2007 Pac-10 Coach of the Year Dennis Erickson returns for his second season as head coach of the Sun Devils after leading his team to unprecedented success in the form of a 10-3 record, a share of the Pac-10 championship and a berth in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl. 2007 was the third time in his career he has won the Pac-10 COY award and is the only coach to win the award while at three different schools (Washington State and Oregon State being the others).
Coach Erickson, who posts a .681 winning percentage in his 19 seasons as a head coach, is widely known as the architect of one of college football's biggest turnarounds when he coached Oregon State from 1999 to 2002. He led the Beavers, who had not had a winning season since 1970, to a 7-5 record in his first season and then grabbed the attention of the college football world with an 11-1 mark in 2000, punctuated by a 41-9 defeat of No. 10 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2001, OSU's first bowl win since the 1962 Liberty Bowl. Oregon State ended the season ranked fourth in the final AP poll and led the Pac-10 in scoring offense (32.6 points per game), scoring defense (18.5 point per game) and total defense (314.4 yards per game).
In addition to the Fiesta Bowl win over the tenth ranked Irish, Erickson led the Beavers to wins over eighth ranked USC (first win over Trojans since 1967), at No. 23 UCLA (OSU's first road win over a ranked team since 1970) and vs. No. 5 Oregon in 2000, as well as a win over eighth-ranked Washington in 2001 (first win over the Huskies since 1985). Erickson, the first person to coach three different Pac-10 schools, credits much of his offensive innovation to time spend as Offensive Coordinator under Jack Elway at San Jose State University (1979-1981).
Four-year starter Rudy Carpenter (Westlake HS) is back to run the show for Arizona State this season. The senior quarterback put up some gaudy passing numbers a year ago despite shaky pass protection from his offensive line. Carpenter completed 246 of 398 passes (62%) for 3,202 yards and 25 touchdowns against 10 interceptions for the 2007 conference co-champs. Through the first five games of his 2008 campaign, he has completed over 66% of his passes (105-158) for 1,348 yards and eight touchdowns while being picked off four times.
The major knock on Carpenter is that he often holds the ball too long in the pocket, taking sacks rather than getting rid of it, in the process losing valuable yardage for his team. But while the O-Line has to shoulder a majority of the blame, Carpenter is at least partially responsible for the fact he was sacked 55 times for 380 yards last season.
Carpenter is the active Pac-10 leader in passing attempts, completed passes, passing yards, touchdown passes and 300 yard games. He has 73 career touchdown passes and has thrown for 9,346 yards in his ASU career. He is 12th All-time in the Pac-10 in career passing yardage, only three yards shy of John Elway.
Carpenter is the most seasoned quarterback in the Pac-10 and has earned the respect of Pete Carroll, who identified him earlier this week as "one of the best quarterbacks in the country". He was a preseason Honorable Mention All-American and is on the watch lists for the Maxwell, O'Brien, and Walter Camp Awards.
However, Carpenter's streak of 36 consecutive starts is currently up in the air after leaving last week's game in the fourth quarter against Cal with a left ankle injury. Erickson has been intentionally mum on his starting QB's condition throughout the week, however Pete Carroll firmly believes Carpenter will be in mix. He is a tough and gritty quarterback who plays with a lot of fire and tenacity, however sometimes those same qualities are used against him and have been known to come back to haunt him. While he was being absolutely pummeled by USC's defense in a 44-24 beatdown last year, conversation with Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson persisted until the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Should Carpenter be unavailable for Saturday's contest, junior backup Danny Sullivan will be called upon to guide the offense. Sullivan (6'5", 238 lbs) has not seen much action during his college career, completing 26 of 49 passes for 258 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, but most of those numbers were compiled during mop-up duty the last two years. Sullivan is a 2006 graduate of Los Gatos High School in the Bay Area, having thrown for 2,435 yards and 24 TDs with only six INTs during his senior season in guiding his school to a Section Title. He is known to have a strong arm, but his overall lack of experience in game situations and against the speed of USC's defense could be a factor should he get the start Saturday afternoon.
The running game has been a major disappointment for ASU this season. Losing Ryan Torain to the NFL has certainly not helped, but with two veterans returning in Dmitri Nance and Keegan Herring, the Sun Devils were supposed to be well equipped to make the transition. Instead, Nance and Herring are struggling mightily to get things started this season and as a result, Arizona State is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry (ypc) this season. Herring is the school's 10th All-Time leading rusher, but has been nursing a lingering hamstring injury and has only appeared in the last two contests. It is obvious that he has lost a step due to the injury and has appeared tentative when attempting to bust through holes. His 3.7 ypc are a far cry from last year when he averaged over five per carry in route to 815 yards and five TDs. Nance has been given every opportunity to assert himself as the number one RB this season, but has failed to seize the job, rushing 70 times for just 256 yards (3.5 ypc) in five games. Both RBs need to step their efforts upward if the Sun Devils have any chance of upsetting USC this Saturday.
What Arizona State lack in rushing, they offset in receiving, spreading their WRs out four wide. Lanky senior Michael Jones, who hauled in 46 passes and a team-high 10 touchdowns last year, returns after spending the summer in Tampa, Florida playing minor league baseball for the Gulf Coast Yankees of the Rookie League. Jones has been a two sport star for the Sun Devils and his hard work on the diamond recently paid off after being drafted in the 29th round of the 2008 MLB draft by the New York Yankees. He appeared in 15 games this summer, collecting nine hits including five doubles. Unfortunately for Trojans fans, he has not shown any rust from his brief pro baseball excursion, thus far catching a team-high 26 balls for 376 yards and a touchdown.
