You don't have to strain too much to be able to hear the sound of the feet hitting the pavement. After last week's disheartening loss to Illinois, many fans are now hopping off the Arizona State bandwagon. Given the sports culture in Arizona, that's far from surprising.
For a number of reasons that are worthy of their own column, the Valley sports scene is home to one of the most preeminent "what have you done for me lately" fanbases in the nation, and the Sun Devils are just the most recent victims. The massive hype and optimism that surrounded the program throughout the offseason and the first two games was stopped dead in it's tracks, not unlike the ASU offense was in Champaign.
While easy to predict, that response is nonetheless disappointing, if not outright shortsighted.
Yes, the same old demons -- penalties, poor offensive line play, shoddy execution -- resurfaced again in Illinois. ASU's problems, while chronic, are nevertheless correctable. I'd argue that it's better to have those problems and be as talented as the Sun Devils are than to be a well-run team that has no hope to bridge the talent gap like so many others. In theory, at least.
However, as bad as the penalties, discipline and offensive line play have been for the Sun Devils in recent years, there is one problem that predates them all by a wide margin -- the USC Trojans.
November 6, 1999. J.R. Redmond rushes for 134 yards and three touchdowns and Todd Heap makes seven receptions for an even 100 yards and a touchdown as the Sun Devils defeated the Trojans 26-16, handing USC their fifth straight loss.
And that's it.
That's the lone Sun Devil victory over the Trojans in the last 12 years. Think about where you were a dozen years ago. I was walking from Media Productions to AP World History class.That's a long stretch of futility.
Some of those losses to the Trojans have derailed promising seasons for the Devils.
In 2004, ASU was riding high at 5-0, including a signature win over Iowa. A 45-7 annihilation to USC quickly dashed that optimism. The next year, a 3-1 start was undone by a loss to the Trojans, which in turn began a three-game skid. Last season, ASU makes a bowl game if they don't get an extra point blocked and returned for two points in a one-point loss.
The primary criticism levied against ASU under Dennis Erickson has been a lack of mental toughness, which in turn manifests itself in mistakes like blocked extra points, penalties, losses on the road and in big games.
The win over Missouri snapped a 10-game losing streak that ASU posted against ranked teams, dating back to 2007. Moreover, it provided validation to the popular notion that ASU's talent base is good enough to beat any team in the nation, and that had they shown the mental toughness they had against the Tigers, perhaps they would have beaten Wisconsin, Oregon, Stanford and USC last season. It teased that this may not be the "same old Devils" team that has rightfully be maligned the last three seasons.
In a morbid sense, losing to Illinois presents a tremendous opportunity for Arizona State against USC. With the big win and then the tough loss, USC now represents a categorizing and season-defining tiebreaker.
Is this a new, mentally-strong team that can rebound from a setback and defend their home turf against the 23rd ranked team in the nation? Or was the Missouri win a fluke and this is the newest iteration of the "same old Devils"?
We'll find out the answer soon enough.
Here's what we do know: the loss to Illinois, while tragic, was a non-conference loss. It doesn't impact ASU's most immediate and important goal for 2011 -- win the Pac-12 South. If the Sun Devils can achieve that goal, it's safe to assume fans will be able to make peace with the fact that they lost in Champaign.
While those who let the loss scare them away search for their next bandwagon, those who remain still see a 2-1 team with a 0-0 conference record. They see tremendous talent on both sides of the ball. They see a schedule that has only one game in which ASU will be a decided underdog.They see a path to a BCS bowl that is the product of reality instead of too many tailgating beers.
The pieces are still in place for ASU's run at the division championship to begin.
But first, the Trojan Empire must fall on Saturday night. Will you be there?