Jeff Metcalfe Arizona Republic
Published 1:28 PM EDT Sep 28, 2018
Herm Edwards’ voice is raspy.
Manny Wilkins is somewhat subdued, blaming it on school work.
On the outside, Arizona State football is off to a perfectly acceptable 2-2 start under Edwards with a split against top-25 teams and road losses by a touchdown. But the first-year coach expects more and so does his fifth-year quarterback. Even they don’t know the ceiling for the Sun Devils, but the effort they’re putting in to make it higher than most believe possible is palpable.
One ASU coach pushes back when he hears support staff around athletics suggesting that beating Oregon State on Saturday will be a breeze (ASU is a 21 1/2-point favorite). Wilkins isn’t tolerating that talk either from younger teammates, who might not know better.
“If they think this is going to be a cakewalk, I’ll be the first to tell them it’s not,” Wilkins said. “If they’re not doing what we need them to do, I’m going to simply tell to not even come to the game, go sit in the stands because I refuse to let this team fall apart this early in the season. It just won’t happen. It’s a cancer to have people like that around, and we don’t have that.”
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It still stings Wilkins, who was redshirting at the time, that then-No. 6 ASU lost 35-27 at Oregon State in 2014 after wins over nationally ranked USC, Stanford, Utah and Notre Dame. In some ways, that defeat started a slide from which the Sun Devils have yet to recover, going 22-23 since and making a coaching change.
What matters in the immediate for ASU is that it plays a complete offensive game and creates enough separation to avoid a shootout with Oregon State (1-3), which averages 32 points but statistically has one of the nation’s worst defenses.
Both teams are seeking their first Pac-12 win for a first-year coach on ASU Hall of Fame weekend, when 1996 pass-rushing star Derrick Rodgers is among seven inductees.
Rodgers had 12 sacks and 23 tackles for loss on the Sun Devils’ second and most recent Rose Bowl team so perhaps he’ll be an inspiration for a team that comes in 12th nationally in sacks and could be looking to attack whoever is at quarterback — Conor Blount or Jake Luton — for the Beavers.
Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith previously was the offensive coordinator at Washington.
“They run a lot of the same plays and same formations, it’s just different guys doing it,” ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said. “They’ve put up a lot of points and yards (No. 61 total offense), so it’s a really big challenge.”
ASU made a concerted effort to rush better against No. 11 Washington, raising its yards per carry from 1.5 in the preceding two games to 4.1. Edwards made it clear he wants more of the same now and in the future from his teams and Oregon State’s No. 127 rush defense ranking makes it even more attractive to pound away.
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The Sun Devils could be without starting left guard Casey Tucker due to a foot injury but still have shown enough depth in the offensive line to be effective.
“Last time I looked, football is still a contact sport, and you try to play to the human element of the game and bruise people up,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens. “That’s what we want our personality to be.”
The question now is whether ASU, against a lesser defensive opponent, can strike the offensive balance that its talent suggests is possible.
Edwards has reassured All-America wide receiver candidate N’Keal Harry that last week (5 catches, 20 yards) was an aberration, and certainly Wilkins knows that a dangerous run game can only open up the field.
“We’re in a good place,” Wilkins said. “Now it’s just about winning those close games. There were a lot of positives (at Washington). The offensive line did a really good job making the blocks they need to make, and the running backs were hitting the hole. We’ve just go to make sure we put the whole game into one big puzzle and put all the pieces in the right spot.”
Oregon State has several Arizona players in its two-deep including linebacker Hamilcar Rashed, who was at Chandler High School with Harry. “I know it’s going to be a fight,” Rashed told The Oregonian. “They’re going to be talking smack. You just have to let that go from one ear to the next and just keep balling.”
ASU kick returner Paul Lucas played at Oregon State in 2015 and ’16.
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In addition to Tucker, ASU linebacker Jay Jay Wilson (foot) and safety Dasmond Tautalatasi (elbow) are questionable. Tautalatasi missed the last two games but practiced this week.
“When opportunities present themselves, you’ve got to make them,” Edwards said. “We were in two games where we got it where we wanted it to be, where we had a chance and just didn’t make the plays. When you make them, you’re smiling and feeling really good.”
When you don’t, the stress shows in your voice and school seems extra hard.
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