Chris McGaha is a model of consistency at the flanker position. He catches every ball thrown his way, seemingly moving the chains with every touch, and will sneak past coverage as a deep threat when you least expect it. After having caught a team-leading 61 passes for 830 yards last season, he has followed up by bringing in 18 balls for 226 and a score. McGaha had five receptions for 85 yards versus USC last year.
Talented sophomore Kerry Taylor has quietly asserted himself as the #3 receiver on this squad after having a big fall camp. He is currently averaging over 17 yards per catch on 16 receptions after gaining valuable experience last season as a true freshman, where he saw time in all 13 of ASU's games. Taylor has an affinity for going over the middle, catching tough passes in the traffic of linebackers and safeties hoping to make him pay.
Kyle Williams is the team's all-purpose weapon in the slot. He was second on the team last year with six touchdown catches, finishing the season with 29 receptions for 360 yards. He currently leads the team with over 20 yards per catch and two touchdowns. He doubles as a dynamic punt returner and possesses game changing speed. Williams was one of the most sought-after high school athletes in the country as a senior and was named State Player of the Year by The Arizona Republic. His father, Ken Williams, is General Manager of the Chicago White Sox and former wide receiver at Stanford.
ASU's two guards came into this season as the only returning starters on the offensive line. LG Shawn Lauvao (6'3", 310 lbs) and RG Paul Fanaika (6'6", 340 lbs) give the Sun Devils the only real experience they have up front, which is a concern for Erickson as this team suffers from a severe lack of depth from this unit. Center Thomas Altieri mans the middle, while most of the problems occur at the tackle position, where sophomore Jon Hargis protects the QB's blind side at LT and Tom Njunge (Muir HS/Pasadena CC) gets the start at RT. Hargis came over from the defensive line due to the lack of depth and overall talent level at the position. This group could have their hands full come Saturday afternoon.
Other than late-season setbacks against the Trojans and in the Holiday Bowl against Texas, the ASU defense was rock solid in 2007 and has continued to play well into this season. The front four is led into battle by junior DE and All-American candidate Dexter Davis. So far in 2008, Davis has totaled four sacks and six tackles-for-loss (TFL). He has already started 31 games in his career and has a chance at reaching the top three in sacks in school history by the end of the season (Terrell Suggs is the all-time ASU leader with 44). Davis was 2nd team All Pac-10 last season after posting 10.5 sacks and 13.5 TFL with three forced fumbles (FF).
The LE is Luis Vasquez, a 6'3", 265-pound senior who a year ago racked up 43 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 12 TFL. Senior DT David Smith does a nice job of clogging things up in the middle and even posted 3.5 sacks last season. But the real "guy" to watch at DT is heralded blue chip true freshman Lawrence Guy. Guy is 6'5", 276 lbs from Las Vegas, NV and has incredible speed for a freshman DT his size, posting a 4.8 40 time in fall camp. Scout ranked him as the top DT and #14 overall player in the West region during his senior year at Western High. He'll be put to a big test against SC, having already passed with flying colors against a huge Georgia Bulldog O-Line.
The talent level isn't quite as imposing at linebacker, but the Sun Devils do have two solid returning starters in the duo of Travis Goethel (OLB) and Morris Wooten (MLB). Mike Nixon gets the call at WLB after having a very productive season off the bench last year. Both Brandon Magee and Shelly Lyons, teammates last year at Centennial HS in Corona, will see playing time against the Trojans as true freshman. Magee and Lyons are considered the future of Arizona State's defense, and the future looks very bright for these two athletes.
Senior free safety Troy Nolan (El Camino Real HS/College of the Canyons JC) is top dog in the secondary for the Sun Devils and he is a legitimate All-American candidate this season after picking off a team-high six passes in 2007. Nolan brings a sense of winning with him to ASU, after guiding his team to the Junior College National Championship in 2005. He tallied 64 tackles as the last man standing on D last season.
Talented sophomore Omar Bolden was a surprise starter at CB as a freshman last year, but he held up rather well for an untested youngster and looks to build on that valuable experience this season. As ASU's best corner, Bolden is only 5'10", so look to see if he gets matched up with Patrick Turner for the Trojans to take advantage of the height differential. Clint Floyd is a freshman SS/ATH who played quarterback at Crenshaw HS last fall. He possesses excellent speed, running a 4.47 40 time during fall camp. Pierre Singfield (5'11", 197 lbs) and Terell Carr (5'9", 181 lbs) are the additional DBs in the Sun Devil nickel attack.
The Sun Devils have one of the top kickers in the nation in sophomore Thomas Weber, who exploded on the scene as a 2007 frosh by making 24 of 25 field goal tries in route to winning the 2007 Lou Groza Award, given to the nations' top placekicker. Weber also handles the punting duty for the team, but be on the lookout as he recently broke his hand and could have trouble handling punts against the Trojans. There is no doubt opponents all season long will be trying to test him by applying pressure when he stands back in punt formation. Kyle Williams handles both kickoff and punt returns for ASU.
Arizona State has played 10 true freshmen this season, the most in school history… 26 members of ASU's football team played their first collegiate road game last week against Cal…Arizona State University is the largest public research university in the United States under a single administration, with total student enrollment of 67,082 as of fall 2008… ASU's current athletic director is Lisa Love, who was the former athletic administrator at USC and in her tenure is responsible for hiring new coaches Herb Sendek (Men's Basketball) and Dennis Erickson… This will be the 25th meeting between Arizona State and USC, with the Trojans holding a 15-9 lead, including a 7-4 mark at home...The Sun Devils have not beaten USC since 1999, when they won 26-16 at the Coliseum…Famous ASU alumni include Jimmy Kimmel, Al Michaels, David Spade, Phil Mickelson, Jim Palmer, Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, former Laker Byron Scott, current Los Angeles Dodger Andre Either, and the late Pat Tillman…USC is currently a 27.5 point home favorite…