ASU can't afford letdown game at Illinois

One game doesn't a season make, and Arizona State will find that out if it doesn't arrive at Illinois fully focused and ready to match the intensity it showed against Missouri last week.

Lose, and the national ranking goes away. Lose, and the energized fan base gets grumpy again. Lose, and many will go, "Same old Sun Devils."

"If we play a letdown, then we're not going to win," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said.

Truth is, Arizona State can play much better than it did against Missouri. It looked talented enough to run the Tigers off the field in a game that wouldn't have gone into overtime if the Sun Devils weren't so sloppy with turnovers and penalties.

That 37-30 victory, however, was particularly satisfying because the Sun Devils, a team that in recent years had often found ways to lose, found a way to win. Yes, there was a bit of luck, the possession of which -- or the perception of that possession -- is a valuable asset for a team.

"It showed that we found a way to win, and to me, that's what it's all about," Erickson said. "We've lost games like that before and we won this game. Finding a way to get things done is a key to good football teams, and we were able to do that."

The centerpiece of the victory was quarterback Brock Osweiler. While hopes were high for the junior, few expected brilliance, which is what Osweiler produced. He completed 24 of 32 passes for 353 yards with three touchdown passes and no interceptions and rushed five times for 34 yards and a score. He presently ranks 10th in the nation in passing efficiency.

"He understands what's going on as far as where to go with the football and he's been very accurate," Erickson said.

But, again, can he duplicate -- or simply approach -- those numbers a week later on the road? The Illinois defense is questionable, but so too -- surprisingly -- is Arizona State's. Missouri quarterback James Franklin hurt Arizona State passing and running, and the Sun Devils tackled poorly.

The Illini also feature an athletic quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase. He's not as physical a runner as Franklin, but he's far more experienced. He rushed for 868 yards in 2010 and passed for 17 touchdowns. Further, Illinois' offensive coordinator is Paul Petrino, brother of Bobby, Arkansas' coach and evil genius of offense. The Missouri film should provide him plenty of information about the Sun Devils, while the Sun Devils likely won't get much from Illinois' previous two games: Arkansas State and South Dakota State.

For the Illini, the Sun Devils arrive as Missouri did in Tempe last week: A measuring stick for a home team that believes its top-25 caliber.

"They're kind of in the same situation that we're in," Erickson said. "If you look at them a year ago, I think they were 6-6, went to a bowl game. [Coach Ron Zook] feels like he has a football team that can compete for the championship there, so they're kind of in a similar situation that we're in. If you watch them on tape and the returners that they have, they're very talented. We've got our hands full, and our players know that. "

Erickson also could have noted that, not unlikely himself, Zook, too, is on the hot seat.

The Sun Devils have a veteran team, most of whom saw action in a what-might-have-been loss at Wisconsin last year. They know about playing in unfamiliar, hostile environments.

But they haven't proven anything yet. Erickson was asked about moving past the Missouri game.

"You don't have much time to celebrate anything," he said.

That's because celebrating is what you do at the end of a successful season. There's a long way to go until party time for the Sun Devils.