you know the speed until you exactly sit there and watch them on the field," Erickson said. "They've got great speed on both sides of the football."

The Bulldogs spent much of game in a two-deep zone, which forced ASU to throw short-to-moderate length passes as well as run the ball, but the Sun Devils had no success on the ground.

ASU only gained four yards on 19 attempts. That marked the fewest rushing yards ASU has gained since Nov. 9, 2002, when it rushed for minus-2 yards against Cal in a 55-38 loss.

"We've got to be able to run the football a little bit in order for us to have any chance to be successful," Erickson said. "If you can run it effectively -- when you want to, not when you need to -- then you become a better football team. And that's what we've got to try to accomplish here."

Dimitri Nance was the team's leading rusher with 12 yards on 10 attempts.

Running back Keegan Herring, who has been battling a nagging hamstring injury did not suit up Saturday, and Erickson said his absence was felt.

"He's our homerun hitter and we don't have that right now," he said. "Keegan can take something to the house when it's not there. When he's not in there, yeah we miss that. There's no question about it."
Besides the lack of production in the run game, the ASU players cited their inability to make the "big plays" as a big reason for the loss.

ASU only had two plays that went for more than 20 yards.

"We didn't execute, we didn't convert, we didn't have any big plays really go all the way," said quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who finished the game 23 of 36 for 208 yards and one touchdown.

Nolan said the game came down to ASU missing opportunities.

"We missed a couple of big plays," he said. "We were in the position to make the play but we obviously didn't make it."

And the missed chances Nolan talked about were obvious.

Like when ASU was forced to settle for a field goal in the red zone in the second quarter, rather than scoring a touchdown that would have made it a one-possession game at the time.

And when Georgia missed a field goal, but Nance fumbled, giving the ball away just two plays later.

The Sun Devils even allowed a punt to be blocked, something they haven't done all year.

"We didn't block it correctly," Erickson said about the punt. "We just mentally didn't see what we were supposed to see and block it. We let a guy come totally free that should have been blocked."

While all the talk coming into the game was about stopping Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno, it was the passing game that really hurt ASU early on.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 16 of his 28 pass attempts for 285 yards and one touchdown.

The touchdown was thrown to his top target on the night, true freshman AJ Green.

Green has seven catches for 150 yards in the first half alone, and finished the game with eight receptions for 159 yards to go along with his score.

And in the end, Moreno did wind up being a big factor. He rushed for 149 yards and two touchdowns, including over 100 yards in the second half as the Bulldogs ran down the clock.

"He's a heck of a back," Nolan said of Moreno. "He runs hard, he's energized out there, he's pretty shifty and he's a good player."

The game began on a positive note for ASU.

Its defense took the field first and forced a three-and-out. ASU looked like it could have a chance in the first quarter.

But the second quarter didn't go as well for the Sun Devils - Georgia scored 21 points in the second quarter compared to ASU's three.

However, the score would easily have been more lopsided at halftime if not for the mental mistakes by the Bulldogs.

Georgia was penalized six times for 55 yards in the first half and finished with 12 penalties that cost it 104 yards.

ASU had its best drive of the night to start the third quarter, and it ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Carpenter to tight end Andrew Pettes.

At the time, the score brought ASU within 11.

But after that, it was all Georgia.

The Bulldogs tacked on two field goals after Pettes' touchdown and limited the ASU offense to just 46 yards in the fourth quarter.

ASU has a week off before its next game, and Nolan said it couldn't come at a better time.

He said the team will regroup, try to pick up the morale and put the last two games behind them.

"We're going to sit back, take it all in and put that behind us," he said. "[We have to] just get out there and work hard in practice and just find ourselves. We have the Pac-10 coming up and that's really what counts."

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