Young Sun Devils learning not to flinch in close matchups
Following ASU’s 38-34 victory over Washington State, Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards walked off the field as he was greeted by two familiar faces.
Standing in the north end zone was ASU president Michael Crow dressed in a white dress shirt as athletic director Ray Anderson donned a gold polo as he greeted Edwards from his left.
“These guys are going to give me a heart attack,” Edwards recalled saying to the duo. “What are y’all doing? I’m 65 years old. That’s who they are, they’re a resilient bunch.”
The cause of Edwards' nerves following the four-point victory mostly likely stemmed from watching his true freshman quarterback engineer his third game-winning drive of his young career.
A 75-yard drive that was capped off by a 17-yard rush by quarterback Jayden Daniels that ended with a flip into the endzone for the go-ahead touchdown with 34 seconds remaining.
The close victory was something that has become somewhat of the norm under Edwards in his short tenure at Arizona State.
Last season, ASU played in a total of nine games decided by seven points or less as they came out victorious in only four of the games.
“When you play like that, you can’t blink,” Edwards said. “You have to understand there’s going to be an opportunity that presents itself and when it shows up guys will make it. These guys are used to that. They’re starting to feel like we’re okay when we get an opportunity.”
After having numerous opportunities in tight games a season ago, there was a sense around the program that the season could have gone in many different directions given the close nature of so many games.
In Edwards’ second season there has been a change in this trend from a season ago. The Sun Devils are still playing close matchups, but now they’re winning these games decided by seven points or less as ASU is 3-1 in these games this season.
“We once had this opportunity last year and we let it slip away,” Eno Benjamin said. “Just kind of reminding guys that we had an off week, but we have to come back out with the right mindset and go out there and get this win. Things happen, we play the whole game and we knew it was going to be a dog fight.”
With 13 of the team’s last 19 games being decided by seven points or less it’s starting to feel like the team enjoys playing close matchups.
A sentiment that Edwards jokingly is convinced of evident in his answer when asked if his team will ever have a game with more separation to give him rest from stress.
“No,” Edwards said. “They’re trying to send me to the hospital. They won’t do that for me. I’ve asked them numerous times. They said coach you like this, and I really don’t.”
All jokes aside, Edwards went into this matchup against a talented Washington State squad knowing that the game would be a close match.
Not only would the score be close, but the team would also have to keep up with the high-powered attack of Wazzu. An offense that came into the game averaging nearly 45 points per game.
“Going into this thing, I said it this week, it’s not going to be a 14-17-point game,” Edwards admitted. “We knew it was going to be in the 30’s. We talked about it last night in the meetings, we’ve got to score thirty-plus points some kind of way. We’ve got to find a way.”
Edwards is known by some as being a conservative coach, a notion he disagrees with. The key for Edwards is to be able to win the game, in any way he can.
This week in meant outgaining the No. 1 passing offense in the nation as the Sun Devils put up 532 total yards compared to the Cougars 498.
“I’m not a conservative guy,” stated. “I know some people think that he wants to play conserved ─ no, I want to win. Whatever we have to do to win, that’s how we’re going to play.”
“Sometimes there are slow methodical games, sometimes they’re not high scoring, this was in the 30’s ─ we knew it was going to be in the 30s. We’re just glad it didn’t get in the 50’s. I don’t want to see those kinds of games, those are hard to deal with.”
So how has Herm turned these close games into victories instead of more tallies in the loss column like a year ago?
While a variety of factors play into the outcome, Edwards points not to a specific position or a player on the field, but the team’s youth as the main factor.
“If you watch them play, they don’t quit,” Edwards said.
“They don’t know any better. There are 29 freshmen for God’s sake. They don’t better ─ they just play. They hear me walk in the huddle and they’re like really coach and I say yes really. Half the time I can be telling a story, they believe me so it’s good. They say coach said that so that’s what we’re going to do. They don’t know how hard it is. This was hard. Two weeks ago, against Cal was hard. Michigan State was hard.”
The second part of the team’s turn around in close matchups has been a continued sense of trust, one that has trickled down from Edwards to his assistant coaches and eventually to his players.
Edwards asks his players to simply be themselves and says “that’s always going to be good enough.”
This philosophy is one that true freshman Jayden Daniels embraces. The trust displayed from Edwards to his quarterback is one that Daniels then shared with his fellow offensive players as they drove down the field for the game-winning score.
“Even just before that last possession me, Jayden (Daniels) and Brandon Aiyuk were talking and we were saying this is Michigan State all over again,” Benjamin admitted. “Everyone was calm. I think we do a good job with our coaches as far as them making a game plan, and I think the players do a good job trusting them.”
In short, Edwards players don’t shy away from pressure, they embrace it. Whether Edwards admits it or not, the team mirrors him in this aspect.
Edwards constant controlled and mellow demeanor are traits that are starting to rub off on his younger players. A trend that is evident in the team’s recent success in close games.
“They don’t flinch,” Edwards stated. “That’s why I love them, they don’t flinch. Some people say they got the coach's personality and I don’t know if that’s good or right. I don’t know if that’s right, wrong or different. I don’t flinch. I just play.”
When it comes to next week’s matchup in what will in all likeliness be a Top-15 matchup against Utah, Edwards has a simple message for his team.
A message that has gotten his team to where they are now, and one that will push them to where they want to be.
“Stay humble and hungry.”
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