Divided thinking abound on future of ASU football

ENIGMATIC OUTCOMES: Redshirt senior quarterback Steven Threet has been good and bad leading the 4-6 Sun Devils this season, as have many of his teammates, leaving many ASU fans in one of two schools of thought regarding the team's near future. (Photo by Scott Stuk)

To some, depending on whom you ask, the 2010 ASU football season is a tale of improbable misfortune bound to eventually regress to the mean in the next two games or in a near-future season.

To others, the Sun Devils have only themselves to blame by repeating errors; the leading cause of their 0-4 record in games decided by five points or less.

Both arguments not only seek to understand the events of the season, but, perhaps more importantly, to understand what lies ahead for the ASU football program with coach Dennis Erickson at the helm.

Much like its previous four close losses to teams that were deemed superior or favorites, ASU on many levels outplayed Stanford in its 17-13 loss Saturday.

The “ASU is on the rise” crowd is likely to point to the following facts:

ASU held Stanford to a season-low in points, held junior quarterback Andrew Luck to no touchdowns passes for the first time in his 2010 campaign, and held the Cardinal to their lowest yards per carry average since 2008.

The crowd that believes “ASU is stuck in its losing ways” interprets close games much differently.

With the game tied at seven in the second quarter, redshirt junior quarterback Steven Threet, in an attempt to run for a score, fumbled into the end zone on second and goal when it appeared at least one of his receivers was open.

“We had a roll on, we had the option to run it or throw it, had a couple guys open in the end zone and he decided to run it and didn’t protect the football, so you give away seven or three for sure because it was second down,” Erickson said.

In 2010, Threet has nine turnovers that the opponent has taken inside its own 30-yard line, three of which have occurred in the opponent’s end zone.

“It’s very difficult,” Threet said afterward. “It’s the same thing. We have to capitalize on the opportunities we have and make the most of the chances we get, and tonight we weren’t able to do that.”

Among the top 100 passers, Threet is tied for first with 16 interceptions. Some would use those figures to support the idea that ASU continues to make the same mistakes and that its execution trend line has been static in 2010, not improving much from the beginning of the year.

The crowd down on ASU’s future also has plenty of other arguments, namely penalties.

There is much debate about the overall impact of defensive penalties in all levels of football. Some argue that a high rate of defensive penalties is indicative of a good, physical defense and some statistical metrics support it. Erickson has one of the highest career winning percentages in college football, but his teams have consistently been among the leaders in penalties and penalty yards.

Take ASU’s most penalized player, sophomore linebacker Vontaze Burfict, as the most vivid example of how defensive penalties have affected ASU’s defense in 2010.

Sun Devil opponents have scored on roughly 28 percent of their drives on the season, excluding end of half kneel-downs. Burfict has been whistled for personal fouls on seven drives on the season (eight personal fouls on the year). Of those seven drives, six have resulted in scores, including five touchdowns.

That means that in 2010 on drives where Burfict committed a personal foul, opponents have scored roughly 86 percent of the time.

In Saturday’s loss to Stanford, Burfict was whistled for three flags and two personal fouls on the Cardinal’s game-winning drive. While two of those calls could be considered highly questionable, the pessimists would argue that the penalties were earned by reputation, as erroneous as the calls may have been.

“I couldn’t see what happened when we first got the interception,” Erickson said of the series of penalties. “There was no facemask. They called it because he grabbed the jersey and it looked like a facemask. Sometimes they make calls that are real critical that you just don’t see.”

Of Burfict’s personal fouls that came before scores, two occurred on game-winning drives for the opponent, including losses to both Stanford and USC.

Of course, this sample size is too small to derive a conclusion and could be considered anecdotal and insignificant. ASU is 106th in the country in penalty yards and other players beside Burfict have committed penalties at critical times.

The crowd that believes “ASU is a team on the rise” would counter by saying the Sun Devils have cut down on penalties in the last six games, averaging just 5.8 per contest, which has them ranked in the middle of the country.

The optimists would point to the Sun Devils’ marked improvement in points and yards, from 90th in yards in 2009 to 38th in 2010, and from 91st in scoring output in 2009 to 46th in 2010 as reason to believe the team could make a jump into the top 25 next year.

“They are just a darn good football team,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said of ASU on Saturday. “We talked about it; it’s easily an 8-2, 9-1 type of team right now, and our guys prepared for that.”

The pessimistic crowd would argue that the Sun Devils 0-10 record over the last three seasons in games decided by five points or fewer is indicative of a team that doesn’t know how to win and won’t figure it out anytime soon. The other side would cite Erickson’s 3-0 record in 2007 in such contests as evidence that his teams at ASU are capable of winning close games and that the law of averages is bound to swing back in the program’s favor.

In close to four years at ASU, Erickson has a career record of 23-24. Proponents of the program and its future with Erickson would note the first four years of former ASU coach Bruce Snyder’s tenure, where his teams finished with a combined 21-23 record. In seasons five and six, the Sun Devils combined to win 20 games, including a Rose Bowl appearance and 11-1 mark in 1996. In 1995, ASU finished 6-5 and lost three games by three points or less.

The opposition would cite the fact that Sun Devils have endured the worst three-year stretch in the program since 1947, the last time it had three consecutive losing seasons.

Reach the reporter at nick.ruland@asu.edu