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October 9, 2010

Erickson, Sun Devils need immediate turnaround

It is said that history repeats itself, but in this case Arizona State certainly hopes not.

In the midst of an emotionally draining three-game losing streak with two more tough road Pac-10 games to go before they return home, the Sun Devils are all too aware of the ghosts of seasons' past after losing six straight games in each of the past two seasons.

What initially looked to be a promising era in Tempe when coach Dennis Erickson won 10 regular-season games in his inaugural 2007 campaign could turn into a House of Horrors just in time for Halloween if ASU can't change courses fast.

Six of the last 11 ASU losses have come by five or fewer points, but it's unclear whether that has led the team to a steeled resolve, or a heaping plate of extra frustration at being so close so many times.

ASU players and coaches consistently say the right things in their interaction with the media, and practices have remained crisp and energetic for the most part, but there's no doubt momentum is a powerful thing in sports and it isn't headed in their preferred direction right now.

It's something this program has experience in dealing with in recent years -- good and bad when including the 2007 season -- but whether that helps stem the tide or leads to an emotional numbing which hurts its chances of a turnaround remains to be seen.

ASU's seeming inability to play disciplined football isn't an encouraging sign. Through five games it ranks 111th in red zone offense, 117th in turnover margin and 118th in penalty yards per game out of 120 FBS teams.

Those stats have overwhelmed many positive signs of overall improvement -- particularly on offense -- and kept the Sun Devils out of the win column in recent weeks.

First-year coordinator Noel Mazzone's has his group ranked 17th in total offense and 9th in pass offense while also having nice balance with sophomore Cameron Marshall and freshman Deantre Lewis averaging a combine 6.5 yards per carry.

But while it's easy for the team's coaches to remind their players of the positives taking place as a means to keep their minds focused on the next task, it's much more difficult to keep fans' morale high as the losses pile up.

With ASU fans notoriously difficult to motivate as it is, Sun Devil Stadium could be a ghost town by the time the team returns home for a homecoming tilt against lowly Washington State on Oct. 30 if things don't get turned around in a hurry.

But while it will be difficult to earn discretionary spending from Valley households moving forward, the ultimate challenge may be to continue to convince recruits to come on board even in the face of that lack of community support and extended run of on-field mediocrity.

The rosiest of scenarios had ASU turning things around in dramatic fashion this season, in turn winning over the hearts and minds of many of Arizona's top 2011 recruits, even those who were no longer considering the Sun Devils or perhaps already planning to go elsewhere.

Ten of the state's preseason top 15 recruits -- a class that appears to be as deep and talented as any in recent years -- have already made commitments to schools other than ASU. None have made pledges to the Sun Devils.

Erickson said two years ago on signing day his top recruiting focus is and will always be locking up the state's top prospects, but that's seemingly becoming more difficult after consecutive losing seasons.

The Sun Devils have done a great job in recent years of adding talent even in the face of their poor recent win-loss record, but sustaining that will become more and more difficult unless they're able to have something tangible to show for their efforts.

It may not be a crippling thing in this recruiting class, where the Sun Devils will sign fewer prospects than any time in recent years due to a small senior group.

But what will happen next year in recruiting when ASU has more than 30 scholarship seniors to replace if the program hasn't been to a bowl in three seasons and Erickson's job is at risk?

In that recruiting cycle, the Sun Devils absolutely do need to have a quality haul starting with a strong showing in-state, and the headwinds Erickson and his staff would face if the rest of the 2010 season doesn't go well would be hurricane force.

"Bottom line, we've got to win a game," Erickson said.

Indeed.


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