In many ways, its Insight Bowl victory against Rutgers was a fitting end to Arizona State’s 2005 season — and compelling proof of what the team has to do to avoid a similar campaign next year.
The Sun Devils’ 45-40 victory over Rutgers on Tuesday showcased an offense that is as cutting edge as any in the country. However, as the good-but-hardly-explosive Scarlet Knights nearly matched them point for point, a powerful, undeniable truth was once again confirmed.
ASU’s offense scares the hell out of everyone. But the Sun Devils are not going to contend for a national championship by turning every game into a contest to see who can short-circuit the scoreboard first.
"We have to get better on defense," said coach Dirk Koetter, whose team finished with a 7-5 record. "There is no question about that."
Going into the Insight Bowl, ASU had the fourth-best offense among the 119 Division I-A schools. And the sixthworst defense. Ask the San Diego Chargers of the 1980s how many championships can be won with such a striking disparity between units.
Those "Air Coryell" squads had a knack for not having enough firepower in big games, which kept them from reaching the Super Bowl. In 2005 — as satisfying as wins in four of the last five games was — ASU cannot help but think about what might have been had defining games against Louisiana State, Southern California and UCLA turned out differently.
The Sun Devils averaged 31 points in those contests and lost all three.
"Those kind of losses really hurt, because those were against great teams, where a win would have put us on the map," quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. "If we would have beaten those guys, we’d be a top five team."
As the Sun Devils head into the offseason, raising the talent and tenacity of the defense is the biggest priority. Most of the recruiting energies have been and will be on that side of the ball. And defensive coordinator Bill Miller, who just completed his first year in Tempe, will try to implement more of his system.
"Bill has a lot of schemes, but if we don’t have the players to utilize them, then you can’t," Koetter said. "The total package is not there. That evolves based on the kids you have."
All three facets of a unit that gave up 29.9 points and 468.8 yards a game in ’05 — defensive line, linebackers and secondary — need attention.
On the front four, defensive end Kyle Caldwell fought injuries all season, spoiling what ASU hoped would be a breakout year. He will return in 2006, and the Sun Devils are high on transfers Tranell Morant (Florida), Michael Marquardt (Brigham Young) and Loren Howard (Northwestern).
Koetter hopes the presence of Morant and Marquardt at defensive tackle will create more chances for tackle Jordan Hill, whose impact was down from last season because he drew frequent double-teams.
"We have to get better up front," Koetter said. "Those guys played hard and did what they could. But we have to get off blocks better and use our hands better. We had a tendency to be blocked and stay blocked, and we never had a tendency to create pressure with a four-man rush.
"Our sack total (22, tied for last in the Pac-10) is not enough. We had to do a lot of blitz situations, and that puts a lot of stress on your secondary."
The loss of Dale Robinson and Jamar Williams will hurt the linebackers. Robert James returns as a starter, and senior-to-be Beau Manutai, who had a strong last three games of the year, appears to be Robinson’s successor in the middle.
However, the rest of the unit is relatively untested. Linebackers will be an emphasis in recruiting, and incoming junior-college transfer Garrett Judah of Butte (Calif.) College is considered a prize signing.
"We might have to make some position changes to even out our numbers and give us help at linebacker," Koetter said.
There could also be position switches to help the secondary, and one that would raise eyebrows is the possible move of running back Shaun DeWitty to safety. DeWitty, a true freshman who played mostly on special teams in 2005, is open to a move if his playing time on offense does not increase.
Zach Catanese is entrenched at a safety spot, and Keno Walter-White is a projected ’06 starter at cornerback. Redshirt freshmen-to-be Travis Smith and Grant Crunkleton — both highly regarded — could be in the mix for the other corner spot.
Also, Koetter said, there will be defensive contributors whose names you have not heard yet.
"I can see a scenario where as many as eight new players who aren’t true freshmen on defense could come into our program by the time we start in the fall," Koetter said. "We’re getting a lot of new help."
As many holes as there are on defense, there are as many heroes coming back on offense. On that unit, the Sun Devils might as well be playing by Australian rules.
No worries, mate.
Two quarterbacks who threw for 2,000 yards this season, Sam Keller and Carpenter, return. So do seven offensive linemen with starting experience, a talented set of tight ends, and running backs Keegan Herring and Rudy Burgess — although Burgess might go back to wide receiver.
"For the team that is coming back next year, I think all those guys will be ready," graduating, record-setting wideout Derek Hagan said. "Now is the time for a guy like T-Rich (Terry Richardson) to step up and be the main wide receiver. A lot of other guys will have to step up into a new role and do their jobs, too."
As the Sun Devils painfully discovered, putting points on the board is not enough. And even in the aftermath of the Insight Bowl victory, Koetter said visions of woulda, coulda and shoulda were dancing in his head.
"The Insight Bowl was fun for the players," Koetter said, "but we are very close to being a team that is playing next week instead of this week."