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November 6, 2011

Sun Devils wilt under pressure in loss

PASADENA -- There are only three possible explanations for how the Arizona State football team handled itself in the game's final two minutes.

One: The team is unfamiliar with late-game strategy and the basic rules of the sport of football.

Two: The team is familiar with late game strategy and the basic rules of football, but was not prepared for them in the specific circumstances presented in ASU's 29-28 loss to UCLA Saturday.

Three: The team is familiar with late game strategy and the basic rules of football, was prepared to handle those late game circumstances, but suffered from some sort of acute psychological breakdown in the game's final moments.

Sun Devil receiver Gerell Robinson is not new to the sport of football. He's a senior in college, and was a star quarterback in high school.

He certainly knows these three things: It's illegal to throw a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage, you cannot advance the ball by throwing it out of bounds, and the clock temporarily stops on a first down, therefore making it completely unnecessary to ever consider throwing the ball out of bounds to stop the clock or advance the ball.

On ASU's final ill-fated drive, Robinson committed an error egregious beyond comprehension for someone who's played football most his life, throwing the ball forward and out-of-bounds in an attempt to perhaps advance the ball and/or stop the clock.

We must conclude that Robinson -- once again clutch over the middle and a recipient of most of the Sun Devils big plays -- suffered from a temporary mental breakdown. It's not the first time Robinson has irrationally responded to a reception.

Luckily for ASU (after review), it didn't cost them a yard or a second, as Robinson's knee was ruled down before his forward lateral.

The play didn't matter in the box score, but it might say a lot about the team's collective psychological profile.

Coach Dennis Erickson will go down as one of the all-time winningest NCAA coaches. The shiny championship ring he so often wears says it all: Erickson has earned the right to shrug off criticism hurled his way by wretched columnists and pundits, and if asked to expound on football theory, strategy and philosophy, Erickson would run circles around all the media (combined) that gathered to ask him about Saturday's devastating loss. From the perspective of his coaching legacy, Saturday's loss meant little.

But…

Counting games and practices, Erickson has likely coached, prepped and overseen hundreds, if not thousands of situations exactly like which ASU faced with just under 1:30 left in the game.

After allowing a third and 29 conversion, it took by a few reporters' counts, approximately 21 seconds for Erickson to call his first time out.

UCLA was either going to take the lead or lose the game. ASU had three plays to either stop the Bruins, or give themselves enough time on the clock to kick a game-winning field goal.

This was not football strategy 101, it was common sense.

Why did it take Erickson close to 20 seconds to decide to take the first of his three timeouts after UCLA was stopped on first and goal on the game-deciding drive?

Maybe it was because ASU had a substitution issue, which appeared to be the case, though that should not have mattered. These are the situations good, perhaps even some bad and mediocre team handle without batting an eye. A substitution should have been made after the timeout.

In his post-game press conference, Erickson referred to the second timeout that he took late, blaming himself for the eight seconds that ran off the clock as he ran on the field to get the officials' attention.

But the time wasted in Erickson's late second timeout was not Erickson's fault, it was the fault of the officials who were late to see and react to Erickson's signal.

The first timeout was on him and his coaching staff.

The twenty wasted seconds could very well have made the difference in the game. It could have gotten the Sun Devils 10-15 yards closer, allowing them to use their final timeout, and given the cold-footed kicker Alex Garoutte a much easier and shorter attempt.

The little things matter, as ASU fans have come to learn time and again, and as so often been the case, the Sun Devils were not prepared to take care of the things under their control.

It means the Sun Devils could lose control the South Division, a chance at the Rose Bowl, and a real opportunity to capitalize on the program's newly generated excitement.

You can blame cornerback Alden Darby for getting his head and hips turned on a 3rd and 29 conversion from one of the worst passing teams in college football. You can blame the defensive coaching staff for leaving Darby on an island and blitzing when a field goal attempt was inconsequential, and a long pass was the only way they could get beat.

Those coaching and player mistakes happen every single game to the best players and coaches every weekend.

But it's quite another to mismanage the clock in situation that so obviously called for a quick-timeout.

Erickson's post-game response to the situation seemed to be an indirect admission of his or the coaching staff's error, whether it was collective or not.

"The first down that they got on 3rd and 29 kind of dumbfounded us a little bit," Erickson said.

That just might say it all.


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