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October 27, 2011

ASU looks to avoid complacency in second half

Arizona State junior quarterback Brock Osweiler was neither lost nor confused. He knows the schedule quite well, thanks. It's the front-loaded one that hadn't given him more than few days off since early August.

But it was slightly unusual that Osweiler chose to spend his bye weekend twenty miles or so from the CU-Boulder campus, home of the team the Sun Devils prepare to host this weekend.

Things to do in Denver when you're dead-tired?

"I went to Denver," Osweiler said. "I went up there for the weekend with (sophomore linebacker) Matt Tucker. He's my roommate, been my roommate since I first came to ASU, and that's where he is from. It was just good to get out of the city for the weekend, get some of that fresh air up there and it was a very good weekend."

Some had to work.

In addition to practice, coaches spent some of last week recruiting (as reported by ASUDevils.com), as D.J. Foster's Nov. 3 decision will likely create news that trumps what happens Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium. In addition to his normal scouting and game-planning duties, Dennis Erickson scrutinized some of his peers over the weekend.

"Personally for me, I had the remote," Erickson said. "Watched a lot of games, second-guessed a lot of coaches. I wanted to know what it was like to be like you guys (the media). It's kind of fun, actually, a pretty good deal."

As the Sun Devils march into homecoming weekend, they begin a second half schedule that presents a different kind of challenge than the one faced in the first half; it's almost less familiar and in some ways, greater.

With wins over three quality first-half opponents, there are no longer doubts about ASU's viability as a team capable of playing for the conference championship and beyond.

But therein lay the problem.

Much as its first half performance leads one to believe, if not assume, that it will win the South Division, if not win out, the question becomes: Can the Sun Devils handle being the presumed favorites the rest of the regular season?

Can they keep their edge?

""That's hard to tell," Osweiler said. "We'll find out as we go. However, I do know that this team has been very good about taking it one week at a time and I think that's the most important thing with these next five football games. If we do that and just stay focused on that one team I think that will help us come to the games ready -- like we should -- and handle business."

Some say ASU came out flat against Oregon State, a team of a caliber similar to those on the second half schedule. How the Sun Devils respond as four touchdown-plus favorites against an under-manned Buffs team should help reveal the likelihood of a future slip-up -- more than one and all the Sun Devils did in the first half could be for naught.

"We have some goals that we can achieve," Erickson said. "We will not achieve them if we do not win the next game and the next game and the next game. There are a lot of tough games ahead of us in our division and in our league. Obviously, in this league, a lot of things can happen as you've seen. You can play really well and then all of a sudden you can get on a bad streak or something like that. We have a lot of things in front of us that we can accomplish but we have to go out and accomplish them one game at a time."

But there's more to the second half than just avoiding complacency. ASU has a chance to treat its remaining schedule as extended preparation for the conference championship game.

There's plenty to work on.

Yeah, one is penalties.

"Coaches talk about that all the time," sophomore running back Kyle Middlebrooks said. "It's one of the things we have to instill because we know penalties decide games."

But much as its contest against Oregon showed the effect penalties have against high-octane teams, the untimely yellow flags may have had a more profound implication, one that may or may not be solvable.

The Sun Devils' unique offense -- fast-paced but methodical -- could use a jolt. Identifying ways to score without prolonged drives, which force the offense to execute with an almost unsustainable consistency, could ultimately be the key to the Rose Bowl.

It might come from a healthier junior running back Cameron Marshall. But, it might come from the fastest (healthy) skill player on the roster -- Middlebrooks.

As teams have shown a tendency to scheme against ASU's most proven perimeter game-breaker, junior Jamal Miles, the second half could be the time Middlebrooks breaks out.

"I feel like every single time I touch the ball I can make something happen," Middlebrooks said. Sometimes I wish I could get the ball more than a couple of times."

It should be noted that Middlebrooks contextualized his comments throughout his interview Wednesday, supporting the coaching staff's decisions, teammates, while trying to avoid making any controversial statements.

But he was also honest.

"I take advantage of every play where I try to get out there," Middlebrooks said. "Sometimes it gets frustrating. You come out here to practice every day, practice like you're going to be the starter. But sometimes coaches have to do what they have to do."

How and if the Sun Devils find their game-breaker, it won't mean much if they don't continue to do well what they did in the first half.

Sometimes that means finding the inner-bully.

The team may finally be ready to bury an undermanned foe.

"My mind set is that if they are down and struggling it makes it even more..." senior receiver Gerell Robinson said. "If I see blood I am going to attack even more. We know what the situation is and we know what our situation is."

Notes

Junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict appeared to twist his ankle early in practice, but re-joined his teammates in the second half. Senior center Garth Gerhart was back on the field after having his wisdom teeth removed.


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