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September 29, 2009

Swami goes to Georgia

The Arizona State Sun Devils' first-ever visit to an SEC stadium ended in heartache Saturday evening, as the 21st-ranked Georgia Bulldogs prevailed in a nail-biter, 20-17 on Blair Walsh's last second 37-yard field goal. Swami was there and has the following report.

Hometown Barbecue (in Lawrenceville). Low Country Boil (at a UGA tailgate thrown by some Savannah natives). Single-barrel bourbon. And, of course, Waffle House.

I ate myself across north Georgia this past weekend and enjoyed every minute of it. One simply has to experience the culinary treats in the Atlanta area to have any appreciation for the variety and quality available to anyone with an adventurous palette and a reasonably-sized wallet.

Hometown Barbecue, located in an old house off of the Lawrenceville Highway in Lawrenceville, simply has to be experienced to be believed. I had the six-rib plate with two sides. As George, the proprietor says, "there's sauces on the tables, but y'all gotta try the ribs before you put any ou-en them ribs." Perfect smoky flavor, meat dripping from the bone, and baked beans with just a hint of Tabasco…yummy.

On game-day, George has the coolers lined up for the Georgia Tech and Georgia fans who stream into the house, taking away pounds and pounds of ribs, chicken and pulled pork for tailgating purposes. All he asks is that you return the cooler -- for the following week's tailgater's supply.

From there to Athens as the invited guest of a number of Atlanta-area attorneys, cooking up Low Country Boil, an unbelievably tasty explosion of potatoes, corn on the cob, Gulf shrimp, Andouille sausage and chicken, all spiced with zesty herbs. A perfect complement to the threatening weather. As the history was explained to me, the Irish immigrants who settled along coastal, south Georgia knew all about potatoes, but it took their African-born friends to teach them how to boil it all up into something delicious. Served with Jefferson's single-barrel bourbon over ice with a splash of Australian ginger beer, well….

The culmination of all of this culinary exploration, a college football game, one circled on my calendar since it was announced perhaps 4 years ago. Southeast Conference football. Rabid Dawg fans packing a beautiful stadium with perfect site lines, woofing it up for their team. Nothing West Coast-laid back about the atmosphere. Only a few thousand fans declining to brave the severe weather. Every fan knows the result and I'm not here to delve into all the gory details. But I went to north Georgia full of anticipation and questions and came back with some answers.

A blind man can see that the Sun Devil offense is a work in progress. Against Georgia, we saw continued progress, but as with many a struggle of this sort, every step forward was matched by at least a step back.

Forward progress was marked most prominently by the Devils' ability to gain yards on the ground through the first three quarters. It may come as a shock to some, but for awhile in the second half, Dimitri Nance had gained over 100 yards for the first time in his career. He later fell below that mark, but the message was clear. The much-maligned offensive line created space and Nance ran through it, finishing off his runs with power he had, frankly, not shown previously. Through much of the game, Danny Sullivan was well-protected by that same line, with assists by the aforementioned Nance, giving Danny time to scan and throw.

We said, however, that there were steps backward and I think you all know what those were. Simply put, missed reads and overthrown and dropped passes. There simply has to be improvement in that aspect of the Devils' offense or much of the progress that we've seen in other areas will be for naught. It is harsh to say the following, but I believe it to be true. The biggest need for the Sun Devil offense is for whomever is throwing the ball to have confidence. Right now, and Sullivan himself alluded to it in his Monday presser, the Sun Devil quarterback is being asked to "manage the game" which I believe to be the same as "not lose it." The player is asked to perform from a negative mindset rather than a positive one. In this case, the result of that request is tentative play; overthrown balls, balls floated to receivers (which are dropped because the receivers have too much time to hear the footsteps of the defenders coming to cream them) and missed reads…all symptoms of tentative play. We've all seen what Sullivan can do when he plays from a positive mindset. There have been several accurate and purposeful throws through the first three games this season; the touchdown throw to Nance against Georgia a great example, the touchdown toss to Chris McGaha against ULM another. The checkdown throw to Nance in the second half which maintained a drive yet another example. Danny can do it. He just needs to understand that he has the capability do it all the time. His receivers will help him out if he becomes more decisive and positive.

