Sun Devils’ season hanging by thread with No. 24 Oregon on deck

Sep 19, 2017, 3:29 PM | Updated: Sep 20, 2017, 11:33 am
Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins looks for an open receiver during the first half against Te...
Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins looks for an open receiver during the first half against Texas Tech during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Lubbock, Texas. (Mark Rogers/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal via AP)
(Mark Rogers/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal via AP)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The worst-case scenario played out for the Arizona State football team in nonconference action.

The Sun Devils struggled against New Mexico State, a team they were always going to beat, and then lost to underappreciated San Diego State and Texas Tech.

Despite those results, Tuesday’s media availability was a predictable collection of positive statements as the Sun Devils prepared to open Pac-12 play against No. 24 Oregon on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium. There was talk of a clean slate with Pac-12 play beginning. There was talk of momentum after the Sun Devils rallied from a 42-24 deficit to tie Tech at 45-45 at 9:52 of the fourth quarter.

As former East Valley Tribune Sun Devils beat writer Bob Moran used to say, it was all “sweetness and sunshine.”

“Obviously, we’re going through some adversity right now,” receiver Kyle Williams said. “We have two losses, but like we said today, we’re 0-0 in conference play and we have a fresh start now. The mood is happy. We’re ready to get to work.”

It’s the coaching staff’s job to keep attitudes positive. There’s no value in bringing negative thoughts into a locker room that has just endured two straight losses, but make no mistake: ASU’s season is hanging by a thread. And here come the Ducks.

Oregon is averaging 56 points per game, the third best mark in the nation, and 609 yards per game, second only to Texas Tech. Oregon running back Royce Freeman is third in the nation with 460 rushing yards.

Oregon’s return to national powerhouse is still a work in progress, but the Ducks’ one-year hiatus from the national conversation is over.

“They’ve obviously got really skilled players. They always do, year in, year out,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “I don’t know if you’re ever going to shut a guy down as good as Freeman is, but you’ve got to make sure that you get that under control and then don’t give up cheap ones.”

The stakes are plain for everyone to see. ASU’s next seven games come against the Ducks, at Stanford, vs. No. 7 Washington, at No. 23 Utah, vs. No. 5 USC, vs. Colorado and at UCLA. It’s not hard to envision a spiral the likes of which has not been seen since 1994, Bruce Snyder’s third season in the desert, when the Devils went 3-8.

Quarterback Manny Wilkins genuinely believes the offense, and the team, is moving in the right direction after a 494-yard, 45-point performance.

“When adversity strikes, when your back is against the wall, true champions come out in my eyes,” Wilkins said. “When we were down 21-3 last week, we saw who showed up.”

There are no moral victories in football, but ASU needs to believe last week’s ill-fated rally in Lubbock was more than just window dressing. It needs that rally to be the turning point of its season.

“Our team is close,” Graham said. “I think our team is playing extremely hard. There’s lots of things that we can clean up, that we can even take bigger steps, but I feel good about our mindset going into conference play.”

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Sun Devils’ season hanging by thread with No. 24 Oregon on deck