Herm Edwards knows you wouldn’t have paid to see it.
To most fans, the first 57 minutes or so were pretty unwatchable.
Punt. Punt. Fumble. Punt. Missed field. More punts. More misses.
Let’s call it exactly was it was: Ugly.
But let’s also be sure not to confuse ugly with bad.
Through the ups, downs, and lengthy stretches of frustration of Saturday’s 10-7 Arizona State win over No. 18 Michigan State, tantalizing glimpses of a better football future were able to shine through.
There was a defense on the verge of dominance. Bigger, stronger, faster athletes flew all over the field. A collective mentality was unfazed by critical moments. A young quarterback engineered a drive towards stardom.
These all hinted at what Edwards wants to create in Tempe.
Edwards wasn’t brought here after the 2017 season to rebuild ASU. He was here to tear it down and construct a program from the ground up that would be able to reach his boss’ lofty expectations. As ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson famously outlined during the press conference announcing the firing of former head coach Todd Graham, the Sun Devils should be in the top three in the Pac-12 and a top 15 program nationally.
After decades spent firmly in the middle tier of each, retooling the old model wouldn’t cut it. A fresh coat of paint or some rearranged furniture wouldn’t elevate Sun Devil football.
No, ASU was a full-on fixer upper.
So Anderson and Edwards got to work with their New Leadership Model.
A quality staff brimming with NFL experience was assembled. More resources were devoted to the program. Recruiting and talent evaluation efforts was modernized. Once-forgotten talent hotbeds in California were prioritized. A promise to play the best players, regardless of seniority, was made and kept.
All of these elements were on display last Saturday afternoon in Spartan Stadium, but perhaps none was more evident than that last one.
With any coaching change, there’s going to be roster churn. Simply put, not all players on the roster fit what the new staff wants to do, nor do all players want to try to fit in. That, along with the different types of players that Edwards and his staff want in their program, has led to a strong willingness—and in some cases, outright need—to play freshmen.
Lots of them.
Last season, several played key roles, primarily on defense. This year, those now-sophomore defenders have taken the next step to help form the core of a stingy defense.
“We've given up 21 points,” Edwards said of the total allowed through three games. “I don't know, I've been around a lot of football, I think that's good. If you do that, you have a chance to win football games.”
Just a few years ago, ASU’s defense was the laughing stock of college football. Now a group heavy on underclassmen is among the best in the conference and becoming a pillar of Herm Edwards Football.
“We’re building something here that has a chance to be really special,” said ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales.
And there’s that word again.
You can't create something to stand the test of time—or the rigors of Pac-12 play—without a strong foundation. This year, it's being laid all over the field. Through three games, 28 true or redshirt freshmen have played this season.
Let that sink in.
TWENTY. EIGHT. FRESHMEN.
Many have come on defense, further brightening the prospects on that side of the ball. But it’s on offense where many of Saturday’s biggest struggles—and brightest success—came.
Two true freshmen started on the offensive line against Michigan State, which is nearly unheard of. A trio of true freshmen receivers played critical snaps, as did another at tight end.
Leading it all was Jayden Daniels at quarterback.
Through 57 minutes, playing behind that reshuffled line, he was held in check. The team had been limited to three points and 141 yards. With 3:34 left, they had to drive 75 yards against one of the nation’s elite defenses, all with 75,000 Spartan falls yelling in their ear.
When Edwards approached his young quarterback before that do-or-die drive, he had a simple message.
“Here it is. We're not going to get the ball back. We need to score,” he told him.
Daniels replied, “Coach, we're good.'"
He was right. Daniels led his team down the field for the game-winning touchdown.
The drive was a testament to how the youth rose to the occasion. It also served to highlight how the team has taken on Edwards’ mentality. Over his decades in the game, Edwards has seen just about everything the game can throw at him. Highs or lows, he presents the same measured either we do it or we don’t approach.
After nearly two years in Tempe, it’s rubbing off on the players.
“They never blinked," Edwards said. "They just didn’t.”
It was a big drive in a big moment in a big win. Not only were the Sun Devils able to overcome quality opponent, they overcame their own mistakes and inexperience.
"When you win, it gives you more confidence as a player,” Edwards said. “You won a game, and it's not pretty. Right now, offensively, we're trying to find our way. You keep building confidence on little things you're able to do.”
Heading into Pac-12 play, stacking those little things will be imperative and challenging. Despite his impressive start, Daniels still has just three games of collegiate experience. The offensive line remains a major question mark. For every impressive 75-yard touchdown drive, there are going to be a few three-and-outs. ASU’s defense has risen to the task to keep opponents in check, but it's a lot of pressure to throw on them week after week.
In an age where 45-42 shootouts are becoming the norm, Edwards knows that, for now, his Sun Devils will have to find comfort on the other end of the spectrum.
“It's nothing that you'd want to pay to watch,” he said, “but we're going to have to play this way because that's what's appropriate for us. When the offense gets going, maybe other things will happen, but for right now, we got to keep it tight.”
Points—both real and style—may be in short supply for a while. Get used to it, Sun Devil fans. Embrace it.
Since he took over, Edwards has refreshingly approached his job with blunt honesty. He hasn’t tried try to hide the inevitable struggles in coachspeak. For every few steps forward in this rebuilding process, there’s going to be a couple back.
"We're a work in progress,” Edwards said after the game. “This is not over yet by any stretch of the imagination. We're going to hit some potholes."
The win over Michigan State was significant, a victory that improved the Sun Devils to 3-0 and got them ranked in the Top 25. But being ranked is a long ways off from waking up the proverbial “sleeping giant” moniker that has hung over Tempe. Even if Edwards and Anderson continue to build this program the way they want, there’s no guarantee that conference titles will follow.
But at certain points last Saturday, during an ugly football game in East Lansing, Michigan, the potential of ASU football could be seen. There are no promises, but plenty of promise.
The Sun Devils are on a good, and bumpy, path.
Let's see where it leads.