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For Arizona State, playing another football game might be the real victory

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels runs the ball during the second half against USC.
Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels runs the ball during the second half against USC on Nov. 7 at the Coliseum.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

As his team finally reconvened on the field last week, his program at last able to shift its focus back toward football, Arizona State coach Herm Edwards had a question for his players.

“Where,” he said, “do you go from here?”

In a normal season, that type of remark is usually reserved for heartbreaking defeats and frustrating losing streaks, a call to action in the face of adversity.

But this is no normal season — for Arizona State perhaps more than any other program in college football. The Sun Devils haven’t played a game in almost a month. They’re hopeful they can take the field for only the second time all year on Saturday against UCLA in Tempe, Ariz.

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They’re long past the point of being able to save a campaign once brimming with expectation. All they can do now is salvage what remains of a schedule decimated by a COVID-19 outbreak within the team.

The UCLA linemen are now just as willing as position coach Justin Frye to verbalize their displeasure. But no one is taking anything personally.

“It’s a shame,” Edwards said Monday, at the start of Arizona State’s first relatively normal week of practice since playing its first and, so far, only game of the season at USC on Nov. 7.

“We went almost eight months [without an outbreak during the offseason] and we were doing a pretty good job and then it affected us. We’re glad we’re past that, now we can turn the page and would like to continue to play football games.”

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The Sun Devils entered an already delayed season with their sights set on a Pac-12 title, picked to finish second in the preseason media poll in the Pac-12 South. In their opener at the Coliseum, they were leading USC by 13 points late in the fourth quarter on national TV.

But the Trojans rallied for a 28-27 victory.

Arizona State hasn’t played a game since.

“[The virus] kind of got us and it just kept going,” Edwards said. “And before you knew it, we had a problem.”

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The first ominous sign was a canceled practice five days after the USC loss. Within 24 hours, the Sun Devils’ scheduled Nov. 14 home opener against California was called off.

Positive coronavirus tests and resulting contact tracing had knocked the team below the Pac-12’s required minimum number of 53 available scholarship players. Even the 66-year-old Edwards, who is in his third season coaching the program, contracted the illness.

“I told my wife when we first started this deal, ‘You know what? I’m probably going to catch it,’ ” Edwards said. “I was well aware of that. I knew exactly what I was walking into, and I did everything possible not to do it.”

Because of timing issues related to mandatory 14-day quarantines for players who had come within close contact of those who tested positive, as well as required cardiac testing for players recovering from the virus, the Sun Devils had to call off games against Colorado and Utah.

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They are the only Football Bowl Subdivision program yet to play multiple games this season (excluding New Mexico State and Connecticut, independent programs that suspended their seasons in August) and the only Power Five team with three straight cancellations because of COVID-related issues on its own roster.

Any slim conference title hopes are likely out the window as well. They can no longer feign a sense of normalcy amid the harsh realities this fall has delivered.

“I wanted to see how good this team was going to be,” said Jay Daniels, the father of sophomore quarterback and San Bernardino native Jayden Daniels. “They’re on the cusp of getting over that hump to be a real contender. … It’s disappointing that they didn’t get to continue, to see where they could go.”

But as the weeks went by and the cancellations piled up, Jay noticed a different demeanor from his 19-year-old son, a perspective only gained once football could no longer be taken for granted.

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Despite the COVID-19 problems at Arizona State, the game between the Sun Devils and UCLA is still scheduled for Saturday.

“Three games is better than no games,” Jay said. “Most kids will take anything at this point, just to get that opportunity to play, to show they can play.”

Though the team hasn’t specified whether its entire roster will be available against UCLA, Edwards offered a similar explanation last week when asked why it’s so important for Arizona State to push on, why it still matters where exactly the Sun Devils go during this late-season restart.

There are exposure and recruiting considerations, sure, plus a desire to build momentum entering next season. But there’s another reason too, a much more basic desire Edwards believes he shares with his players.

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“You have to finish things in life, regardless of what it looks like and what it feels like,” he said. “You can’t quit. You don’t get to tap out. That’s never an option.

“You don’t realize how much you miss it until it’s taken away from you.”


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