TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State has made it through the tough stretch of the schedule, putting itself in position to win the Pac-12 South.
Next up is the hardest game of the season for the Sun Devils: Colorado.
Yep, a team that’s a 30-point underdog, has lost 21 straight road games and still hasn’t won in its new conference is No. 23 Arizona State’s biggest stumbling block.
Why? With the division title in sight and a stretch of sub-.500 teams coming up, the Sun Devils can’t afford to lose games they’re supposed to win, starting with the Buffaloes on Saturday.
“Obviously, in this league, a lot of things can happen, as you’ve seen,” Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson said. “You can play really well and then all of a sudden you can get on a bad streak. We have a lot of things in front of us that we can accomplish, but we have to go out and accomplish them one game at a time.”
The Sun Devils (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) have put themselves in position, as the clichDe goes, to control their own destiny.
Arizona State lost a game it probably should have won against Illinois early on and couldn’t keep up with No. 7 Oregon two weeks ago as the Ducks pulled away for a 41-27 win. The rest of the way has been good to the Sun Devils, though, giving them a good shot at representing the South in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.
Arizona State is tied with Southern Cal for the division lead, but the Trojans aren’t eligible for the postseason because of their NCAA improprieties a few years back, and the Sun Devils beat them anyway, ending an 11-game losing streak on Sept. 24.
UCLA could have moved into a tie for the lead last week with the Sun Devils off and USC playing a nonconference game against Notre Dame. Instead, the Bruins got run over by Arizona, which had lost its previous five games and fired its coach the week before.
That leaves Arizona State driving the bus with what should be an easy schedule ahead: four of the five remaining teams have losing records and none are above .500 in the Pac-12.
It seems like an easy road to the title, but the Sun Devils are a team that’s had trouble finishing things off in the past, so they’re trying not to look ahead, even against the injury-riddled Buffaloes.
“I think in the game of football, sometimes you’ll see a team looking past another team,” Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler said. “(This week) it will be a good test for us.”
Colorado (1-7, 0-4) has gone through one season-long test.
The Buffaloes have struggled to keep up with the speed in the Pac-12 after their switch from the more rugged Big 12 and have been hammered by injuries.
Colorado has already lost a total of 70 games by players on the two-deep roster or who figured to play prominent roles on special teams. The injury report for the Arizona State game features 18 players, including five who are out for the season.
The injuries have forced the Buffaloes to shift players around to new positions, bump up ones who might not have been ready developmentally and to have others burn redshirts so the team has enough to play and practice with.
Through it all, the Buffaloes have tried to keep their focus, somehow find ways to stay positive and win a game, end that long road losing streak.
“There are guys that want to see this program leave a legacy and help try to show these kids how to win, the younger ones, try and help springboard us into 2012,” Colorado coach Jon Embree said. “There are guys, the road issue is something that is still important to them.”
One key injury is quarterback Tyler Hansen’s concussion.
The senior, who’s been hindered by injuries most of his career, took a shot to the head in the second quarter of last week’s loss to Oregon and didn’t return. His status for Saturday’s game is uncertain, leaving the Buffaloes in the hands of Nick Hirschman.
The freshman quarterback only played a handful of minutes at the end of games against Stanford and Washington, but saw plenty of action against Oregon after Hansen went down. Hirschman completed 8 of 18 passes for 71 yards and was sacked three times.
“I wish I had some plays back,” he said. “I wish I had some balls that I didn’t put where I wanted them to be. But overall it was a great experience. I thought I played well.”
He — or Hansen — and the rest of the Buffaloes will certainly need to play well on Saturday. The Sun Devils are waiting and, they hope, ready.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)