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September 12, 2011

Performance unbecoming of ASU expectations

Interesting, one might think it, that Arizona State has come out onto the field for pre-game warm-ups for its first two games to the song "Headlines" by popular hip-hop artist Drake.

It's a song that opens with the lyrics, "I might be too strung out on compliments, overdosed on confidence, starting not to give a [damn] and stop fearing the consequence…"

Who knows if the song was selected by them or for them, but while standing near Arizona State's south end zone Friday night as the blaring song rattled the teeth of anyone in a two block radius, a thought somehow managed to form: This isn't exactly an ideal anthem.

For the next few hours, sitting behind a wall of glass high atop Sun Devil Stadium in a relatively quiet press box, as the defense's missed tackles and assignment errors added up, the apropos of the selection -- coincidental or unintended as it may have been -- grew to be more deafening than the music itself had been earlier.

With an audience dressed in all black for the occasion, the Sun Devils nearly turned their supposed coming out party into a funeral. If they'd somehow lost after a 14 point fourth quarter advantage, many of the 70-thousand plus who turned out would have no doubt buried them as the same-old-Sun Devils.

And maybe they still are?

Twelve penalties, a missed field goal, blocked PAT, costly muffed punt and a healthy heaping of blown defensive assignments and missed tackles later, ASU in many ways looked like the team that lost so many close games in similar fashion last season. Nonetheless, it escaped its own demise with a 37-30 overtime win over No. 21 Missouri that shouldn't have been nearly that close.

The game left little doubt the Sun Devils are a more talented team than the Tigers, but a lot of questions as to whether they'll ever be as good as they can be.

How could it be that after a three year hiatus from relevance, on a Friday night national stage erected by ESPN, these Sun Devils would play such sloppy football, especially on defense, with junior preseason All-American Vontaze Burfict leading the way?

Too strung out on compliments? Overdosed on confidence?

Maybe? Maybe not. But time and again, Burfict and his mates were humbled by their opponent as, instead of wrapping up, they threw their bodies around like pugil sticks, going for the highlight-thirsty kill shot on Missouri quarterback James Franklin and others, only to self-inflict wounds with yet another missed tackle.

Broken containment on the defensive front allowed Franklin to run wild, undisciplined linebacker play from all save senior Colin Parker exacerbated the problem, and a poor showing in the secondary, particularly from cornerbacks Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor nearly did them in -- aided, of course, by Jamal Miles' muffed punt.

With momentum heading in every way but theirs going into the overtime period, junior quarterback Brock Osweiler once again saved them with a sideline rally reminiscent of last year's mosh pit in the season-ending double overtime Arizona win.

Osweiler brought his troops on and led them to the go-ahead overtime score that flipped a switch in the stadium, and with his teammates on the other side of the football, who seemingly emerged from being shell shocked long enough to stuff the Tigers and earn the victory.

But if not for Osweiler's brilliance -- 24 of 32 for 353 yards and three touchdowns -- and a career game from senior receiver Aaron Pflugrad with eight catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns, they almost assuredly would have lost.

For a program that has grown accustomed to its defense playing well only to be let down by the offense, Friday was a reversal, as well as a cautionary tale.

While the Sun Devils beat a ranked opponent for the first time in 11 attempts, they didn't play to their capability, nor to their expectations, which are lofty.

Perhaps it's time to stop listening to Headlines and reading press clippings. ASU had better get a lot more serious about the fundamentals if its going to end up where it wants to be.


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