Asu Success Is Talk Of The Town, Now.


That posse of feisty football players that Rim Country sports fans turned out to watch during preseason training at Camp Tontozona, near Kohl's Ranch, has rounded into a national championship contending team.

Little did most spectators realize last August, while taking in a Arizona State Sun Devil practice in the cool mountain pines, that a gridiron juggernaut was being molded by first-year head coach Dennis Erickson.

Even West Coast media members and sports beat writers, whose full time job is to cover the PAC-10, had no idea how good the Devils would be. They unanimously picked the Devils to finish fourth in the conference.

After ASU left Tontozona to return to its Tempe campus, the Devils went on a 8-0 victory run that has the team ranked fourth in the BCS standings -- sixth in both the AP and USA Today polls -- and fans dreaming of a major bowl berth.

Arizona State is 8-0 for the first time since 1996 and only the fifth time in school history.

Erickson is also the first ASU coach to win his first five PAC-10 games at the school.

Those so-called fans who were jeering Erickson's selection because of his vagabond nature and supposed fielding of players with little discipline, are now cheering his every play call.

Many local fans, including town vice mayor Tim Fruth and his family, traveled to Sun Devil Stadium Oct. 27 to watch the Devils dismantle the California Bears, 31-20.

Fruth's daughter, Caitlin, is a freshman at ASU and among those who watched the Sun Devils during their training stint at Tontozona.

Also in the audience at the California game was former Payson High School football star Matt Sopeland, who once was a freshman member of the ASU team.

This scribe and his wife also attended the homecoming clash.

The success of the ASU team has drawn the attention of football fans from around the country.

The Devil's next game, tomorrow (Saturday) against the fifth-ranked Oregon Ducks (7-1) is being billed as football's biggest game of the year.

It can be seen in the Rim Country on FSN Arizona, beginning at 3:30 p.m.

ESPN has chosen the game for a national broadcast, but it will be blacked out in Payson on that channel and aired by Fox College Sports, which owns PAC-10 television rights in the state.

Trey Bender and former ASU All-American tackle Juan Roque will call the game for FSN, while Jody Jackson will broadcast from the sidelines of Autzen Stadium.

On radio, it will be broadcast on 620 KTAR AM by play-by-play announcer Tim Healey and color analyst, Jeff Van Raaphorst.

For those who listen on the radio, Van Raaphorst-- the Sun Devil quarterback, when ASU beat Michigan in the 1987 Rose Bowl -- provides entertaining and insightful coverage of which few other announcers are capable.

More than a handful of Payson die-hard ASU fans watch Sun Devil away football games on the TV, turn down the volume, and listen to Healey and Van Raaphorst's commentary.

Tomorrow's meeting will be the 28th between the Devils and Ducks. ASU leads the series 16-11 and is 8-6 in Autzen Stadium, often considered one of the toughest stadiums in the country for visiting teams.

Last year, the Ducks pounded ASU 48-13 in Sun Devil Stadium.

While ASU was prepping at Tontozona, most eyes were on quarterback Rudy Carpenter who had an up-and-down season the previous year.

While Carpenter's screwy throwing motion drives former coaches, including myself, and football purists, nuts, he has proven in the first eight games to be one of the conference's most successful quarterbacks.

Against California, Carpenter's first quarter fumble was returned for a TD to give the Bears an early 7-0 lead.

But the Sun Devil signal caller righted himself and went on to lead the team to a rousing victory in front of about 70,000 rabid fans.

Another player popular with local spectators at Tontozona was running back Keegan Herring. Most remember him from his playing days at Peoria High School.

Among the biggest attractions of Tontozona is the closeness fans can get to the players. There are no stands or bleachers, so spectators align themselves directly on the sidelines, as close as coaches are to the players.

Watching and listening from up close, it was obvious Herring is a gregarious young man who brings a bit of lightheartedness to the field.

Herring, who is now starting due to an injury to Ryan Torain, was the subject of a feature on ESPN's "College Game Day" show on Oct. 27.

So far this year, Herring has 576 yards on 97 carries.

If the Sun Devils can send the Ducks quacking, they would travel Nov. 10 to UCLA. Kick off is at 12:30 p.m. and ABC will air the game.

ASU also has this year a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game against USC and a week later, a date with the U. of A. Wildcats.

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