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September 12, 2010

Improvement escapes ASU in sloppy win

On a Saturday that saw three FCS teams upset FBS foes, Arizona State was able to shrug off a slow start and avoid a similar fate.

But a 41-20 win over neighboring Northern Arizona at half-empty Sun Devil Stadium did little to put coach Dennis Erickson in a jovial mood, now a week away from taking his team to Wisconsin for its first real test of the season.

"I'm not happy with how we played," Erickson said. "We weren't in rhythm offensively like I thought we'd be. We didn't run the football as well as I thought we would. I give credit to NAU, they played good against us, but we didn't execute offensively."

Like it did in its season opener a week ago, the ASU offense sputtered out of the gate with an opening drive that featured three penalties and a pair of dropped passes, a harbinger of struggles to come in the first half.

This time, the offensive outburst on display against Portland State took longer to come around, the Sun Devils carrying just a 17-10 lead into halftime, a pair of impressive touchdown drives marred by penalties, execution errors and an inability to run the ball. (The Sun Devils managed just 11 yards on 14 carries in the first half.)

The message in the locker room?

"We've got to play better, plain and simple," said junior quarterback Steven Threet, who completed 33 of 49 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns but also a threw a pair of interceptions. "We have to execute the plays; the plays were there."

Threet and his offensive teammates began to make those plays in the second frame, pulling away after NAU had cut the lead to 27-20 on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Michael Herrick to Khalil Paden.

A 45-yard Threet-to-Aaron Pflugrad completion quickly put the Sun Devils back into scoring position to begin the fourth quarter, regaining a two-touchdown lead when Threet found wide receiver Mike Willie -- who caught eight passes for 114 yards -- in the end zone from 6 yards out.

Jamal Miles' 49 yard punt return then set up a 1-yard touchdown run by the sophomore, capping the scoring on a game that felt closer than the final tally indicated.

Still, the penalties and miscues continued. On NAU's lone touchdown drive of the second half, the Lumberjacks benefitted from 40 yards in ASU penalties, part of a 131-yard total for the Sun Devils, their second straight game over the 100-yard mark in yellow flags.

Erickson lamented the mistakes after the game, seemingly at a loss at how to get through to his players about the penalty situation.

"It's going to cost us a game," the coach said. "When it costs us a football game, is that what it's going to take for us to learn?"

Sophomore linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who has had a penchant in his young career for drawing flags, picked up two 15-yarders in a three-play span (one for taunting, the other for a late hit).

"I'm besides myself on this," Erickson said of the penalties. "I'm really upset about it. The bottom line is it's on me."

Erickson was also displeased with his team's performance on the ground. A week after running all over Portland State, ASU managed just 56 yards on 29 carries, a measly 1.9-yard average.

"As good as we played last week," Erickson said, "we didn't improve from the first to the second game."


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