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September 29, 2011

Shaky practice effort has players looking to rebound

Dropped balls, missed assignments, poor reads from the quarterback; if Wednesday's practice from the offense was a harbinger for Saturday's supposed two-and-a-half touchdown mismatch against Oregon State, Arizona State could be in for the scare of the season. While it's the last thing on the mind of even the most ardent OSU supporter, let alone ASU players - which may be the problem -- an upset would be devastating on a scale hard to envision.

"What happened last week is behind us, and if we want to play in the Rose Bowl we have to play one game at a time," junior running back James Morrison said. "Not only are the coaches frustrated, but I had some drops and should have caught the ball today. We were there, but we were lacking effort and (being) lackadaisical. We have to bounce back Thursday."

Throughout the week, coach Dennis Erickson has stressed the coachspeak idea of 'don't look past the opponent' through a number of clichés, and some original, witty ways. But each time he's done it with an emphasis, an extra bit of throatiness to his trademark guttural delivery that, in combination with a bit of hyperbole, make it clear he senses a trap, the kind he's seen time and again during a long coaching career.

After Wednesday, his warnings should seem too genuine for comfort.

"Offensively, I couldn't tell you what happened," senior defensive tackle Bo Moos said. "Maybe they weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing in some areas, but you just get it corrected."

Erickson typically does not speak to the media on Wednesdays.

On the defensive side of the ball, which may need to create a Saturday spark, things were different, prompting Moos to say the 'D-Side' 'was much better today."

One player still willing to talk about the glory of last week's win against USC, and deservedly so, was defensive end Gregory Smith.

Smith had perhaps the most important series of plays in the game. With the Trojans primed to take the lead in the fourth quarter, Smith beat elite left tackle Matt Kalil to tackle running back Marc Tyler for a loss -- forcing a must-pass situation -- and then sacking quarterback Matt Barkley on a failed block from the Trojans' tight end, forcing a game-changing fumble.

"I watched the film all week and I knew they like to run the stretch play," Smith said. "They call it the 86 dive. And so I already made that play and I was thinking, 'I don't want to lose to them.' All of my family are 'SC fans, and so I wanted to prove everyone wrong that we are better than 'SC. I knew in my heart I was getting that sack."

Smith, who grew up near the campus of USC and was raised to be a Trojan fan, said he rebelled against the thought from an early age. Even when Smith's Sun Devils are the match-up, family allegiances don't change.

"My brother said, 'I love you, but we're still going for 'SC," Smith said. "He said, 'we're rooting for you, but 'SC' is going to win."

Smith's a part of a pass-rush, and like much of the rest of the defensive line, he credits one man in particular for the improvements.

"Coach (Scott Brown) has made a big difference," Smith said. "He has improved our technique, improved my hands and footwork. Before I never really paid attention to my footwork; but it has a lot do with your approach and how you're going to set-up an offensive lineman."

Due to the key defensive linemen slimming-down in the off-season, technique will be key to maintaining its gap integrity. While its pass rush has improved, ASU's front has shown weakness in the run game, particularly the third quarter last Saturday.

"It was just schematic stuff, and we were able to adjust schematically," Moos said. "It wasn't anything as far as getting push in there. Sometimes you might not be able to disengage from the block but it's not an issue of weight, it's an issue of being down and ready to handle your assignment."

Many players are learning about their new bodies. And given the lack of experienced depth at the position, its performances against Missouri and USC's running game might be understandable.

"We've played big before," Moos said. "We know what it's like to play big, It's an advantage for us to be smaller. We are in the best shape of our lives. Sometimes when they get inside on those run plays the push isn't exactly there, but I think that's something you saw in the first two games because we hadn't played a game at that size. You've got to get used to that and trust your technique and I think against 'SC we started to do that."

While the Sun Devils defense looks to maintain their push through technique, one player who could surely help move the pile on offense is Morrison, who's yet to receive meaningful action this year.

"We planned on playing [Morrison] but didn't," Erickson said Monday. "He needs to play -- he's a really good back. He gives us a little bit bigger of a body in there."

Morrison, perhaps the hardest and strongest runner on the team with Cameron Marshall less than 100 percent, said he's likely to be in the mix for game repetitions at some point soon.

"Yeah, I try not to think about it, but coach said that they are looking at some packages and trying to find a way to get me on the field," Morrison said. "I don't feel like I'm owed anything, but I'm just sitting back and working hard and waiting for my opportunity. Yeah, it's frustrating but you got to worry about what you can control. Coaches keep telling me I'm working hard and doing a good job. They say I run hard between the tackles and my sped has improved since I've been here, and they said I'm one of the better pass blockers along with Cameron Marshall."

While patiently waiting for his number to get called, Morrison's been given a first-hand view of the offense's evolution.

"It's been like from 0 to 100," Morrison said. "When you look at last spring when the coaches first got here and running backs couldn't run a swing route and now we're doing 20 other things out of the same motion. We like to put stress on the defense and spread them out. We have speedsters like Jamal (Miles) and Kyle (Middlebrooks) stretching them out and guys like (receivers) Plfugrad and Mike Willie going deep and Cam running in the middle. It's a lot of stuff."

Morrison said he's been most impressed with the play of Miles, who's much-improved ability to catch the ball on the swing pass might be one of the biggest keys to the offense.

"It's real hard and you have to have trust in your blockers, and trust in your quarterback that he is not going to hang you to dry," Morrison said. "Our receivers have stepped up tremendously from game one and from last year."

Perimeter blocking was perhaps the critical aspect of Saturday's three touchdown victory, allowing Miles and teammates to rack up more than 70 yards on what essentially are extended hand-offs, but perhaps more importantly, open up other dimensions of the scheme.

"I take some pride in run blocking," Willie said. "I like to do that. I was a defensive player at one time, I felt, I would smack anyone in front of me. Any defensive back in front of me is too small, so I take it to them. It ain't his fault, I'm just trying to do my job. It's flipping the script on them. It's like oh, hold up, I don't want to get in his face."

In Willie and Morrison, ASU offense could very well make a quick turnaround Thursday, the last live practice before its showdown with OSU.

"If you look at our schedule we owe a lot of teams," Morrison said, aware of ASU's three game losing streak to the Beavers. "And this is no different."


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