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Looking to avoid letdown of last year, ASU faces pivotal point in season

(Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The start of the season for the Arizona State Sun Devils is reminiscent of the team just a year prior.

Both started out undefeated — then at 2-0, and now 3-0 — knocking off a ranked Michigan State team early on and pushing the expectations of the program to new heights.

Success was tasted for the first time under head coach Herm Edwards.

But the 2018 version of the Sun Devils went on to lose their next four of five games, finishing the season 7-6 (5-4) and missing out on the Pac-12 South title by one game.

This season’s team’s final destination in the win-loss column is yet to be determined, making the week leading up to Saturday’s matchup with the Colorado Buffaloes a pivotal time for ASU.

“It’s a big week for them. It’s an opponent that can play very well and put points on the board and I think it’s a good test for us again. It really is,” Edwards said Monday. “You have a little bit of success and how do you handle it?

“Last year we were in a similar spot. We had some success and we got our nose punched in. And so, we’ll find out. All the warning signs are there, and I’m going to talk about it all week. Then we’ve got to go in the ballyard and find out, but we’ll see how we handle it.”

One difference in this team is the defense, which got into some trouble late against the Spartans, but overall has shown growth in each passing week.

“[It’s] starting to get a personality and still there’s improvement, a lot of improvement there,” Edwards said of his defense. “I think the thing they’ve done is they’ve limited points to keep us in games, and it’s going to be hard this week. … They’ve done a good job of keeping us in the game. And that was the whole issue or concept we had when the season ended last year.

“We’re going to have to play defense early, might have to play defense the whole season this way, I don’t know, but if we do that’s what you do. You’re on scholarship to play defense, so go play defense. Your job is to not let them score.

“I lived that world my whole life, so just live it. And is it hard? It’s hard, it’s really hard, but I think you have to have tough-minded players to do that because every quarter you just feel like ‘man, can we have a lead?'” Edwards added. “Well sometimes it doesn’t happen ’til late. And then when it happens you’ve got to close it out, close out the game defensively. So we’re still working.”

Success is especially important this week as the team opens up Pac-12 play at Sun Devil Stadium.

The Colorado Buffaloes enter the fold at 2-1, having defeated then-No. 25 Nebraska and Colorado State before falling to Air Force. Colorado has an offense that can move the ball, averaging 36 points and 421 yards per game behind the arm of senior quarterback Steven Montez and the hands of junior wideout Laviska Shenault Jr.

“The quarterback’s coming back, Montez, and Shenault is probably one of the best players in the Pac-12, maybe one of the best offensive players in the country,” Edwards said. “They’re an explosive offense, especially in the second half, scoring 72 points. Their opponents have only scored 27.”

With an opponent capable of putting points on the board, ASU’s offense will be counted on to take another step forward this week as well.

While true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels and junior running back Eno Benjamin have got the job done through three games, the ASU offense hasn’t had the same type of explosiveness like last season, scoring just 59 points compared to 86 in 2018.

“We need to start scoring points on offense if we’re going to be competitive going through this Pac-12 gauntlet of teams we have to play,” Edwards said. “And as I said before, we continue to try to get better every week.”

The offense, however, has found ways to win when it counted. Most notably Benjamin.

He may not have the same rushing totals as he did a year ago, but for Edwards, the running back is producing when it counts.

Especially late in Saturday’s 10-7 road win over MSU, when Benjamin represented what ended up being the game-winning score by extending for the goal line for the touchdown. He helped cap off an 11-play, 75-yard drive led by Daniels.

“You have a running back that almost ran for 2,000 yards last year, and some people say he’s not playing good. Well I don’t know about that,” Edwards said. “He scored three touchdowns in three games. He’s made big plays in big moments, scored a touchdown when we needed a touchdown.

“I get the yards, I get all that, but he’s dealing with a situation and he hasn’t blinked. He has not blinked.”

EXTRA POINTS

– Edwards on injured junior kicker Brandon Ruiz:

“We thought actually Brandon was going to try to kick this week. Then he went out and practiced and he felt sore again so we said okay, let’s shut him down, and we’re fortunate enough to have a good kicker.

“It’s unbelievable to have two of them, and [sophomore Christian Zendejas] has done a really good job for us. … When [Ruiz] comes back we’ll find out, but until then, he’s our kicker.”

Zendejas, who’s started in place of Ruiz in every game this season, has made all eight of his field gold attempts, as well as his five extra point tries.

– Daniels and sophomore Jermayne Lole were named as the Pac-12 Freshman and Defensive Line Player of the Week, respectively, the conference announced Monday afternoon.

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