Playing the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe is not an awful lot of fun. For one thing, games are at night, which means opponents must spend a day in the sun by the motel pool or pump quarters into the air-hockey machine in the lobby or watch two other teams go at it on television. By the time they get to Sun Devil Stadium it is nearly dark, but in the glare of the lights there are maybe 58,000 screaming people—and every one is screaming for Arizona State. Finally, if the Sun Devils score, and they do—an average of 35.8 points per home game this season—the scoreboard at one end of the field does an electronic war dance, while at the other end someone from a fireworks company sends a Fourth of July special soaring through the black sky.
Into this chaos came Brigham Young last Saturday night, once-beaten, second in the nation in total offense, ranked in the Top 20 and 5-0 in the Western Athletic Conference. Chaos won. Of course, the Sun Devils, also ranked in the Top 20 and also beaten only once, helped, but what really happened is that the Cougars walked onto the field and dissolved.
Arizona State won 24-13, a misleading score, for once the Cougars had presented the Sun Devils with a housewarming gift of 17 early points, the game was never close. The victory makes the Sun Devils odds-on favorites to regain the WAC championship they have held so often in recent years and all but guarantees them a trip across the street to the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 25. The man with the fireworks can hardly wait.
Going to the Fiesta Bowl is old sombrero for the Sun Devils. They have been there four times in the last six years, never losing. In 1975 they pulled a major upset when they defeated Nebraska 17-14 to remain unbeaten, a victory that helped them finish the season as the second-ranked team in the country. Ironically, it also led to many of the team's problems last season.
November 21, 1977
Frank Kush, who has coached the Sun Devils since 1958, takes the blame for that. He feels that he spent too much of the off-season at banquets and giving clinics. Then he didn't work the team as hard as he usually does in August and when they opened the season at home against UCLA before a national television audience, the Sun Devils paid the price. UCLA won 28-10.
"We tried to regroup and couldn't," Kush says. Suddenly everyone was beating the Sun Devils—California, Wyoming, Cincinnati. Arizona State finished 4-7 and definitely did not go to the Fiesta Bowl.
"Frank was a miserable person last year," says a colleague. "He can't adapt to one loss, let alone seven." This year, preseason practice at Tontozona, Arizona State's mountain retreat 125 miles northeast of the campus, was—er—interesting. Kush worked his squad three times a day for more than a week and when the team came down from the mountains, it had what one staff member calls the Kush look.
Which, with one lapse, it has kept all season. Missouri, winless when it arrived in Tempe, upset State 15-0. The Sun Devils gained nearly 400 yards, but a torrent of fumbles and interceptions helped keep them from scoring. Apart from that, they won most of their games easily, and in the five wins since the Missouri loss, they scored 240 points.
The trouble was that on Saturday night Arizona State was playing a team that could score every bit as much. BYU began the season with every reason to be optimistic. There was Gifford Nielsen at quarterback, a gifted passer who promised to break virtually every national record for throwing and to lead the team to an even better record than last year's 9-2.
And so the season began. Nielsen threw two touchdown passes against Kansas State, six against Utah State and five against New Mexico as the Cougars won three straight. But in BYU's fourth game, against Oregon State in Corvallis, disaster struck. After three more touchdown passes gave the Cougars a 19-0 lead early in the second half, Nielsen was twice intercepted for touchdowns and the Beavers rallied to win 24-19. Far worse, Nielsen injured his left knee.
With Nielsen out for the season the quarterback job went to Marc Wilson, a sophomore. Remarkably, little has changed. Oh sure, the receivers have to hang on a little tighter because Wilson rifles everything and the Cougars run more roll-outs to take advantage of his running ability, but that is all. The team still has a 6'5" quarterback who passes about three of every four times he takes a snap and completes more than 59% of them, many for touchdowns. In his first starting assignment against Colorado State, which was 5-0, Wilson threw seven touchdown passes as the Cougars won easily. Two weeks ago he set an NCAA record, passing for 571 yards against Utah. The only scare BYU has had since Wilson took over came against Wyoming in Laramie, the Cougars winning 10-7. "That's a tough place to play," says BYU Quarterback Coach Doug Scovil. "The stands are so close to the field you can't call audibles, which we do a lot of. Marc tried to force too many passes. He learned a lot from that one. I think he's ready for Arizona State."
Well, not quite. Or maybe Wilson and the rest of his teammates were too ready, too keyed up for the big game. On BYU's second play. Fullback Todd Christensen fumbled, the Sun Devils recovering on the Cougar 40. No great harm done. Arizona State sputtered and Steve Hicks missed a field goal from 46 yards away.
So what happened? Wilson tried his first pass of the evening—BYU's fourth offensive play of the game—and John Harris intercepted and carried to the Cougar nine. On third down Quarterback Dennis Sproul looked for his tight end, was forced to scramble and found his marvelous wide receiver, John Jefferson, floating along the back of the end zone—7-0 State.
The giveaway had just begun. On the first play after the kickoff Tailback Roger Gourley fumbled a hand-off and State recovered on the BYU 13. Three plays lost yardage but this time Hicks was good with a 45-yard field goal and State was ahead 10-0.
Still more. Wilson threw an incomplete pass after the kickoff, whereupon Christensen fumbled once more, the fourth turnover in seven plays. The Cougars escaped without damage again, but late in the quarter Wilson had another pass intercepted. The BYU defense held. However, when the offense couldn't move and had to punt. State had good field position and this time Sproul took it in himself from seven yards out. That made the score 17-0 with no great strain on State's part. The Sun Devil defense, using only three linemen to rush Wilson and keeping close check on receivers coming out of the backfield, was doing a splendid job of containing the BYU passing attack. Brigham Young went to the locker room with three fumbles, two interceptions and no points. And 46 yards total offense, 14 of it passing. Only a splendid job by the Cougar defense had kept the score from being 31-0.
There were a few moments in the second half when it seemed as if Brigham Young might struggle up off the canvas. The first time Arizona State had the ball, it fumbled on its 20 and before you could say turnover, Wilson had hit Flanker Mike Chronister in the end zone. That made it 17-7, and a ball game, maybe.
Except that 27 seconds later State had the points back. Sproul pitched out to Halfback Arthur Lane, who swung wide to his left, stopped and sailed a lefthanded pass to Wingback Chris DeFrance who was wide open. Now the score was 24-7.
And yet it didn't seem an insurmountable margin as Wilson began connecting—he finished the evening with 21 completions in 38 attempts for 283 yards—and the Cougars reached the State 16. Wilson then flipped to Christensen on a swing pass and the fullback was apparently going in for the score when he was hit on the one and fumbled. Minutes later the Cougars were back again, but when Wilson threw into the end zone. State's Michael Lee gathered it in. Pop. End of dream. There were still almost 19 minutes of play remaining, but the crackle was gone from the BYU comeback.
Late in the game the Cougars scored once more but by that time the Sun Devils were busy congratulating themselves on the sideline. And well they should, especially the defense. If the man with the fireworks really knew his football, he'd set off a few rockets for them.