Forgive Arizona State head coach Todd Graham for feeling comfortable at a job. For the first time in a few years, Graham might actually put down some roots, quickly reinvigorating the Sun Devil football program with a new approach after Dennis Erickson failed to return the program to its glory days.
Graham took over the Sun Devils and won eight games last year, blowing out Navy in the Kraft Hunger bowl to finish the season on a three game winning streak after a four-game slide nearly derailed a 5-1 start. The expectations were raised heading into the season, with the Sun Devil offense looking the part of an Pac-12 dark horse and Graham’s reputation as a defensive guru helping to erase some concerns up front.
The team’s decisive loss to Stanford made it clear that the Sun Devils weren’t quite ready to run among the elite of the Pac-12, but Graham’s knockout blow of USC will likely be something that carries this program forward — with Lane Kiffin’s proverbial kill shot the envy of fans everywhere, and something that clearly put ASU back on the national map.
To get us ready for Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game, I swapped questions with Cody Ulm of House of Sparky. I did my best to answer his questions over there while he took the time to answer some of mine here.
Hope you enjoy.
1) First things first: Where did that second half explosion come from and were there signs it was coming?
In no way did anyone see that coming. Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor had two huge turnovers that gave the Sun Devils the ball with premium field position late in the first half and they had to settle for field goals. Then, the Trojans came out of the locker room looking unstoppable with a 46-second drive to retake the lead. So the timing of USC’s implosion and Arizona State’s finest hour couldn’t have been more odd.
In a way though, that’s what makes Arizona State such a scary proposition for opponents. No, 28-7 third quarter runs aren’t going to happen on a regular basis because I doubt any team could face plant quite in the same way as the Trojans did. But in that quarter, the Sun Devils had three scoring drives of under 1:20 and the fourth score was a Darby pick-six. On both sides of the ball, ASU is opportunistic and aggressive. And when you factor in that Arizona State’s tempo is Oregon-esque when they execute properly, those type of outbursts are always a palpable possibility.
2) Notre Dame might not face a better quarterback than Taylor Kelly this season. He seems like quite a story as well, a little known two-star prospect that might be the best QB in the Pac-12. An accurate passer also looked like a potentially lethal dual-threat player as well. How well suited is he for Todd Graham’s offense?
Depending on how you feel about Kevin Hogan, I think that first statement just might be dead-on. But to answer your question, there isn’t a more ideal quarterback for Graham’s system. Coach Graham loves to put the pedal to the metal with his “high octane” offense. And to accomplish that, he needs a quarterback who consistently makes quick decisions and always makes the most of what the defense gives him. That’s precisely what Kelly does.
In a perfect world, Graham would probably like his quarterback to have a bit more arm strength. That said, I can’t remember I time that Kelly’s arm has actually cost ASU a game. And now that Arizona State has given him a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Jaelen Strong this season, he’s now finally the type of quarterback who can carry his team to victories. The Devils are only four games in to the 2013 season but the Kelly-Strong connection is already one of the most deadly combinations in the nation. The duo has the back shoulder pass down on lock, which allows the offense something to fall back on when all else fails.
The biggest knock on Kelly has been his play away from Sun Devil Stadium. For whatever reason, he just never seems to be in his comfort zone on the road. He’s always less aggressive, more prone to mistakes and it takes him far longer to get into a rhythm. So that’s certainly something to watch for this weekend. Also, the “dual-threat” moniker hasn’t held true this season before the USC game. While he’s never had blazing speed, he’s always at least been an instinctive runner who makes the right reads. This year, he has chosen to display that less often. He’s keeping far less read options and relying on his progressions instead of tucking and taking off. Of course, his rushing hot streak could carry over into this week because, as you touched on, Notre Dame has been burned by quarterbacks on the ground this season.
3) Speaking of the Sun Devils head coach, how have ASU fans warmed to Graham? He came to Tempe with a “unique” reputation, especially in Pittsburgh. What are the early returns?
Plain and simple, this fan base has fallen in love with Graham. He’s already being labeled as the savior of Arizona State football and it’s not just because of his product on the field. He’s infused tradition into a program sorely lacking a identity. Just by doing little things like throwing the game ball into the stands and reestablishing the beloved Camp Tontozona, he’s gotten each and every Sun Devil firmly in his corner. And the fanbase is reciprocating. Just last week against USC, Graham admitted that he had to change the way his defense got their calls because the student section was so loud.
