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September 10, 2011

Sun Devils narrowly escape from black

On a paranormal Friday evening at Sun Devil Stadium, in what many felt was a crossroad signifying contest for the program, Arizona State took its first meaningful step on a long sought-after path -- a 37-30 overtime victory for the Sun Devils over No. 21 Missouri.

A mind-numbing event that played out before a national audience and a black-out, plots unfolded within plots; newly manifested aerial powers lifted 70,000 sky-high, while old vices nearly proved fatal again -- chaining many in the fan base back down to their all-too-comfortable arm chairs.

It was a hesitant first step in a shiny new shoe- -- with the same hole in the heel- -- leaving fans wondering if they should backtrack on expectations.

"The football gods were with us tonight," coach Dennis Erickson said.

In a game seemingly played for the Greek deities in the clouds, with Zeus' lightning bolts striking down on the horizon with every roar of the crowd -- as if to demand more -- the Sun Devils appeared to have fate on their side, holding a firm grasp on the outcome 43 seconds into the fourth quarter.

And then junior Jamal Miles let it slip out of his damp grasp.

Up 30-16, ASU started to unravel.

In a light rain, Miles muffed a punt, extending his arms away from his body and dropping the ball. After recovering, the Tigers took just five plays to go 32 yards, getting within a score - capitalizing on an ASU pass interference on 3rd and 15 --- and then finishing with a 25 yard touchdown pass the next play.

ASU appeared to have an answer on the following possession when junior Brock Osweiler -- who was Hercules with a javelin most of the night -- struck senior Aaron Pflugrad in the chest for 15 yards on third and six.

A holding penalty called it back and the Sun Devils could not convert the ensuing 3rd and 16.

After struggling to contain a surprisingly proficient quarterback James Franklin all night, the Sun Devils completely broke down on the Tigers game-tying possession, giving up a 49-yard pass on a third and 14, and then a three-yard touchdown pass to future NFL'er, tight-end Michael Egnew on 4th and goal.

Franklin torched the ASU secondary most of the night however, finding large holes throughout each third of its soft zone defense, completing 26 of 42 passes for 319 yards, nary a threat of an interception.

"The thing that I kind of knew and what we found out was how good their quarterback was," Erickson said. "I mean he can run. He made so many plays in that game with his legs it made us not look very good on defense."

After the Sun Devils ensuing three and out -- their only three and out of the game -- Franklin and running back Henry Josey started running, each dashing closer to the heart out of a beleaguered defense and a fragile fan base.

Starting at their own 8 with 1:27 seconds left in regulation, Josey all-too easily went 39 yards down the sideline, out of bounds. Then it was an eight-yard completion, followed by two Franklin scampers totaling 15 more yards.

The ball reached the 30-yard line, close to chip-shot range for the Lou Grouza semifinalist kicker Grant Ressel, who'd already converted from 47 yards once earlier on the night, making it look routine.

Running the clock down to 26 seconds, the Sun Devils appeared to mount a final stand, penetrating the Tigers line and forcing scrambles: two incompletions and a 4th and five.

With 17 seconds left, Ressel confidently jogged onto the field, looking to play the role of executioner.

There was history here.

A career 'perfect' on game-winners, a career 45-49 on all field-goals, Ressel would attempt the go-ahead score at the same endzone in which former University of Arizona kicker Max Zendejas kicked two Sun-Devils' season-ending game-winners in a three-year span, the same goal-posts through which his nephew finished ASU's 2009 season.

A slight-breeze swayed the flags on top of the goal posts; small, hardly noticeable raindrops grazed helmets - surely nothing a kicker of Ressel's caliber hadn't overcome before.

With the ball all-but snapped, junior middle linebacker and proven kick-blocker Vontaze Burfict started at the 'a' gap, walked out and then darted back in, trying to time his assault.

A timeout: not from Erickson, but Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel.

"We tried to get five more yards," Pinkel said. "They were jumping, (Burfict) was jumping, blowing our guard up again. He timed it going every time. We thought just maybe we could get him to jump off-side, and then we'd have the first down with five yards. It's a lot different when you're at the 25-yard line."

This time, Burfict, a 240-pound mass of energy, walked out even further, unleashing even more kinetic acceleration towards the cliff that was the line of scrimmage.

And then he stopped; And then the play stopped.

A star criticized for playing on the edge, Burfict twice showed he could resist crossing the fine-line and still create havoc.

A second time-out.

"I'm not sure about the two timeouts," ESPN color commentator Rod Gilmore said at the time. "I'm not sure it helps your kicker."

Indeed.

A shank, wide left, on the charmed third try from 47 yards out - new life.

