For head coach Herm Edwards, identifying the main culprit of ASU’s four-game losing streak has been relatively easy.
The common thread among the Sun Devils past four defeats appears obvious to Edwards and his coaching staff, and correcting it has been the primary focus leading up to ASU’s matchup this Saturday with the No. 6 Oregon Ducks. Yet, as Edwards and the rest of the staff are quickly learning, solving this issue is proving much more difficult.
“Our deal is real simple, we have to stop playing from deficits,” Edwards said at a press conference Monday. “We’ve been in too many deficits early and we find our way climbing uphill in games, and that’s never a good sign.”
Starting games on a stronger foot has been one of the core messages ASU coaches have worked to instill this week in the leadup to their highly anticipated matchup with Oregon. The Sun Devils have allowed the first score in each of their last five games, and have been outscored cumulatively by 38 points, 66 to 28, in the first quarter of those games alone.
“Where we seem to be having problems on both sides of the ball is starting games,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens explained. “And we’ve talked about it to exhaustion … So we’re trying to get to the bottom of that. We’ve just got to start faster.”
The Sun Devil coaches have been so singular in their messaging that the worry has begun to creep in that their concerns are falling on deaf ears. They are well aware of the limited scope of their abilities, and in the fact that real change is only possible through the players.
They have responded by altering as many things as possible, from the team’s pregame routine to the order of certain drills during practice.
“There’s only so much you can do (as coaches),” assistant coach Tony White said. “It’s a matter of maybe we need to pump them up quicker, so then we change the warmups. What do we need to show them in practice earlier, so now we go into competition period much earlier than before. So it’s just a matter of doing those little things that are related specifically to starting fast.”
So far, according to coaches, their efforts have been met with optimism. The players are well aware of the uniqueness of their struggles, and they have focused this week on cleaning up their issues before the battle with the highly touted Ducks.
The defense specifically knows they will have their hands full containing the high-powered Oregon offense and are well aware that another poor start could kill any chance for an upset.
“All those guys, they’re pissed off,” White said. “They see how crazy it is in one half, and then in the other half, they’re in there with tackles for loss, pass breakups, giving ourselves a chance to win the game … Those guys see it and they’re holding each other accountable, they’re holding themselves accountable, so they’re on edge to get it fixed.”
One member of the defense who is holding teammates accountable is senior defensive back Kobe Williams. Lauded as a man of few words by his fellow Sun Devils, Williams's advice carries a special weight within the ASU locker room. As he prepares for what is either the final two or three games of his college career, Williams has worked to remind his teammates who exactly they are playing for.
“We have nothing to lose, we got to go out there and just play ball, have fun,” Williams said. “We’ve got to go out there and just prove to ourselves, not to prove to anybody else, prove to ourselves that we’re really legit and get a bowl game.”
With only two games remaining for ASU to hit the six-win threshold necessary for bowl eligibility, pressure continues to rise around the Sun Devil facilities. As Edwards looks to pull off what would be the largest upset of his short tenure in Tempe, he is quick to acknowledge the magnitude of the opportunity lying ahead.
“When you have an opportunity to get into a bowl, that’s critical for your program,” Edwards said. “With all these young guys, it just speaks volumes of what we can get accomplished.”