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Preparation and communication vital to ASU’s fast start

Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards, left, talks to defensive back Chase Lucas (24) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UTSA, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Most people just didn’t know what to expect from the Arizona State football program this year. Not after a wild offseason in which the Sun Devils implemented an entirely new hierarchy with Herm Edwards at the top, then entered a new era with an extremely young defense while facing a daunting schedule.

Turns out ASU had a pretty good idea of what to expect. And, through two games, it’s working out nicely. Being well-prepared has played a major role.

Take the closing moments of Saturday’s thrilling last-second victory over Michigan State, for example. The Devils knew the Spartans would be pretty worn down by the end of the game, so the goal was simply to keep it close. After all, MSU isn’t accustomed to the heat, and the final whistle came well after midnight in East Lansing. A tight contest deep into the night was likely to favor ASU.

“They were in a bad situation,” Edwards pointed out. “Traveling, playing a game that late. it’s 12 o’clock at night in the fourth quarter. That’s hard. That’s hard for anybody. But, for us, we function because our time zone helped us. The heat helped us. That’s what you call home field advantage, so take advantage of it.”

The plan started to show signs of working when the Spartans took a timeout as the first half was about to end — presumably just to buy a little more time to rest. And ASU was able to get them to burn another timeout by showing them a new formation at one point in the second half, leaving MSU without the ability to stop the clock as the Devils were marching down the field late.

Of course, none of that would’ve mattered if Arizona State didn’t execute as the fourth quarter wound down. And that’s where the preparations from throughout the week came to fruition.

“Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, we show scenarios of teams that have done something last Saturday that it didn’t work out well. Or we show teams where it did work out well,” Edwards explained. “And I go through it, play by play, clock running. Here’s the situation. If this happens, we run out of timeouts, we know 15 seconds is the cutoff for us to run out there and kick a field goal.

“We know. We practiced it the day before yesterday – 15 seconds boys, here we go. And make sure you don’t run into somebody when you’re running on. So all those things are practiced. We practice on all that stuff. It’s not haphazard, you’ve got to practice it. So that’s what we do.”

Things got especially interesting in the final five minutes when the Sun Devils took possession for the final time. With the game tied, the focus is typically aimed squarely on how to get into the end zone. Edwards had other ideas though.

“I said ‘don’t even worry about trying to score, because that’s not going to happen,'” Edwards noted. “We’re not scoring. We’re going to take it down and kick a field goal with four seconds left. That’s the plan, that was the plan when we got it with 4:55, was try to put points on the board. There comes a point when you play against the clock. We were playing against the clock at that point.”

That’s more of an NFL mindset, and it’s where Edwards’ pro background comes into play. He’s already said on a number of occasions that most college coaches are intent on putting up 600 yards and trying to score as many points as possible. Edwards just wants to win the games, and he’s fine taking a more defensive approach to accomplishing that.

Of course, he had to have a conversation with his offensive coordinator in the heat of the moment to make sure everyone was on the same page.

“I’m an offensive coach,” Rob Likens laughed to the media on Tuesday. “I always want to score. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life because I really, when we got down there, I just knew we had a play that we could score. I felt it, I had it, I wanted to call it.”

Edwards wasn’t interested in crossing the goal line, though.

“At 4:55, when I walked down there on the 40-yard line or wherever we were, trying to move that ball, I told the players, ‘Hey guys, it’s the clock now. The defense should never touch the field. They don’t get the ball back,'” Edwards said. “If we play this right, and we do what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to be in good shape to win this football game.”

Despite his offensive-minded instincts, Likens agreed.

“Coach Herm’s going, ‘What are we doing?’ I was like, ‘I know. It’s the right thing to do, but I want to score that touchdown so bad,'” he acknowledged. “But it was the right thing to do. And that’s why Herm, the experience of a guy like him, being a head coach and understanding — and he knew they were going to let us score — to just go ahead and kneel.”

Herm’s fear was that getting into the end zone too early would give the Spartans a chance to counter with a score of their own. And while some might see the worst case scenario as simply a tie at that point, Edwards was worried a potentially desperate Michigan State team on the road would strongly consider going for two, instead of playing overtime in the heat.

It was a chance he wasn’t going to take.

“You know what the best play is?” he asked. “Victory.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Especially now that ASU is 2-0, with a signature win on the resume already. Edwards was quick to point out that San Diego State is a tough opponent this week, noting that his guys haven’t had to play away from Tempe yet. But it certainly helps to have Danny Gonzales — the Aztecs’ former defensive coordinator — roaming the Sun Devils sideline now.

If anything, they should be even more prepared this time around.

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