November 28, 2008

Carpenter ranks among all-time ASU greats

Rudy Carpenter has dreamed of this moment for years.

It is Senior Day 2008. It is finally his turn to be honored in the middle of Sun Devil Stadium.

The quarterback from Westlake, Calif., has been the face of Arizona State football for nearly four years, and it is about to come to an end.

He has watched countless teammates do this before and thought about his name being announced to the crowd. For years he has wanted to be among those honored.

But now it is his moment, and Carpenter doesn't want it to come just yet.

He wants to suit up in the maroon and gold a few more times.

But Carpenter knows this is it - his final home game as a Sun Devil.

He will walk to the middle of Frank Kush Field with his parents Scott and Linda on either side of him. His name will be announced and he will receive his framed No. 12 jersey before playing one final time in front of the home crowd.

In recent weeks, the 22-year-old has played out this scenario in his mind countless times. The only thing is, he isn't quite sure how the more than 60,000 fans in attendance will respond.

"I have no idea," he said. "I've asked myself that question a couple of times within this last week and I don't know."

If you stop and look at his numbers and at what he has done for ASU, Carpenter should receive a standing ovation.

When Carpenter walks out onto the field, Sun Devil Stadium should be rocking. Every person in attendance should be screaming, yelling, stomping or doing whatever they can to show their appreciation for a quarterback who ranks among the all-time Sun Devils.

He has the third most wins as a starting quarterback in school history, and is one away from second place. He has thrown the second most touchdown passes for an ASU quarterback ever, and has an outside shot at taking the lead. He is four completed passes shy of taking the lead for most completions too.

The senior signal caller has recorded 11 300-yard passing games in his career and is less than 400 yards from the career passing yards mark.

As a Sun Devil, Carpenter battled mangled fingers, sprained ankles, a coaching change and a constant barrage of defenders coming his way and is in the midst of a nation-best 41-game consecutive start streak.

Also, he is one of just three ASU quarterbacks to ever lead a team to a Pac-10 title.

And, perhaps most importantly, he is 3-0 against rival University of Arizona.

All of that with two, maybe three, games to go.

By every measurable category, Carpenter has had a phenomenal career. One of the best ever for a Sun Devil quarterback.

He ranks right up there with the Jake Plummers, the Danny Whites and the Andrew Walters and if life were all about the stats he would have been revered like those ASU greats as well.

But that's not the case, and Carpenter knows it.

"I hear all the same things everybody else hears from the fans during games and whatever it may be," he said. "But I know that with myself, and anybody else, the way that I judge a quarterback is based on his wins and loss record because that directly correlates with his leadership. I know that I'm going to leave here as probably the second all-time wins leader and I don't care what anybody says. You can say it's against whoever we played but that's how I judge myself.

"I feel like I've tried to be a good Sun Devil, the best I can be, and I hope people will at least respect that."

The fan support Carpenter received throughout his five years in Tempe has been a rollercoaster ride.

In 2005 he was the 19-year-old kid who came from nowhere to lead the nation in pass efficiency, besting the likes of Matt Leinart and Vince Young.

One season later, in a bizarre scenario, he lost then won the starting job in a matter two days. Then, throughout Carpenter's sophomore campaign, he and the team struggled while Carpenter gained a reputation for being arrogant and self-centered.

But just 12 months later he led ASU to a 10-win season and Carpenter was Tempe's sweetheart again.

Now in his senior year, some fans were calling for his benching during ASU's six-game skid.

So goes the life of a quarterback.

"He's taken a lot over the years and he takes it pretty well," said wide receiver and fellow senior Mike Jones. "I guess some people don't like him for whatever reason. They think he's too this or too that or whatever. But that's just Rudy.

"I love the guy. He's one of my best friends on the team. We walked in the front door together and we're going to leave from that door together. I wouldn't want to do that with anybody else."

But no matter what anybody thinks of him, Carpenter's disposition on the football field hasn't changed.

He is still a little cocky, but remains as tough, fiery and competitive as ever.

