After a frustrating loss in the first road game of the season against BYU in Provo, Utah, the Arizona State Sun Devils (2-1) are a bunch filled with angst.
The fourth year in the Herm Edwards era has been billed as the season it all comes together in Tempe. The season, and this program, are still in the nascent stages of the journey, but the ride for the Sun Devils becomes no less turbulent from here on in as the often cannibalistic Pac-12 conference season commences this weekend with a return to Tempe.
First up on the docket are the Colorado Buffaloes (1-2), a team that has at times impressed, and other times depressed, the fanbase in Boulder. The Sun Devils have yet to put together a complete four quarters through three games in the 2021 campaign. Maybe last week will serve as a wake up call for the team, or maybe it will be the next slip on a long slide toward a football season of broken dreams and unfulfilled promise.
The Sun Devils left Provo with far more questions, and few answers after a 27-17 loss. Taking into account nearly every statistic save for one, the Sun Devils should be 3-0. The Sun Devils passed for more yards (265-217), ran for more yards (161-144), and possessed the football for more time (32:23-27:37).
But of course, there is that one number. The Sun Devils were called on 16 penalties (!!!) for 121 yards. After that, everything was denouement. Edwards was perplexed in the postgame, stating the team does not practice as out of sorts as they played.
Quarterback Jayden Daniels has had a fine start to the season, but it hasn’t been the breakout into the first round of the NFL draft projections many pundits were expecting. The junior signal caller has an above 70% completion percentage and two touchdowns against three interceptions. The caveat is the Sun Devil receivers have not provided their quarterback much help. Through three weeks, a true number one option has yet to surface, but there is a talented cast of characters that could take center stage.
Three Sun Devil receivers have eclipsed 100 yards receiving. They are, LV Bunkley-Shelton, Johnny Wilson, and Ricky Pearsall. The leading receiver is not actually a receiver, it is running back Rachaad White with 15 receptions for 117 yards.
That underscores the issue with Arizona State through three weeks. The vertical passing game is currently M.I.A. Daniels is a talented passer down the field, as evidenced with his time throwing to former Sun Devil Brandon Aiyuk. Does the team have that element, or that player, this season? Coaches and players have expressed their increasing urgency to find it ahead of conference play.
Which Colorado defense shows up Saturday evening will likely determine the outcome for the Sun Devil offense. If it’s the version that played Texas A&M, this will be tough sledding for Arizona State, especially if DeaMonte Trayanum is not 100% healthy. If it’s the version that played Minnesota, the Sun Devils will have a chance to establish an offensive identity and rhythm that they can build off ahead of a tough slate of conference games coming up.
The Sun Devils have also had their struggles on defense. Darien Butler has been a bright spot through three weeks with 10 tackles and two interceptions. The reliable Sun Devil secondary last season has not yet found their stride in 2021. Last week, two BYU scores came on touchdown passes where a Sun Devil defensive back was barely in the picture.
These are two teams that are coming off deflating defeats. For Colorado, a loss this week puts the team at 1-3 two weeks after nearly scoring a marquee victory. For Arizona State, the Pac-12 South is still very much up for grabs after UCLA allowed two last-minute touchdowns to Fresno State in a loss.
What last week showed, as clear as day, is the Pac-12 still has a long way to go to be considered legitimate. But one team will leave the field as victors on Saturday night. If it is to be Arizona State, all of their goals coming into the season will still be within reach.
A lot will have to be cleaned up, but the Sun Devils are the better team. With conference play beginning this week, the time has come for them to play like it.
The game can be seen on ESPNU at 7:30 p.m. MST.