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Is this a Pac-10 desert mirage?

Going against the norm, Arizona State has questions on offense, while Arizona seems set on that side of the ball.

August 25, 2010|Chris Dufresne

Our tour of Pacific 10 Conference schools today focuses on desert landscapes.

Team A: The most valuable player on offense is the kicker, the three-headed quarterback situation remains unsettled, the offense is punchless but the defense is lights out — probably yours.

Does that sound like a team coached by offensive guru Dennis Erickson?

Team B: Defense got run over by Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl last season, loses seven starters and is the biggest question mark entering the 2010 season. The coach brought his star quarterback to Pac-10 media day and is excited at the prospect of producing points as fast as microwave popcorn.

Does that sound like a team coached by gang-tackle guru Mike Stoops?

Generalizations are always dangerous, but we can't help but notice that the football philosophies at Arizona State and Arizona seem upside down.

Erickson, entering his fourth, and most important, season in Tempe, built his reputation as one of the game's offensive innovators. He is considered one of the early proponents of the spread offense, known in his day as "Air Express," with roots dating to the late 1970s when he was offensive coordinator for Jack Elway at San Jose State.

Erickson took his spread to Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State, Miami and Oregon State. He won two national titles at Miami, with the Hurricanes running the spread before it had a name.

Yet, Erickson is 19-18 at Arizona State, is definitely on the hot seat as the team was picked to finish ninth despite having what many believe will be one of the top defenses in the nation. Arizona State led the Pac-10 in five defensive categories and boasts two ferocious talents in junior defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and sophomore linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

"We've got more depth than we've ever had on defense," Erickson boasted at Pac-10 media day. "In our front four, we're two deep about every place … three at some."

Arizona State has posted consecutive losing seasons, though, primarily because of its inability to score.

"That's not in my DNA, and it's not in my players' DNA," Erickson said. "We know where we're at. We know where we're picked. We know exactly what we have to get done. … What we have to do is win, period, end of story."

Arizona State ranked ninth in total offense in the Pac-10 last year — thank goodness Washington State is still in the league.

Erickson spent the year bemoaning the loss of star kicker Thomas Weber, hobbled all year by a groin injury. Weber's absence probably cost Arizona State in a heartbreaking 20-17 loss at Georgia.

"I know I'm going to be two deep at kicker from now on in my career," Erickson said.

Arizona State's offensive problems start with inconsistent play at quarterback, and Erickson has not named his starter for the Sept. 4 opener against Portland State. The choices are Brock Osweiler, Samson Szakacsy and Steven Threet.

Erickson hired Noel Mazzone, most recently at Auburn and Mississippi, as offensive coordinator with a mandate to put a charge into the scoreboard.

"We're doing all the things that are happening in college football right now," Erickson said.

Why did he wait until now?

Offense, conversely, should be the strength at Arizona, which returns every significant contributor except receiver Delashaun Dean, who transferred in July after off-field trouble led to his suspension.

Arizona's offense really started to click last year when Stoops switched quarterbacks after three games, with Nick Foles replacing Matt Scott. Foles earned honorable mention all-conference after passing for 2,486 yards and 19 touchdowns. The highlight was a regular-season-ending win at USC, which clinched a second-place finish in conference.

Arizona's defense was good last year, finishing second behind Arizona State in the Pac-10, but fell apart in a 33-0 Holiday Bowl defeat to Nebraska.

It was a particularly biting loss for Stoops, who made his name as a defensive coordinator under his brother Bob at Oklahoma. Mike was in charge on defense when Oklahoma held Florida State's offense scoreless in a 13-2 victory to capture the 2000 national championship.

It was quite a contrast to last year's bowl debacle against Nebraska.

"I think the loss in the Holiday Bowl really humbled us and fueled us in the off-season," Stoops said at Pac-10 media day. "We realized how quickly things can disintegrate if we don't do things right."

Stoops now must replace more than half of his defense and all three starters at linebacker. He hopes a couple of community college transfers can fill some gaps, but this is one of the most uncertain defenses he has sent into a season.

If Erickson's offense can find a way to score points, Arizona State might be decent. And if Stoops' defense can stop somebody, another bowl season beckons for Arizona.

Strange, huh?

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/dufresnelatimes

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