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November 1, 2009

Late coaching decisions deserve scrutiny

On a delightful Halloween afternoon in Tempe, ASU could only hope the ghosts of failures past wouldn't reappear. Ghosts of 20-17 and 56-55, of Courtney Jackson and David Boston, ghosts of last-second touchdown drives led by Joey Harrington, Brock Huard and Joe Germaine, of hail maries by Jamarcus Russell, when promising seasons, momentum-building victories, and national championships were doomed once more.

When California quarterback Kevin Riley stepped on the field with 3:16 remaining, the eerie, ghoulish feeling that Sun Devil fans have felt numerous times just prior to gut-wrenching losses returned yet again.

However, unlike so many past shortcomings in the latter stages of ASU defeats, what really haunted the Devils in this game was, in many respects, questionable decisions and clear mistakes by the coaching staff.

After a go ahead touchdown run by Cameron Marshall and a missed field goal by Golden Bear kicker Giorgio Tavecchio with 5:46 left in the game, ASU took over at its own 29, hoping to put the game away and rebound from a disturbing performance at Stanford last weekend.

Now was the time to go for the jugular; to deliver the knockout blow; to step on the collective throat of the Bears. Instead, ASU skittishly tapered away in the waning moments, settling for manifestly obvious play-calls, using timeouts at inopportune moments, and staying beyond arm's length of Cal's receivers at all times, as if they possessed some type of infectious disease that was noticeably contagious.

Although ASU was nearly on pace to set a new NCAA record for penalty yards in a game, the offense had moved fluidly throughout the game's first 54 minutes, making up for a few key injuries by mixing run and pass and letting young players like Marshall, Ryan Bass, and Jamal Miles exhibit their potentially game-changing capabilities.

But on the last drive, head coach Dennis Erickson again demonstrated the lack of spontaneity in the play-calling department that has plagued the Devils in recent weeks: three straight run plays by Marshall right into the teeth of the Bear defense.

Never mind that Marshall, a true freshman, had already more than doubled his career high in rushing attempts and was clearly gassed, or that Erickson had called the same play over half of the time in the second half: why be creative when it has been the only saving grace for the ASU offense so far this year?

It only got worse from there.

With only two timeouts left, Erickson decided to spend one of them on a punt because, as he put it, "we had the wrong personnel group in formation-wise." The formation is of little relevance when, at the end of a tight game, a team always needs to hold on to as many timeouts as possible.

A five-yard delay of game penalty would clearly have been the right call at this point for a multitude of reasons, but mostly because ASU still had the lead and was not in a part of the field where even a marginal return would have put the Bears in an imminent position to set up a game winning field goal.

The thirty seconds or so that California was eventually able to run off the clock-unimpeded ultimately ended up being the difference in the game. Despite being a veteran of many a game, Erickson and defensive coordinator Craig Bray displayed acumen inconsistent with their vast experience.

Bray -- seemingly allergic to nickel coverage this season after using an extra defensive back extensively over the last two seasons -- decided on the last drive to leave his base defense in and have his secondary make sure they wouldn't give up the big play.

Instead, they ended up giving up the game.

Linebacker Travis Goethel, hardly the fleetest of foot, appeared to be out of position on the first play of the drive, a 26 yard pass on first and 25 that marked the beginning of the end for the Devils.

Namesakes Terell Carr and Deveron Carr (the latter of whom had received almost no playing time in the season's first seven games outside of special teams), giving plenty of cushion throughout the last drive, were then subsequently beat four times by hitch and smash routes run directly in front of them, and Tavecchio put the nail in the coffin with :21 seconds (and no ASU timeouts) left.

The shockingly sparse crowd didn't seemed stunned. They've seen this act many times before: on Thanksgiving, New Years, and now Halloween. Encouraging signs throughout the afternoon, including the continued emergence of young talent all across the field for the Devils and the run defense that put Golden Bear heisman-candidate running back Jahvid Best into hibernation, were cast away by the series of questionable decisions made by the coaching staff in the game's last five minutes.

Whether the ghosts inhabited Sun Devil Stadium or not, one thing was readily clear: this Halloween afternoon will add to the long list of reoccurring nightmares that Sun Devil fans experience on a yearly basis.


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