Sometime during a sleep-inducing first half last December at Arizona Stadium, Wildcats media relations director Tom Duddleston grabbed the press box mic and broke the monotony by sarcastically suggesting that Arizona and Arizona State had just broken an NCAA record for most pathetic punts (14) in a half.
Arizona used three punters in the 84th Duel in the Desert. They averaged 33.3 yards. ASU’s Trevor Hankins averaged 36.6. But the punters’ ineptitude was just the tip of the iceberg.
Arizona’s offense sputtered on all nine first-half possessions, though it should be noted the final possession started with three seconds left. Arizona State managed two Thomas Weber field goals (52 and 36) for a 6-0 halftime lead. But on six of eight Sun Devil first-half possessions, quarterback Brock Osweiler threw balls which should have been intercepted.
It was hardly the performance Osweiler was seeking as a launching pad into the 2011 season.
“It was sloppy,” said Osweiler, who suggested at the time that it might have been the worst performance of his life. “I think we all know how many interceptions were dropped -- how many targets I missed. I really did feel like I underachieved. I didn’t meet the standard that I had set for myself.”
But Osweiler did something in the second half that convinced the coaching staff and his teammates that he was the man to lead them forward. First, he gathered the entire team around him on the sideline to assure a victory. Second, and far more importantly, he delivered.
Greatly aided by his defense, Weber and a pair of blocked PATs by defensive end James Brooks — one at the end of regulation and one in overtime — ASU ended a frustrating season on a high note with a 30-29 victory.
Osweiler, who was named the game's most valuable player, completed 22 of 49 passes for 267 yards and a fourth-quarter TD pass to Mike Willie. More than with his arm, he kept numerous drives alive with his feet, repeatedly scrambling out of trouble for 56 yards on 19 carries.
“He wasn’t on, but he found a way to be successful, and that’s kind of what he’s all about,” coach Dennis Erickson said. “As I’ve mentioned many times before, he has tremendous leadership skills. The team has rallied around him this year, and I think you saw that in the UCLA game, a year ago, but probably the University of Arizona game more than anything.”
Nobody knew then that erstwhile starter Steven Threet would leave the program due to multiple concussions, but Erickson had already made up his mind that Osweiler was ready.
“No question about it,” he said.
So did Osweiler’s teammates.
“He demonstrated that through the offseason with his work ethic, showing us that it wasn't just going to be rallying us with words but also with his actions," receiver Aaron Pflugrad said.
With the Sun Devils slated to meet the Wildcats on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium, Osweiler was asked Monday how much different he is this year compared to the game last year.
“I’m completely different — black to white,” he said. “I’ve had 10 games under my belt this season, whereas last year, that was my first game starting. The game is a lot slower. My mechanics are a lot better. I understand our offense, our progressions and why we’re calling plays in certain situations. I understand the personnel on the field and what we’re trying to do.
“When I say black to white, I mean that I’ve really come a long way in understanding things.”
Sun Devils radio analyst and former ASU quarterback Jeff Van Raaphorst said it’s important to note that Osweiler is still relatively young in terms of starts (12).
“He’s going to make mistakes, but I think he’s found another level because he understands the intricacies of [coordinator] Noel Mazzone’s offense and he’s been allowed to use his leadership skills,” Van Raaphorst said, noting that Osweiler regularly leads the final film review before games with a laser pointer at the front of the classroom.
“If you look at his completion percentage from a year ago, his ball accuracy has really improved. He gets rid of the ball much quicker and I think his release point has come a little more forward and a little bit higher. Those are all things that are going to help you succeed.”
Osweiler is second in the Pac-12 to Arizona’s Nick Foles in passing yards per game (289) and trails Stanford’s Andrew Luck, USC’s Matt Barkley, Foles, Washington’s Keith Price and Oregon’s Darron Thomas in touchdown passes. Luck, Barkley and Foles will graduate this year, leaving a void for Osweiler to fill in the self-proclaimed conference of quarterbacks.
“He’s very smart. He doesn’t make a lot of mental mistakes at all and he has great command about what’s going on on the field,” Erickson said, “A year from now, he’s going to be a lot better than he is right now just because of experience.”