"That's it. Be very, very specific that the key to winning football games, especially in your first game of the year, is to not beat yourself." ***
Arizona State's first opponent of the 2012 season, Northern Arizona, returns 15 starters and is projected to be one of the upper echelon teams in the FCS' Big Sky conference. They are led by former Chandler Hamilton running back Zach Bauman who collected over 2,400 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns in his first two seasons in flagstaff, and quarterback Gary Grossart who passed for 2,700 yards and posted 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2011.
Graham said that the Lumberjacks certainly have his full attention.
"I think that their quarterback is a very good player," Graham commented. "Our focus has been nothing but them. Our deal is to start this deal off 1-0 and to do that we have to really focus on them. They have a really good tailback; he is a guy that can definitely play at this level. He is a guy that we have to keep in check. They are going to give him the ball, run screens, get him out of the backfield and he is the guy to stop.
"I think the quarterback extends plays. I like him. He can really run with the ball. I have watched him in a lot of big games that he has played in and he is very calm, reacts very well against the blitz so we have to keep him corralled and not let him hurt us scrambling. Their receiving core is really good too."
Even though the team has been preparing in earnest for NAU, Graham remarked that the Sun Devils need to additionally focus on themselves and their task at hand.
"The key for us defensively is to get guys to do what they are coached to do every play, not 80 or 90 percent of the plays but every play," Graham explained. "Take away what you're supposed to take away. If you're supposed to have A-gap be in it. That is going to be the key for us; remembering how we have been trained and don't revert back to other things."
One of those regressions that Graham doesn't want to see is the tendency to give up big plays on defense. He cited over aggressiveness as the usual culprit in those cases.
"Guys sometimes have all the right intentions but operate outside the system and that's probably been the biggest challenge," Graham said. "These guys want to win but you have to make sure you do not operate outside the system. I showed them a tape of examples from last season, that if this guy would have just taken the A-gap, a very simple thing, when you are in one-back everybody has a gap and if he takes that gap you have another win on your schedule last year; but he didn't get in his gap.
"That is why I am so passionate about the little things, about the details of things. I want them to know that that cannot happen. We are going to make some mistakes no-doubt, but I want to make sure we minimize them and that we do not have critical mistakes."
"Taylor will be the every down guy and Mike (Eubank) is going to play as he progresses," Graham explained. "Eubank's package is going to continue to grow. We are going to have Taylor do the things he does well and Mike do the things he does well. We are pretty comfortable using two quarterbacks but I do think that Taylor will get the majority of the reps.
"It won't be half and half. It will be more like two-thirds and a third. Here's the thing, if I call a play and it works, obviously I am going to call that play again. It depends on what's working. I'm hoping we can play 80-plus plays with Taylor playing 50 and Mike playing about 30."
On the injury front Graham stated that the two players that are in doubt for Thursday are defensive lineman Corey Adams and wide receiver Kyle Middlebrooks. "I don't think that either one of those guys will play," Graham said. "Corey, which I'm pretty fired up about, is feeling a lot better today. I think it's going to be soon that he will get back. I think that we could probably play Kyle if we wanted to this weekend, but we probably will not."
Running back Cameron Marshall was held out of practice for a couple of weeks during fall camp, but did return to full practice a few days ago and Graham indicated that he won't limit his carries versus NAU. Fellow running back James Morrison who suffered a weightlifting injury and defensive lineman Jake Sheffield (calf) are both excepted to be cleared to play Thursday.
Granted, a game against such an opponent like NAU is the ultimate lose-lose contest. A big win is expected and frankly won't generate any excitement, while a nail biting victory, let alone a loss, could fire off a multitude of alarms and dim projections for the rest of the season.
Graham isn't interested in sending a strong message through the team's season opener, but is rather focused on the bottom line.
"I just want to win," Gram said. "I don't get too much into (wining big). Obviously, we will get better every single day, every single game. I told the kids the other day, a guy that plays every down actually plays about 6 minutes and 15 seconds actually doing something through the course of a whole game. You take ten football games, and that's one hour. That is not very much. These guys go through an awful lot to play 14 games and you are only guaranteed 12.
"We talk about maximizing each opportunity. What matters is that you get better everyday and that you win. I have been on the other side of the fence and we are not looking past NAU. I have been on the other side and won games like this. You are talking about how much this means to their program and that's something that makes an entire season if you win that game. I just want to win. I want these guys to represent our fans the way they deserve to be represented, and I think these guys can do that. I am excited and I am very confident in how they will play."