Sun Devils will have tough time bettering 1996 season

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) Now that Arizona State has had a couple of days to shake off the sting of its Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State, the Sun Devils are facing the challenge of trying to get back.
To accomplish the feat, they will have to do so without many of the players who were cornerstones in the coach Bruce Snyder’s rebuilding effort.
“I’m going to miss my senior friends,” said guard Kyle Murphy, a junior who will return to anchor an offense that loses six starters. “It’s going to hurt for a while. But we’ve got to learn from it and let it all sink in.”
All told, the Rose Bowl marked the final game for no fewer than 13 starters or key reserves.
Among those on that list are All-America tackle Juan Roque, wide receiver Keith Poole, tight end Steve Bush and defensive linemen Shawn Swayda and Brent Burnstein. All were part of Snyder’s first recruiting class.
But perhaps the biggest loss will be quarterback Jake “The Snake” Plummer, who became a starter midway through his freshman season and never redshirted. His leadership and improvisation set the tone for ASU’s improbable run this fall.
“I’ve gotten so used to him and what he can do with the football,” Snyder said. “It is a miracle to some people, but every game he has played like that for ASU. He is truly, truly a great college football player. There is none better.”
All season long, Snyder has called this year’s seniors a special crop.
Only Roque was widely recruited, the others often judged too small or too slow to make an impact. Even Plummer, named a prep All-America by two magazines, was considered a gamble by recruiters because of his 160-pound frame.
But as a group, they matured into a unit that took on all comers and usually came out ahead.
“One thing we had every game was the togetherness of our team,” Bush said. “We felt like we shouldn’t be beaten. There wasn’t anything that a guy wouldn’t do for another person to win. That’s a feeling I hadn’t had before.”
Snyder said: “This team has given me everything they had. They have a great work ethic and they never gave up. We did not want to just be in the Rose Bowl. We wanted to come play, compete and win.”
Now Snyder and his underclassmen must face the future without the faces they have come to rely on the last two seasons. Two more may yet depart if defensive end Derrick Rodgers and running back Terry Battle opt to declare for the NFL draft.
But largely because of the work provided by the departing seniors, there is reason for optimism on the horizon.
“I think the foundation of the program is in place,” said Snyder, who agreed to a contract extension New Year’s Eve that will keep him at ASU through the 2001 season. “Our academic success is going up; we haven’t had any problems legally. I think it’s just beginning.”
In addition, those left behind are likely to have Roque’s words ringing in their ears.
“The guys that come back next year should keep on rolling,” he said.