"I don't think anyone can match his passion for winning," redshirt freshman quarterback Samson Szakacsy said. "He's the fiercest competitor that I've ever known and I think it shows on the field.

"At any given time, no matter what position, Rudy is always the toughest guy out there."

Freshman sensation

When Carpenter arrived at ASU in the fall of 2004, he knew he would redshirt.

Walter, an all-time great, was leading the team and sophomore Sam Keller was among the backups.

Carpenter didn't talk to Walter very much but he saw the numbers the then-senior was putting up and knew they were good.

But Carpenter didn't really appreciate how gaudy Walter's statistics truly were.

"I didn't really understand his numbers," Carpenter said. "I knew he had good numbers but I didn't understand how hard those numbers were to get."

At that point, Carpenter never imagined he would come anywhere close to Walter's records.

When the 2004 season ended, Walter moved on to the NFL and in 2005 Keller took over.

Early in that season, Keller looked good and Carpenter assumed he would only be a two-year starter.

But seven games into the season, everything changed.

During ASU's contest against at Stanford, Carpenter was thrust into the game midway through the third quarter because Keller suffered an injury to his throwing thumb.

Little did Carpenter know he would spend the next three and a half years where he was at that moment: leading the Sun Devils on Saturday.

But Carpenter's career as ASU's featured quarterback began on a bad note. His first pass was intercepted and brought back for a defensive touchdown making the game 45-7 in favor of the Cardinal.

After that though, college football seemingly became easy.

ASU lost that game to Stanford 45-35, but Carpenter finished 19 of 24 for 304 yards and three touchdowns.

In the week following the Stanford game Carpenter was nervous. He was about to make his first career start and was walking around the team hotel very anxious the night before that game against Washington.

When the game ended though, Carpenter realized those nerves were unwarranted. He went 20-of-31 for 227 yards and two scores.

"After the game I was like, 'Man I'm an idiot, what was I nervous for? That was probably the easiest thing I've ever done in my life,'" he said.

And that was story for the rest of 2005. Carpenter was sensational.

He won four of the five games he started and finished the season with more than 2,000 yards and a 17-2 touchdown to interception ratio. He was arguably the most impressive freshman quarterback in the country.

"In 2005, I went out there and I don't think anybody knew who I was or cared what I was going to do," he said. "I just dropped back and saw the coverage and threw it up.

"After that season I was like, 'I don't understand why everybody's not good. This is easy.'"

In 2005, Carpenter could do no wrong.
The next season however, was a different story.

Sophomore slump

For Carpenter, 2006 was a year marred in controversy and he failed to live up to the lofty expectations many had placed on him.

Throughout fall camp, the biggest story surrounding ASU football was the question of who would line up under center on Saturdays.

Keller was a senior and had had a very good start to the 2005 season before being sidelined with an injury. Many people believed Keller shouldn't lose his starting spot simply because he got hurt.

On the other hand, Carpenter, a sophomore, had just come off of one of the best seasons in ASU history and he seemed to have all the potential in the world.

The two battled it out through fall camp and following the final scrimmage, Keller was named the starter.

Two days later, due to circumstances that were never publicly revealed, former coach Dirk Koetter changed his mind and decided to go with Carpenter.

A week later Keller had transferred and the starting spot was undeniably Carpenter's. His biggest problem now was proving he deserved the starting spot he had been given.

Carpenter started the season strong, but then came Pac-10 play.

ASU lost its first three conference games while Carpenter struggled mightily in all three losses.

Keller fans were saying, "I told you so."

Carpenter was no longer the golden boy and his frustration was mounting.

Following that third consecutive conference loss, Carpenter called out his receivers in his Monday press conference.

"In the USC game, Jamaal Lewis, Terry Richardson and Rudy Burgess didn't catch any passes," he said. "Those guys, as well as Zach Miller, are our best players on offense and we're not getting a whole lot out of them right now. 

"I don't know whether I'm not getting them the ball that much or if it's because they're not on the field that much, but they just have to prepare in practice and do the little things right so that they can get their opportunity to play on Saturdays."

