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November 15, 2011

Sun Devils hurt by lack of extra effort

To at least one key member of Arizona State's secondary, last week's big game didn't even involve football much less Washington State.

The latest installment of a wildly popular video game series was released last Tuesday and the player -- whom we've chosen not to refer to by name -- posted multiple messages to a social media account regarding the amount of time he spent playing it.

There's nothing earth-shattering about a college student spending an inordinate amount of time playing video games. But what if he'd spent as much time studying film of the Cougars?

It stands to reason the player would have been more prepared for the Washington State offense -- which had a program record 503 passing yards in the team's 37-27 upset win of the Sun Devils -- if he'd traded some of those gaming hours for more time learning about his opponent.

Players are going to say the right things. They'll tell you how focused they are, how prepared they are, how much they want to win and what it'd mean to them and their teammates. They'll tell you those things almost without fail, of that much we can be certain.

The question isn't what they'll say but what they'll do. What will they do to ensure those spoken words are the truth?

Usually, it's difficult to know how well prepared a team truly is. Media obviously doesn't sit in on any team meetings or film sessions and rarely hears of the ones that occur late at night and are voluntary in nature.

But when a player admits to a lot of time spent -- undoubtedly hours, perhaps many hours -- playing a video game and then goes out and contributes to a record-breaking performance of ineptitude, reasonable people are going to draw rational conclusions.

Here's one: It doesn't mean as much to you as you say it does.

If you think this may just be an isolated incident and therefore unworthy of such prominent mention, think again.

One ASU team source said before the season even started that players' attention to detail on defense became a concern the moment it was learned that senior linebacker Brandon Magee was lost for the season with an Achilles tear.

"It's the biggest loss for us and the one that scares me most," the source said. "Not because Brandon is [necessarily] a better player than Omar (Bolden) or even Deantre (Lewis), but we need him more because of what he brings to the team that you don't see on Saturdays."

Magee, the source said, is the one who rallies his linebacker position mates including Vontaze Burfict and Shelly Lyons into extra film work. His absence means less of that time is dedicated by those players to learning about opponents, about the game.

The result of that has been clearly observed this season. Nobody will tell you Burfict, a preseason All-American, has played anywhere near his potential. Many will say he's regressed from last season. Lyons didn't start in Saturday's game and hasn't elevated his play in his final season.

Film doesn't lie. Burfict is often found in the wrong gap on run plays and lost aimlessly in the wind on passing downs. Tendencies tell you what opponents are likely to do and how, and tendencies are learned almost exclusively via film study. Often, he looks like he's just winging it. Burfict isn't a team captain, an ominous sign for a player of his acclaim, particularly considering classmate Brock Osweiler is.

ASU's linebackers -- senior Colin Parker notwithstanding, a player head coach Dennis Erickson and defensive coordinator Craig Bray have both made a point of calling their best player from the group -- are far too often found out of position. It's no coincidence Parker is also the most studious of the group.

The team's safeties had seemed to make major strides earlier this season but dramatically regressed in recent weeks, failing to get lined up or interpret their key reads correctly against Washington State.

At halftime of the UCLA game, coaches, according to multiple witnesses, alerted their cornerbacks to the possibility of the exact type of play fake that cornerback Deveron Carr bit on that resulted in a 78 yard touchdown on the second play of the third quarter. Saturday, Carr again let a defender behind him to bite on the underneath route he wasn't responsible for, with the same result.

If you've spent any amount of time in the last couple of days wondering whether Bray all of a sudden forgot what he's doing, you can put that out of your mind. This is a coach whose defense has, in recent years, led the conference in rushing defense, passing defense, total defense, third down defense, red zone defense, and other statistical categories.

Bray's defense forced Oregon to punt a season-high 11 times last season -- in a game ASU only lost because it turned the ball over seven times -- and even led the Pac-12 this season in third down defense entering the Washington State game, in which it allowed the Cougars to convert their final five third down attempts, including third and 14 and third and 16 on the game-winning drive.

Sure, Bray makes mistakes. He may dial up a blitz at an inopportune time or have a defense in a less-than-ideal coverage shell on a play -- such as the third and 29 against UCLA -- but he knows the game of football as well as ever, there's no doubt about that.

You can be sure that in all of the hours Bray and the rest of ASU's coaches are allowed to spend with their team each week, they're doing their absolute best to impart upon their players the knowledge they'll need to put their best foot forward on game day.

The problem is, at this level, it takes a lot more time than that to be the best. It takes the extra hours -- such as the hours spent playing video games -- that other teams aren't putting in to put your team over the top. This team doesn't have enough of that, and refuses to learn lessons as quickly as it should, regardless of the messages delivered to them (and this doesn't completely absolve coaches, as we will cover in the second part of this multi-part look into the program this week).

When Bolden and Magee went down, it was a big blow that's proven in recent weeks to be even bigger than it had to be. It would be nice for the Sun Devils if those players spent the same amount of time in the film room even though they aren't playing, but unrealistic. What would have been nicer is if others had filled the leadership void created in the wake of their absence by holding themselves to the same standards. But that hasn't been the case, as best we can tell.

ASU's current batch of players are great at showcasing their Saturday personas. You'll see them out in pre-game, including most prominently some of ASU's defensive backs, shirtless and occasionally in shades, sometimes even dancing. Feel good about themselves in their new uniforms? Definitely.

But winning isn't determined by how much swagger you have on Saturdays; rather, it's earned through much heart you have on Sundays-Fridays.


(This is the first part of a multi-part series on the Dennis Erickson-era at Arizona State as it enters a critical phase.).


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