One day last month in Tempe the temperature had just pushed past 113°, which meant it was so hot and dry that your tongue was only wet on one side. But the temperature was just half as high as the football hopes at Arizona State, where Sun Devil fans are giving tongue to predictions like "Rose Bowl." There are about six out-of-state people who buy those prophecies, because Arizona State's offense is hardly one to strike fear in the hearts of its conference rivals. On defense, though, the Sun Devils are going to be hell...and that could well be enough to shock the conference and earn ASU its first-ever all-expenses-paid trip to Pasadena next Jan. 1.
Moreover, the Sun Devils have the good fortune to catch both USC and Washington not only in Tempe but also late in the season, when the offense should be well oiled. By then the Sun Devils could be coming on like gang busters. And not just because of their talent but because of their incentive.
For the first time since late 1979, ASU will be off probation (the school can't appear on TV during the regular season, however) and eligible for a bowl. So what does this mean? Says Coach Darryl Rogers, "I can't answer that until we go to a bowl and find out what we've been missing." Rogers himself is anxious to see what it's like to have a season extend to 12 games. When he coached Michigan State, the Spartans were on probation for three of his four years. Then Rogers moved on to ASU, and the school has been on probation since he arrived. Neither situation was Rogers' doing, but both have given him the reputation of a rehabilitation expert for cheats.
Last season Rogers worked wonders at ASU. Despite the probation status, a leftover from the regime of the controversial Frank Kush, and its depressing side effects—like no TV, no bowl, no nothing—the Sun Devils were 9-2 and led the nation in total offense with 5,486 yards. Rogers is widely considered an offensive whizbang, and that isn't incidental to the Sun Devils' being ranked in the Top 20. For while the Arizona State defense is huge and ornery, the offense gets back only three starters, and not one is a quarterback. The two players vying for that job are Sandy Osiecki from Ansonia, Conn. and Todd Hons from Torrance, Calif. Both were redshirted last year. Hons has yet to take a game snap at ASU, which makes Osiecki the veteran by virtue of the one game he played in 1979 and the one he squeezed into in 1980. In his career, he has attempted four passes and completed two for a total of 17 yards. "We're inexperienced," concedes Hons, "but it won't take us long to get experienced."
Rogers, for one, hopes not, because the Sun Devils play at Houston on Sept. 18 in a game that could determine the course of their season. The coach thinks Osiecki understands the offensive scheme better than Hons, but Hons has quicker feet, which is a big plus behind an inexperienced line. There is a suspicion that should Osiecki, Hons and ASU go clunk, Rogers will turn to a hotshot freshman, Jeff Van Raaphorst from El Cajon, Calif. All too often, as any coach will tell you, dreams of a freshman savior are just that.
Complicating the uncertain picture on offense is the fact that up front, where coaches like to say games are won, ASU is leaky, especially at tackles. The starters probably will be James Keyton and Mike White. The coaching staff figures that neither should play at more than 270 pounds, but both are inclined to pig out and put on their pads at nearly 290.
Ah, but the defense. The heart of it is Outside Linebacker Vernon Maxwell, whom Rogers praises as "truly excellent." But Maxwell sometimes needs motivation, and he does swagger when he sits. However, he is nasty and mean, and when the crowd hollers "Here comes Vernon," an opposing back had better be ready for a dent in his day. Anchoring the secondary is All-America Safety Mike Richardson, who's saddled up and ready to ride herd on any receiver in his neighborhood. He has led ASU in interceptions for three years, with a total of 16, as well as in tackles in the secondary. "We're gonna be awful good," he predicts. Richardson, a senior, has seen all the flash-and-dash the Pac-10 can offer, and if he foresees the Sun Devils shutting it down, it's probably best not to argue.
A further plus is Punter Mike Black, who averaged 42.5 yards per kick in 1981. He credits volunteer Assistant Coach Craig Millbranth with changing the way he holds the ball, from splitting the laces with the first two fingers of his right hand to putting the laces between his thumb and forefinger, which, he says, gives him far better control on the drop. Then there's field-goal kicker Luis Zendejas, a sophomore, who scored 93 points last season. Twice he kicked 14 points in a single game. Both Black and Zendejas seem pressure-proof. With ASU's problems on offense, they will need to make long-distance boots if the Sun Devils are to live up to the sizzling hopes that their defense inspires.