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September 23, 2010

Offense gaining confidence as season progresses

The ball hung up in the thick desert air last October for what seemed like an eternity before falling into the shockingly wide-open hands of wide receiver Chris McGaha.

The 50-yard throw launched by the arm of unheralded quarterback Danny Sullivan sent Sun Devil Stadium into a frenzy and gave Arizona State a win over Washington in the closing seconds last season, one of the few bright spots during a two-year stretch highlighted by far more agonizing defeats than thrilling triumphs.

What was perhaps the most telling scene, though, was not the throw, the catch or the ensuing jubilation, but rather Sullivan's reaction.

The quarterback crouched to the ground and flung both hands onto his helmet, a look of sheer disbelief on his face.

Who could blame him? After all, plays like that one, a highlight immediately earning a place in Sun Devil lore, haven't been commonplace for an offense that struggled so mightily the past two seasons. Fans often had to hope for blown coverages in the secondary -- which led to the win over Washington -- or missed tackles and penalties by the opposition to aid an ASU offense that often seemed to be slowed before it even took the field.

It is still early in the 2010 campaign, but those sentiments appear to be long gone.

In discussing its upcoming contest against Oregon, an almost tangible air of confidence emanated from players on the offense, a group that is no longer aiming to just keep games close enough for the defense to dominate.

"We expect a lot out of ourselves, a lot out of the offense," said junior quarterback Steven Threet, who is currently second in the Pac-10 with an average of 280 yards passing per game. "We just keep looking to improve."

The newfound throw-it-on-our-shoulders attitude permeating along the Sun Devil offensive unit starts, of course, with Threet.

Marred by injuries and inconsistent play, the quarterback position last season was one of ASU's most glaring weaknesses. Neither of the three quarterbacks who started at various times in 2009 -- Sullivan, Brock Osweiler and Samson Szakacsy -- had the advantage of much previous experience. It often showed, with the Sun Devils finishing near the bottom of the Pac-10 statistically in nearly every offensive category.

Threet has brought welcome change.

It was most evident in ASU's 20-19 loss to Wisconsin, when the junior -- who appears to finally be at home after a whirlwind tour that has landed him at his third college -- led the Sun Devils straight down the field in the fourth quarter after the Badgers' tiebreaking score, a drive that led to what would have been the tying touchdown had the point after attempt following sophomore running back Cameron Marshall's score not been blocked.

Though ASU fell short in Madison, Threet proved he is not likely to be overwhelmed by grueling, stress-inducing moments the Pac-10 is sure to offer this season. Most importantly, he has gained the full trust and respect of his teammates.

"Threet has been great," said wide receiver Kerry Taylor, who is on his way to a career year in his final campaign at ASU. "I couldn't ask for anything more than what he's done so far. Leadership-wise we all believe in him and rally around Threet. He's definitely the leader of our offense and our team."

Watching Threet pick himself off the turf quickly and without complaint after getting hit by Wisconsin defenders -- several of which appeared to come late after review of the game film -- earned the quarterback even more respect from his teammates, Taylor said.

"It's good to have a guy back there that we can count on and who's tough," the wide receiver said. "He can make the throws, take the hits and just do everything he can to win. It's a positive having a great player like him."

With Threet in command of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's fast-moving offense, ASU has kept pressure on defenses, with the Sun Devils continuing to gain confidence as they watch opponents back up on their heels and gasp for air while trying to keep up with the frenetic pace.

And it's not just Threet and his receivers feeling good about offensive improvement. Behind an offensive line with experience under its belt and a backfield with the most talented athletes Erickson has had during his tenure in Tempe, ASU's rushing attack has already taken great strides from recent seasons past.

"We're blocking the right guys, getting hats on hats and being really physical out front and our running backs are rewarding us for it," said junior guard Mike Marcisz, who has worked his way into the starting lineup the past two weeks. "They reward us and at the same time we reward them. When they run the ball, make the right cut, we get a lot of offense going. We're really confident. Not overconfident, but really confident."

That emerging confidence displayed by the ASU offense will likely be a key during a Pac-10 season that begins with Saturday's contest at home against the Ducks.

Taylor and his teammates are tired of hearing how dominant the Oregon defense has been -- fair talk for a unit giving up less than five points per game -- and believe they have a game plan to keep the Ducks on their heels.

"They're very athletic and they like to blitz a lot," Taylor said of Oregon's defense, "but they leave a lot of big gaps and holes. With what we do offensively, I think we can get in those gaps and make big plays. I think what they do plays really well into what we do offensively, so I think they're going to have make adjustments once we start making big plays on them."

Teams making adjustments to counter ASU's offensive prowess? Perhaps these are new days in Tempe indeed.


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