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Erickson puts it together at ASU

On Sports
by: kyle green Arizona State football coach Dennis Erickson says his 2011 crew “is the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Last Saturday night, after Arizona State's 43-22 rout of Southern Cal, Dennis Erickson was on Cloud Nine.

A few days later, the fifth-year coach of the Sun Devils had his feet planted back firmly on the ground.

'Just because we beat SC,' he says dryly, 'doesn't mean we're going to beat anybody else.'

Next up for 25th-ranked Arizona State (3-1) is winless Oregon State Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.

Erickson is in no mood to hear about how OSU (0-3), a 17-point underdog, ought to be an easy mark. Or how the Devils, coming off the big win over the Trojans and facing visits to Utah and Oregon the following two weekends, might be looking past the Beavers.

'We're not going to look past anybody, particularly Oregon State,' Erickson says. The Beavers 'have beaten us three straight years. They came in here two years ago and kicked our ass.

'Most of our players have never beaten them. We have nothing but respect for their program. We'd better be ready to play.'

Arizona State's romp past Southern Cal was a cornerstone victory for a program that has seemingly underachieved for years, and for a coach who was under fire after three straight sub-par seasons.

USC had won 11 straight over the Sun Devils, including five in a row at Tempe. Erickson is now 2-8 against them in his career - the other victory the resounding 31-21 win at Reser Stadium in 2000, his second of four seasons at Oregon State. That broke a string of 26 straight OSU losses to the Trojans.

'Very comparable,' Erickson says. 'Beating SC at that time (2000) was huge for Oregon State. We hadn't won many games, period.

'But with an 11-year drought at Arizona State, (Saturday's win) was just as important. We all felt elation more than anything.'

A 6-6 campaign in 2010 made it three straight seasons without a bowl appearance for Arizona State. A good portion of the Sun Devil faithful was calling for the coach's head.

But with 19 returning starters from a team that lost heartbreakers to Stanford (17-13), Southern Cal (34-33), Oregon State (31-28) and Wisconsin (20-19), Erickson told me before the season the 2011 crew 'is the best team I've had since I've been here.'

During our July interview, Erickson also said junior quarterback Brock Osweiler had a chance to be best he'd ever coached in the college ranks. At the time, I thought it was hyperbole.

But the kid from Kalispell, Mont., was sensational against Southern Cal, completing 25 of 32 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns and scrambling effectively on several occasions. At 6-8 and 240, he is a physical specimen, but he is a polished signal-caller, too, with only a half-dozen starts under his belt.

'Brock is really athletic for such a big guy,' Erickson says. 'He can see over anyone, he has a very accurate arm, and he has a Jonathan Smith-like competitiveness.'

Erickson believes Osweiler has an NFL future. The only NFL QB that tall I can remember is Dan McGwire, younger brother of Mark McGwire, who had an undistinguished five-year career with Seattle and Miami.

'Brock's more athletic than Dan was,' Erickson says. 'He's not that much taller than (6-6) Derek Anderson. And Brock is smart. He has a lot of things to improve on, but he's learning all the time.'

After wins over Cal Davis and Missouri, Arizona State stumbled in its third game, losing 17-14 at Illinois. The Fighting Illini managed only 240 yards total offense, but ASU had 91 yards in penalties and three turnovers, and Osweiler was sacked six times.

'We played liked crap,' Erickson says. 'We played pretty well on defense, but they blitzed us, and we didn't react very well to it.

'One thing about that game, we learned something from it as to how teams are going to attack us.'

Erickson appears to finally be bearing the fruits of an outstanding 2009 recruiting class that included the likes of Osweiler, tailback Cameron Marshall, receiver Jamal Miles and 6-3, 250-pound linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

'We're getting there,' Erickson says. 'We have some depth, thank God, because we've had a lot of injuries, particularly on defense. But we've had some guys step up.

'It takes time - five or six years to get a program where you want it. It's not always about getting the best players, it's about how they fit into what you do, the attitude you want. Every school is different that way.

'If people have enough patience, you can build a solid program. Obviously, people don't have that kind of patience in this business. Mike (Riley) is a prime example of that.'

Erickson is an admirer of Riley, his successor at Oregon State, and empathetic to what he is going through this season.

'Down periods happen,' Erickson says. 'How about all the wins he has had? People have short memories.

'(The Beavers) have had injuries, they've lost players, but there's a lot of talent there. I've told our players, that program is about quality, about toughness, about tradition, about guys who believe. It's a program that has been built over a long period of time. You're going to have years when things don't go the way you want.'

Erickson has had a few of those at Arizona State. Now, though, the Sun Devils are in the driver's seat in the Pac-12's Southern Division. The next three weeks - against OSU, Utah and Oregon - will do much to determine the Devils' fate.

'I don't have a feel for where we are, really,' Erickson says. 'I know our goals are to win our division, to win the conference championship game, to get to the Rose Bowl. But that is every team's goal right now. To lose one game doesn't mean it's over.'

To win one game - even as big as beating Southern Cal - doesn't mean it's easy cruising the rest of the way. Nobody knows that better than Dennis Erickson. But it sure beats the alternative.