Arizona State must be hoping Dennis Erickson’s second season as coach goes as well as it did in his previous two tenures at Pac-10 schools.
Even with matchups looming against the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the nation, Erickson sure isn’t letting his 15th-ranked Sun Devils look past its season-opening matchup against Northern Arizona on Saturday.
“I look back on my career and when I was at Oregon State, the year we won the Fiesta Bowl and lost one game, we opened with Eastern Washington in Corvallis and had to score at the end of the game to win it,” Erickson said. “We were very fortunate to win that football game. A year before that we played Georgia Southern in Corvallis and won by three points.
“So NAU has a great program and their players are going to be hungry, they don’t have anything to lose. They are going to give us everything we want.”
That certainly was the case the year before Erickson arrived in Tempe. The Lumberjacks, part of the Football Championship Subdivision, opened the 2006 season at Arizona State and the game was tied entering the fourth quarter before the Sun Devils won 35-14.
A 7-6 record that season led to Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter being fired, and Erickson took over last year with an 8-0 start before losses to three ranked opponents over the final five games. Now he’d like to see the Sun Devils perform against top-caliber competition the same way his teams did in his second seasons at Washington State and Oregon State.
After going 7-5 in his first year as Oregon State coach in 1999, Erickson led the Beavers to four wins over ranked teams - including a Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame - to finish 11-1. Following a 3-7-1 debut season at Washington State in 1987, Erickson helped the Cougars beat top-ranked UCLA before a win over No. 14 Houston in the Aloha Bowl capped a 9-3 season.
Erickson feels something similar could happen this season.
“Without a question, yes,” he said. “I mean our second year at Washington State was pretty good. They were familiar with what was going on. The same thing at Oregon State. Overall, just familiarizing yourself with what’s going on will help.”
Rudy Carpenter will be more familiar with Erickson’s system after throwing for 3,202 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, both good for third in the Pac-10.
The senior, though, is looking to erase memories of a disappointing Holiday Bowl, as he went 18-of-36 for 187 yards with two interceptions and was sacked four times in a 52-34 loss to Texas. Carpenter, who has started 31 consecutive games, says he’s put on 20 pounds so he can be stronger as the season progresses.
“I think I have an even better grasp of the offense than I did last year and I think even more is that I have been here for a while,” Carpenter said. “The game has slowed down a lot for me. Overall decision making, knowing when to try and make plays, when to cut my losses and throw the ball away and trusting guys to make plays around me.”
Carpenter’s arm, along with seven returning starters on both offense and defense from last season’s 10-3 team, give Sun Devils fans reason to believe their team can end Southern California’s five-year reign as Pac-10 champion. Arizona State did tie for the best conference record last season at 7-2, but lost 44-24 at home to USC and that ultimately gave the Trojans the Rose Bowl berth.
Before trying to avenge that defeat when they visit third-ranked USC on Oct. 11, the Sun Devils host top-ranked Georgia on Sept. 20. Arizona State is the only team that must face both of those national powerhouses this season.
“I believe the second season, if everything is equal, you should be a little bit better because you know what you are doing offensively,” Erickson said.
“However, our schedule this year is quite different than it was a year ago.”
The Lumberjacks are coming off a second straight 6-5 season under 11th-year coach Jerome Souers. They have returned 13 players who started at least one game in 2007, along with another three who were full-time starters in 2006 only to miss last season with injuries.
Senior Lance Kriesien was the starting quarterback last season, throwing for 1,897 yards and rushing for 686, but he may end up sharing time with Mississippi transfer Michael Herrick or junior Corey Slater.
Arizona State has won the last six meetings and is 10-0-1 versus Northern Arizona since a 19-13 loss in 1938. The Lumberjacks, though, lead the all-time series 18-14-4.