Don’t get me wrong, no one is claiming the man walks on water. Graham’s propensity to burn timeouts on defense has become a running joke among ASU fans. And he still makes some baffling decisions from time-to-time (like that pooch-punt against Stanford). But those are minor gripes when you factor in all he’s done for the program in just under two years. He certainly earned his extension in my eyes.
4) The two best defensive tackles in the country might be on the same field this weekend. How has Will Sutton dealt with the high expectations heaped on him entering the season? What’s your assessment of the defense as a whole this year? Is the run defense this team’s achilles heel?
Entering last week’s game, I had been beginning to hear some unfair assessments of Sutton’s play. Some pundits were claiming that when he worked so hard to bulk up to 300 pounds this offseason, he put on “bad weight.” If I had to guess, those folks were just looking at the box scores.
Before last week’s two tackle for loss, one sack performance, the numbers weren’t exactly there for Sutton. But if these critics would have been watching the games, it would have been painfully obvious that Sutton was being double-teamed on probably 90% of his snaps (if not more). And when you factor in some of the individual All-American caliber talent along the offensive lines of Stanford, USC and Wisconsin, that certainly saying something.
As the nation saw last week, Arizona State’s defense can make some plays when Sutton gets rolling. But until they fix that run defense, they’re not going to be able to hang with the big boys. Honestly though, on a play-by-play basis, the run defense hasn’t been entirely awful. But just when you think they’re doing a good job limiting the damage, they’ll allow a huge 25-yard gain off the edge. And then another. And another.
I thought entering the season that the defensive line depth had improved but compounding injuries quickly sapped that theory. Arizona State will likely be missing their second best space eater in Jaxon Hood (hamstring) this weekend once again so expect Notre Dame to have no problem running wild. Yet as I said, this defense is opportunistic in every sense of the word. So if the offense gives them a big lead to work with or the turnovers begin to pile up, you can be sure they’ll take full advantage.
5) This offense looks dangerous. They move quickly, they put up points in a hurry, and when things are clicking, you see coaches get fired at airports. Juco transfer Jaelen Strong has gone over 100 yards in three straight games. Marion Grice had a dozen touchdowns in September. Do you think this weekend turns into a shootout?
Well, it takes two to tango, so it will be a shootout if Notre Dame is able to keep pace. And at this point, I don’t see that happens. From what I’ve seen, the Irish just aren’t built to compete that way. If they’re going to hang with Arizona State, they’ll have to get them out of their high-speed comfort zone early and force some three-and-outs.
I’d say stopping the run is key for Notre Dame but so far, we’ve seen Arizona State succeed despite not hitting their ideal yard-per-carry. I know this may be strange to hear considering his statistics but outside of the red zone, Grice isn’t actually living up to expectations. After averaging 6.6 yards per carry last season, he’s down to 3.9. Even though some poor blocking is to blame, Grice’s unparalleled vision just hasn’t consistently been there this year. Last week against USC, the run blocking was the best it has been and Grice took full advantage. Now, it’s just about carrying that over to Notre Dame. And I have my doubts that Dr. Disruptive, a.k.a Louis Nix, allows them to get that same push.
6) Lie Detector Test: What’d you think of the last minute referee work in the Wisconsin game?
I wrote as soon as it happened that it was irresponsibly unacceptable on the part of the officiating crew to allow that to happen and I still firmly believe that. Their lack of urgency was embarrassing and Wisconsin fans had every right to be livid. That said, Arizona State played the better game and deserved to win. But as all sports fans know, just because you play the better game doesn’t mean you always win. The Badgers were primed to the steal that one due to Arizona State’s lackadaisical defense allowing a late drive with 1:36 left.
But what most didn’t factor in during all the commotion is that a walk-off field goal was far from a guarantee. The Badgers’ kicking game has been atrocious this season and Arizona State can certainly get some interior push from time-to-time with Sutton paving the way. And from the feedback I heard, Wisconsin fans definitely understood that. There are always going to be those rabid fanatics who say they got robbed in these type of situations but I’d like to compliment the Badger fanbase as a whole for handling it with so much class. We had a substantial amount of Wisconsin fans come over to our site to congratulate Arizona State fans and share their perspectives. Not to bag on Sun Devil fans but I’m not sure they would have handled it similarly if the shoe was on the other foot.