Playing the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe is not an awful lot of fun. For one thing, games are at night, which means opponents must spend a day in the sun by the motel pool or pump quarters into the air-hockey machine in the lobby or watch two other teams go at it on television. By the time they get to Sun Devil Stadium it is nearly dark, but in the glare of the lights there are maybe 58,000 screaming people—and every one is screaming for Arizona State. Finally, if the Sun Devils score, and they do—an average of 35.8 points per home game this season—the scoreboard at one end of the field does an electronic war dance, while at the other end someone from a fireworks company sends a Fourth of July special soaring through the black sky.
Into this chaos came Brigham Young last Saturday night, once-beaten, second in the nation in total offense, ranked in the Top 20 and 5-0 in the Western Athletic Conference. Chaos won. Of course, the Sun Devils, also ranked in the Top 20 and also beaten only once, helped, but what really happened is that the Cougars walked onto the field and dissolved.
Arizona State won 24-13, a misleading score, for once the Cougars had presented the Sun Devils with a housewarming gift of 17 early points, the game was never close. The victory makes the Sun Devils odds-on favorites to regain the WAC championship they have held so often in recent years and all but guarantees them a trip across the street to the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 25. The man with the fireworks can hardly wait.
Going to the Fiesta Bowl is old sombrero for the Sun Devils. They have been there four times in the last six years, never losing. In 1975 they pulled a major upset when they defeated Nebraska 17-14 to remain unbeaten, a victory that helped them finish the season as the second-ranked team in the country. Ironically, it also led to many of the team's problems last season.
Frank Kush, who has coached the Sun Devils since 1958, takes the blame for that. He feels that he spent too much of the off-season at banquets and giving clinics. Then he didn't work the team as hard as he usually does in August and when they opened the season at home against UCLA before a national television audience, the Sun Devils paid the price. UCLA won 28-10.
"We tried to regroup and couldn't," Kush says. Suddenly everyone was beating the Sun Devils—California, Wyoming, Cincinnati. Arizona State finished 4-7 and definitely did not go to the Fiesta Bowl.
"Frank was a miserable person last year," says a colleague. "He can't adapt to one loss, let alone seven." This year, preseason practice at Tontozona, Arizona State's mountain retreat 125 miles northeast of the campus, was—er—interesting. Kush worked his squad three times a day for more than a week and when the team came down from the mountains, it had what one staff member calls the Kush look.
Which, with one lapse, it has kept all season. Missouri, winless when it arrived in Tempe, upset State 15-0. The Sun Devils gained nearly 400 yards, but a torrent of fumbles and interceptions helped keep them from scoring. Apart from that, they won most of their games easily, and in the five wins since the Missouri loss, they scored 240 points.
The trouble was that on Saturday night Arizona State was playing a team that could score every bit as much. BYU began the season with every reason to be optimistic. There was Gifford Nielsen at quarterback, a gifted passer who promised to break virtually every national record for throwing and to lead the team to an even better record than last year's 9-2.
And so the season began. Nielsen threw two touchdown passes against Kansas State, six against Utah State and five against New Mexico as the Cougars won three straight. But in BYU's fourth game, against Oregon State in Corvallis, disaster struck. After three more touchdown passes gave the Cougars a 19-0 lead early in the second half, Nielsen was twice intercepted for touchdowns and the Beavers rallied to win 24-19. Far worse, Nielsen injured his left knee.