Arizona State’s Plan to Weather the Storm and Win the Pac-12 South

By Emily Van Buskirk

“So the deal right now is, that if we beat Oregon and if Arizona and Utah both lose Saturday, we clinch,” Arizona State offensive coordinator Rob Likens patiently explained. “Even if we lose to Arizona the next week, because we will end in a three-way tie and they have already figured out the tie-breaker, we win. All right so that could happen. Then, the other scenario is we win out and we automatically win. The other scenario is if Utah wins and we lose, then Utah is in.”

Being fluent in Pac-12 South speak, I quickly cut to the chase.

“So you guys will be watching the Colorado-Utah game then?” I countered.

His three-word response, spoken with such earnest emphasis, felt almost like a promise.

“Oh, heck yeah.”

So the Sun Devils would be watching Saturday – watching and waiting, knowing the full scope of the situation heading into their bout with Oregon Saturday night.

“Our guys know what’s at stake,” Likens said of his Sun Devil squad. “So are they going to play tentative and worry about messing up and ruining their chance or are they going to play loose and free and let it all hang out? That’s kind of the big thing we have been talking to them about this week – what type of team are you going to be, how are you going to show up to that game Saturday?”

Which team indeed. Will we see the dominating offensive powerhouse that put up 38 points in both signature wins over Utah and USC? Will we see the defensive prowess that held Michigan State to just 13 points and almost staved off Stanford? Or will we see mistakes, like the pick six quarterback Manny Wilkins threw in last week’s game against UCLA?

Luckily, playing through adversity is something head Coach Herm Edwards and his staff have been preaching since Day 1 – having the confidence to bounce back from mistakes, to learn from them instead of letting them define you. And confidence just happens to be one of Wilkins greatest strengths, according to Likens.

“He’s extremely confident in himself and the job that he can do,” said Likens. “Last week is a great example – He threw a pick six, it wasn’t necessarily his fault but with what we have on the line and all that he could have really folded right there. But he actually went back out on the field and led us on one of the best drives we’ve had this season and scored a touchdown. It was a true testament to his character and how much he believes in himself – he doesn’t lose his confidence and he just fights to the very end.”

Confidence is another way of saying someone has faith; faith in themselves stemming from faith in those around them, in the system. We already know that’s how the Herm Edwards experiment established itself at ASU – through faith and trust, but playing and coaching for Edwards has morphed into more than that.

“When you drive to work all you are thinking is how you don’t want to disappoint the guy,” clarified Likens. “And it’s not out of fear, like how some people manage programs, it’s out of respect, love – you just want to do a great job for him.”

Likens had doubts in the beginning, like everybody else. But they were quickly erased, replaced with an understanding of what Edwards was all about.

“After being around him for the past couple of months, I get it now,” said Likens. “I understand why Ray Anderson made this courageous move – he wanted to do something new and he took a chance. And I get it now why he chose Herm, because of the type of person he is.”

The type of person who seamlessly assimilated himself into the culture at Arizona State, who has lead the Sun Devils to a 6-4 season in his first year with a 4-3 conference record. The type of person who is on the verge of taking his team to the Pac-12 championship for the first time since 2013. The type of person who helped Coach Likens earn trust from Wilkins, a player who had seen more offensive coordinators than Bowl games.

“He trusts me now and I trust him,” Likens said of his relationship with Wilkins. “One of the things that has made him a better quarterback is that he’s trusting his coordinator and as a result he has become a phenomenal leader.”

Likens and Wilkins together have set the offensive tone at Arizona State, combined with the talented wide receiver N’Keal Harry and speedy running back Eno Benjamin.

But defensively, the Sun Devils have carved out an identity as well. Arizona State ranks first in the Pac-12 and 18th nationally in team tackles for a loss, averaging 7.5 per game. They are good at wreaking havoc – forcing fumbles, defending/intercepting passes, etc. which bodes well for their bout this weekend. If ASU’s defense can cause turnovers, giving its offense more time on the field, then the Sun Devils can control Autzen instead of succumbing to its chaos. But can Wilkins & Co. stay composed?

“Somebody like Manny has been through four coordinator changes, a coaching change, what he’s seen in his life so I don’t think that’s really going to rattle him at all,” explained Likens. “Some of the freshman, yeah there’s some concerns. It’s going to be a huge test. We hope our kids respond the right way, but they haven’t seen this yet so we will see.”

All of the big moments over the course of the Sun Devil’s season have led up to this one but they will have to survive the opening onslaught.

“Oregon has a history of starting really well and you look up on the scoreboard and they put up 14 points on you just like that,” said Likens. “You have to be able to weather the storm.”

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