Carpenter was coming off as arrogant and fans were losing faith in him.

ASU finished the 2006 season 7-6 while Carpenter had 23 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and an average of just 194.1 passing yards per game.

Back on top

On the field in 2007, Carpenter, now a junior, looked more like the freshman that took the Pac-10 by storm in 2005 than the frustrated sophomore who failed to live up to the hype a season later.

On the field he was as brash as ever. His passion for winning was obvious and he had definite swagger.

Off the field Carpenter was maturing. He was becoming a team leader.

ASU was winning, but that didn't mean Carpenter didn't have anything to complain about. He had learned though, to keep his mouth shut.

Carpenter was sacked 54 times in 2007, but never once pointed the finger anywhere but at himself.

A microcosm of Carpenter's season happened in one play against Oregon State.

A Beaver blitz forced Carpenter out of the pocket where safety Al Afalava hit him and knocked the ball loose. Carpenter scooped the ball up, avoided Afalava as he came in for the sack, kept his eyes down field and completed a 34-yard pass to tight end Tyrice Thompson.

"He's a warrior; he's a competitor," coach Dennis Erickson said of Carpenter after the game. "I've said this all along. He just fights like heck to give himself a chance to win."

No matter what an opposing defense threw at Carpenter that season, he seemingly couldn't be stopped.

And he let his opponents know it.

It seemed he was constantly jawing with the other team. But that is just his style. He's fiery.

Carpenter was constantly asked about his on-the-field antics and he owned up to what he was doing with no remorse.

"I get a little fired up sometimes and I guess I jaw at whoever we're playing a little bit," he said. "But I'm just doing that stuff to get myself and my teammates fired up."

ASU won its first eight games of 2007, was ranked as high as fourth in the BCS and there were even some whispers of an outside shot at the Heisman Trophy for the junior quarterback.

The golden boy was back, and he was letting everyone know it.

He was tougher than ever too.

Heading into the game at Oregon, Carpenter was limited in practice after injuring his right thumb the week before. But when it was game time, he went out there and just did what he had been doing all season long.

Carpenter was sacked a season-high nine times that game, but still managed to put up 379 yards through the air to go along with his two touchdown passes.

Carpenter was in obvious pain but he didn't let that affect him.

When the game was over, Carpenter didn't even want to talk about his ailing thumb. The only thing that mattered was the fact that ASU had just lost its first game of the season.

"It was alright," he said of his thumb. "Obviously not 100-percent but that's not an excuse for the loss."

ASU finished the regular season 10-2 before getting demolished by Texas in the Holiday Bowl, 52-34.

Carpenter had a mediocre performance in that game going 18-of-36 for 187 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. However, backup Danny Sullivan had a very impressive fourth quarter and a small segment of Carpenter critics even began calling for Sullivan to be the starter in 2008.

They must have forgotten that even with his subpar performance in the bowl, Carpenter finished 2007 with 25 touchdown passes, completed 61.8 percent of his pass attempts and led ASU to its first 10-win season in 11 years and a share of the Pac-10 championship.

Most people though, did remember those stats and Carpenter had a majority of the fans' support.

The quarterback's reputation was further tarnished, however, during an incident that happened in the offseason.

Carpenter was in the student section for ASU's Jan. 25, basketball game against Washington wearing a bright pink shirt rather than a gold one like the vast majority of his peers had on.

According to multiple reports, a fellow student even gave the quarterback a gold shirt to wear, but he passed it on to someone else. Then, outside the arena after the game, someone asked Carpenter why he wasn't wearing a gold shirt. Allegedly, Carpenter verbally assaulted the individual with a string of profanities, including a derogatory slur used to describe homosexuals, all within earshot of children leaving the arena with their families.

That exact details of what transpired have never been confirmed, but the story was repeated on message boards and local talk radio ad nauseam. It gave more fuel to Carpenter's detractors, who believed he was too arrogant and foul mannered to be the face of the ASU football team.