"But to be able to have a big lead, then blow it, then he misses a field goal, I am sure they are talking about that right now…," Erickson said.

It took seven plays for the Sun Devils to get the seven points after losing their second coin toss of the night.

The biggest?

Third and seven at the Missouri 22.

With senior Mike Willie doubled on one side, Osweiler found Plufgard single covered on the other -- fitting the ball low into a diving, slanting target. Osweiler, who played his best in the fourth quarter and overtime in his first "big game" of his career last season, was nearly flawless throughout the night, and perfect on what was perhaps the most important throw of his life.

The touchdown, which would come two plays later on a swing pass to Miles, was a display of three things on what could potentially be the program's jumping off point: Osweiler's poise in pressure situations; his command of the offense; and its seemingly unlimited potential. Each aspect combining to upwardly tilt the program's near term trajectory beyond that of even the most optimistic prognosticators.

For any of those things to matter however, the "D-side" will have to contribute.

And so it did -- finally.

Re-energized behind what long-time local scribes would call one of the loudest late-game crowds they'd heard at SDS, the Sun Devils defense re-discovered a black-clad swagger than had vanished during much of the fourth quarter.

First, sophomore Junior Onyeali and Friday's defensive star linebacker, senior Colin Parker -- both met Franklin at the line of scrimmage on a zone read.

Then, an Onyeali sack, officially ruled as a tackle for no gain; Onyeali initially set the edge outside and then curled back inside the pocket, wrapping up the doomed quarterback trying to find the turf before getting crushed.

On third and ten there was a five-yard completion met with considerable force. Senior cornerback Deveron Carr -- pulled in favor of sophomore Alden Darby for much of the night -- and safety Clint Floyd ensured zero YAC by combining on a high-low takedown.

Before the fateful fourth down, a scene eerily reminiscent to the full-team, sideline pep-rally led by Osweiler in last year's overtime win against the Wildcats spontaneously erupted again -- and again it seemed to have an effect -- anticipation reached critical mass.

The Tigers had no chance.

Showing a two-man blitz, Burfict peeled back and Parker shot into the right-guard, allowing senior defensive end Jamaar Jarrett to come free off the edge on the opposite side. Franklin's throw went well-over the intended target's head; it got sucked into a black-hole near the north-endzone.

"[The game] gave me a heart-attack, that's what it gave me," Erickson said in a post-game field-interview. "With this great crowd that we had, to finally get it in overtime, it was a great win."


The Good

Osweiler's state line: 24 of 32, 353 yards and three touchdowns. It included an impeccably placed 60 yard strike to new z-star Pflugrad, another 51-yarder to senior Gerell Robinson on a double-move, and a somewhat lucky 12-yard touchdown pass to Miles in double-coverage on the team's second drive.

It could have been better, however, as Robinson dropped two crucial balls on third down.

The offensive line provided super pass protection for Osweiler, yielding just one sack.

Miles finished with 50 receiving yards, 13 rushing yards, two touchdowns, as well as 27 yards on punt return. Oh yeah, and a 35 yard pinpoint toss to Plufgrad for ASU's fourth touchdown.

"The guy is a phenomenal athlete and does things: he runs the ball, he catches it and he caught that one in overtime," Erickson said. "He threw that one that was covered, I thought, 'oh my golly' and he drilled that thing in there."

ASU once again flourished on special team returns, as sophomore Kyle Middlebrooks added 89 return yards to go along with 63 from junior Rashad Ross.

Colin Parker was the Sun Devils' best defender, accumulating 11 tackles while playing inspired, assignment-sound football.

The Bad

ASU's defense. Not much else to it. The Sun Devils consistently lost contain on Franklin, allowing over 100 rushing yards and numerous pass-play extensions to the quarterback. They had numerous breakdowns in coverage, giving up over 300 passing yards to an unproven signal-caller. They missed tackles, at least one, on each of the Tigers scoring drives -- the total was well into double digits. They allowed an unknown running back over 10 yards a carry. They generated just two sacks and no turnovers.

"There is good and bad; we have to look at the film and learn from the bad and keep doing the good," Parker said.

The Ugly

Twelve penalties for 110 yards.

Included: A pass interference at the two on 3rd and goal, eventually leading to a touchdown. Twenty-five yards of penalties on a late second-half drive that could have swung the game. A 15- yard facemask on a third quarter scoring drive, and three drive-killing penalties on offense.

"I thought that we were not as disciplined as we were last week," Erickson said. "We had more penalties. No real stupid ones but we did have some penalties, pass interference calls and all that but the bottom line is that we put it in there at the end and came out on defense and won the football game."

Another blocked extra-point attempt, a point of emphasis throughout camp.


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