There have been many discussions about the Sun Devils' play-calling in recent months, but I for one have no complaints on that score. The UGA game cemented for me that the play-calling is purposeful, patient and, more importantly, tailored to the capabilities of the players executing those plays. Nance's TD catch was again the textbook example. Coach Erickson spent the entire first half setting up the roll-out pass from that formation. In that first half, every time the Devils ran from that same formation, Danny would go through the entire fake. The UGA linebackers got to the point of ignoring him once he handed off. When Danny made the throw in the second half from that fake, there was initially no one within ten yards of either him, or Dmitri Nance who took it in for six. Late in the fourth quarter, after Kerry Taylor dropped the slant in, I saw Erickson say, quite clearly and openly, "same play." While Danny selected a different receiver, it was in fact the same play and once again, the receivers were open. We all know the result, but what happened was most definitely not the result of poor play calling.

It's all there. The Sun Devils just have to do it.

The Swami has long been a proponent of bringing speed and nastiness to the Sun Devil defense. I have always hoped that a Sun Devil coaching staff would build the program from the defense toward the offense. What a shock that would be to the rest of the Pac-10 conference, no? When Dennis Erickson arrived three seasons ago there was a ray of hope that my hopes would be fulfilled. After a couple of years of operating with players left over from the previous staff, this season promised a view of what things would be like with talent recruited and coached solely by Erickson's defensive staff. And what better way to introduce a restyled ASU defensive approach than in a hallowed SEC stadium?

Survey says? Thank you doctor, that will do nicely. It ought to be clear that what Coaches Erickson, Bray and the assistants have in mind is, well, an SEC-style defense, using speed to swarm to the ball and delivering a memorable lick once there. Through three games this season, we've seen the beginnings of a tradition of aggressive defense, turnover production and highlight-reel hits. Jarrell Holman's two interceptions against Georgia, while perhaps the product of luck due to over-thrown balls, only occurred because Holman was in the right place at the right time. The linebackers recruited to play the scheme are, simply put, perfect for the job and the defensive line held its own against an experienced offensive line. Evidence? Georgia had 31 rushing attempts, netting 92 yards.

I'm not saying there doesn't need to be improvement. Footing or no footing, wet or dry, there were plays not made in the secondary which have to be made, most of which were the result of mental mistakes more so than physical errors. A.J. Green is going to be a problem for anyone; however, his presence would have been minimized had mental mistakes not been made by the safeties in coverage. Tackling has to be more sure, especially in the open field. As with the offense, there is work to be done, but unlike the offense, which took a step forward and two steps back, the Sun Devil defense took two steps forward for every step backward. Let's not forget, this was a Bulldogs offense that was held to 20 points after scoring considerably more than that against BCS competition.

I would be a dullard if I didn't make at least a few remarks about a certain freshman linebacker wearing No. 7 for the Maroon and Gold. Vontaze Burfict's play throughout the evening was a large contribution to the effort which kept the Sun Devils in the game and in fact gave them a chance to win. He showed a situational awareness we've come to expect from Mike Nixon when he pushed over the referee placing the ball in the fourth quarter. Was it an accident, or was it recognition that the Devils weren't ready for the play and the official was holding the play too long? Anyone notice that after the kerfuffle, when the actual play was run (and the Devils stuffed it) the official placing the ball set it down and vacated the line of scrimmage as he didn't (and should have) the first time around? Anyone notice his closing speed on Caleb King's rushes? I know for a fact that the Georgia coaches noticed. A remark was made on a UGA radio postgame show to that effect.

The shining moment for me, though, came in the third quarter on a play that no one will remember (and I failed to mark down to identify later). It was innocuous, perhaps, but I will never forget it. As the Bulldogs offense came to the line of scrimmage down around the Sun Devil 20 yard line, Cox began pointing out the pass rush, the coverages, etc., as quarterbacks always do. When he pointed at No. 7, Vontaze raised his left hand from its resting point on his thigh pad and from a point near his helmet, simply waved at Cox. "Hi there," he seemed to be saying, "I'm right here, and yeah, in a moment, I'm going to be right there." Yeah, baby…the young man loves playing this game. And I love watching him play it.

So, while I ate myself across north Georgia, sampling the tastes of the South along my route, perhaps the tastiest feast of all came at September 26, 2009, 7:05 P.M. Eastern Daylight Savings Time, in a downpour with no daylight to save, when the Sun Devils kicked off against the Georgia Bulldogs. The atmosphere was electric, the crowd which braved the weather amped up and ready to go and the teams put on a good show. In the end, the Dawgs prevailed, much to my dismay, but I was proud to leave Sanford Stadium in Maroon and Gold, the Devils having won the respect of the Dawgs, as evidenced by comments I received as I departed and continue to receive now that I'm home here in the West. There is much to be excited about from Sun Devil football going into Pac-10 conference play, more to hope we see develop and improve, and in a suddenly wide-open conference, much reward to be reaped and sown.

Bye now, y'all.


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