Final act

By the time the 2008 season began, most people had forgotten about pink shirt-gate.
The focus was on the 15th ranked Sun Devils bid to challenge USC for an outright Pac-10 title.

Carpenter and ASU started the season red hot easily beating NAU then demolishing what people believed was a much-improved Stanford team. In those two games Carpenter passed for a combined 733 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.

It looked as though he building on his junior year.

But then, it all came crashing down.

An overtime loss to an abysmal UNLV team sent ASU into a skid the likes of which Sun Devil faithful hadn't seen since the Great Depression.

ASU lost six straight games while Carpenter noticeably struggled.

He seemed to lose the ability to keep plays alive.

If the play against Oregon State was the story of Carpenter's 2007 season, then a play against Cal in which he was flushed out of the pocket, ran around in the backfield, then threw the ball too late and too short in the direction of Kyle Williams, missing an easy touchdown opportunity was a the story of Carpenter's game during the losing streak.

He never seemed to recapture the it he had in 2007.

It looked like he lost his swagger.

No longer was he jawing the opponents. He appeared to be emotionless out on the field, and that's just not Carpenter.

It is obvious every day in practice and at press conferences that he is confident, borderline cocky. But that wasn't showing up on Saturdays.

The same people who wanted him replaced after the Holiday Bowl were calling for a new quarterback once again.

But Carpenter wasn't concerned about them. He knew what the pundits were saying about him and his team, but he didn't care.

He was going to rely on the people who got him to the top to help bring him back there again.

"There are a lot of people asking when they are going to make a change at my position, right?" Carpenter said after ASU had lost five straight. "I lean on my teammates and the people who care about me and about this team [to help me get out of the tough times]."

Finally the team snapped the losing streak, but Carpenter still isn't quite out of his funk.

On the first play of the Sun Devils' most recent game, Carpenter missed a wide-open Chris McGaha on what would have been at least a 30-yard completion. Carpenter knew it; he called himself out for that one after the game.

But now Carpenter has a large task at hand. ASU is sitting at 4-6 and needs to win its final two games of the season to become bowl eligible.

Carpenter has been to a bowl game every year at ASU, and doesn't want to end his career without a fifth straight postseason appearance.

"Fortunately we're still in a situation where we can get into a bowl game," he said. "I don't know when the last time it was done here, but if we can get into a bowl game, I think we'll be one of the first groups to be part of five straight bowl games, which I think is impressive and it's a lot harder than people think."

Into the sunset

Obviously, Carpenter doesn't want his playing days to end when he takes off that gold ASU helmet for the final time.

Never has he said anything publicly about his NFL aspirations, but anyone with a college career like he has had must be thinking about the next level.

But what are his chances?

He has the stats, but there are question marks about his arm strength and consistency.

An NFL scout who was at practice this past week said Carpenter has an outside shot at making the League.

The scout said Carpenter was on a lot of teams' watch lists when the year began, but this season really hurt his chances of getting drafted.

The scout added though, that Carpenter has a really good chance of being picked up by a team and placed on a practice squad if nobody selects him on draft day in early April.

But right now, Carpenter probably isn't thinking that far ahead, he wants to win the next two games too much.

After ASU plays UCLA, it will face UA for the Territorial Cup to close out the season.

Although he'll never say it, he's too mature now, Carpenter hates the Wildcats.

It's obvious.

When he talks about UA there is disdain in his voice and he'll occasionally slip in a very subtle disrespectful comment about the team from Tucson.

Just talking about the Sun Devils' rival puts a disgusted look on his face.

And a win over UCLA would make the match up against the Wildcats even that much more meaningful.

If ASU wins Friday, it would be one win away from reaching a bowl game.

Last season, UA was in a similar situation and ASU beat the Wildcats 20-17 in Tempe to keep them from becoming bowl eligible.

"I love keeping UA out of a bowl game," Carpenter said after that game. "I love doing it every single year."

This year the game is in Tucson and the Wildcats have a chance to return the favor.

And what if UA does win?

What if Carpenter's words from 2007 turn around and bite him just 12 months later?

How would he be remembered then?

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