I thought Arizona State football was done with these tough losses. No, I didn’t think they’d go 14-0 and compete for a national championship, but did think they had the leadership to pull out close games.
One loss at Illinois doesn’t erase a potentially great Sun Devil season. Someone else in the Pac-12 South — not named USC — has to prove to be better than ASU to in order to ruin 2011.
This loss is crushing though for an unexpected reason. The offensive line was supposed to be a strength. Instead, it was a disaster.
Before I continue, I must back up. I had no idea the defensive line for Illinois was that good. There are so many positive things to be said regarding ASU in this game. The problem is the accumulative praise can’t possibly equal the unflattering comments earned by the offensive line.
ASU dominated defensively allowing only short field touchdowns. Holding an electric quarterback to only 17 points on those short fields is a masterful performance, when compared to the poor tackling show ASU put on against Missouri. The defense must be praised for its great rebound this week. To accomplish all this despite not having Junior Onyeali for most of the game — he left in the first quarter with a sprained left knee — was stunning.
Special teams broke even or was a hair below average. A crushing missed field goal from an easy distance would have changed the game. Return yards average was not as impressive as you’d like to see against a slower opponent and there was one terrible punt early in the game. Yet great coverage and hustle led to the recovery of the muffed punt. Sure, a punt should never be caught with a helmet but Illinois had the same chance to recover the fumble.
The stats say Osweiler had a poor game. The stats are wrong. The interceptions were tipped balls. The fumble was backside pressure. Several of the incompletions were drops. He was running for his life.
Cameron Marshall played on complete heart as his ankles were screaming at him. He ended up with 69 yards. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you realize he missed a quarter and a half, it’s a little more impressive.
That brings us to the offensive line. If it wasn’t a false start, it was holding. If it wasn’t holding it was illegal hands to the face. If it wasn’t illegal hands to the face it was missing a twist. If it wasn’t missing a twist it was missing a stunt. If it wasn’t missing a stunt it was just getting physically manhandled.
Normally, I would go after coaching in this situation. However, I’ve been to far too many ASU practices. I was on the sideline listening to Coach Smith. I know ASU worked on it all week. There were times Illinois rushed four and ASU kept seven to block and Osweiler was still sacked. What else can a coach do?
Sure there were other issues. Coach Erickson really muffed his clock management on the last drive by wasting 30 seconds — just to get four yards — then calling a time-out after the first down. It didn’t matter because ASU couldn’t get the next first down anyway. The ball was turned over with time remaining.
The pass catching, again, was an issue. Dropped passes have plagued ASU ever since I moved here. It is unbelievable to me how long this has been an issue for the Sun Devils. Stats are going to show Gerelle Robinson had a great game. Film will say it should have been better — fight for the ball when it’s in the air, make a play on a poorly thrown ball. All too often ASU receivers make the easy play. It’s time for ASU receivers to make tough plays.
I could go on with other small things but none of them matter. I was wrong on this game for one reason: I completely underestimated the Illinois D-line. They played a phenomenal game. Obviously, in order for the Illinois D-line to receive praise, the O-line has to take it on the chin. No other negative aspect of this game had a more profound effect on the outcome than the play of the ASU O-line.
I’m not panicked for the season because I’ve seen this line keep getting better over the course of the last three years. That’s somewhat of a back-handed compliment because it was so bad three years ago that even the slightest improvement isn’t much of an accomplishment.
The quarterback two years ago, Danny Sullivan was a smart player that was immobile and needed protection and receivers who can catch. He didn’t have either and he had a bad year. The quarterback last year, Steven Threet, now stands on the sidelines signaling in plays due to concussions suffered last year so severe he struggles to watch a 3D movie without suffering headaches. Osweiler wasn’t given a chance versus Illinois.
If the defense plays this year like it did against Illinois, and the offense plays like it did against Missouri, ASU is going to the first Pac-12 Championship Game.