After dropping Saturday night’s game against USC in shocking fashion, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham noted he’s never seen a team win the Pac-12 with an undefeated conference record. In fact, during Graham’s three-plus seasons with the Sun Devils, only once has a team locked up the Pac-12 South division title with fewer than two losses, and that was his 2013 ASU team that went 8-1 in conference play.
Still, when a team trails 35-0 at halftime to a divisional foe in September, it’s hard to imagine that same team holding a realistic shot at a conference championship. But Graham’s belief in ASU’s chances is unwavering, and for better or for worse, that’s where the mindset of his team currently stands.
The Sun Devils have won 10 games in each of the past two seasons, but in both campaigns, ASU lost early season conference tilts in contests that ended in blowouts. In 2013, the Sun Devils fell on the road at Stanford in a game in which the Cardinal dominated all three phases. Last season, ASU lost 62-27 at home against the UCLA Bruins with then-backup quarterback Mike Bercovici making his first career start.
Each of those games served as a gut-check, but ultimately, ASU wound up competing for the Pac-12 South crown down to the final week of each season. This year, ASU has failed to demonstrate any signs of becoming a legitimate contender, but at his Monday press conference, Graham called for his team to respond just as it has each of the last two years.
“Obviously the week after last year, having a very, very disappointing game, to me and to our fans and everybody with UCLA, come back the next week and have the Jael Mary game, and guess what, that wasn't easy,” Graham said. “That was extremely hard. That was an extremely difficult game. We need to have a similar response. We have got a similar challenge.”
Battling USC on the road just a week after the UCLA demolition was certainly an arduous climb, but in all likelihood, this year’s hike from the bottom on up features even steeper initial elevation.
The No. 7 Bruins are 4-0, and have shown very few weaknesses in any of their previous games this year. Couple one of the Pac-12’s deepest rosters of talent with a squad coming off a 56-30 blowout of defending South division champion Arizona, and all signs point toward the Bruins continuing to roll.
One of the frustrating takeaways Graham emerged from Saturday’s loss with was the Sun Devils’ inability to give themselves a chance to compete with the Trojans. ASU turned the ball over four times, and in Graham’s words, self-destructed. There were times in which ASU dominated the line of scrimmage and shut down USC’s run game, but it was all for naught because of crippling mistakes on offense, defense and special teams.
“It reminded me of last year's UCLA game right before the half,” Graham said. “We self-destructed with takeaways and making poor decisions but at the end of the day we can get those things corrected. There's not much to say other than we need to get it done. We've got to get it done and play disciplined football and take care of the football and obviously not have critical errors and have everybody do their job.”
For ASU to have a chance at upsetting the Bruins at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, Graham knows the Sun Devils can’t just limit mistakes; they must eliminate them nearly altogether.
In the past, Graham’s ASU teams have thrived on their ability to force opponents into a pattern of self-destruction. Last year’s victory over Notre Dame at Sun Devil Stadium featured five Fighting Irish turnovers, and the game itself offered a blueprint for how ASU can successfully employ its feast or famine blitz strategy and maximize its offensive success by staying motivated through ball security.
This season, ASU’s minus-three turnover margin has contributed heavily to its underwhelming start, and even though it’s tough to see the Sun Devils making a significant turnaround in a matter of one week, Graham has watched his program do it before.
“Every weekend it's like that and there's times that we beat people like that and that people beat us like that,” Graham said. “Usually it's self-inflicted and guess what, the self-inflicted wounds count. But I'll tell you this, the character that our guys have and the belief that our guys have in each other and what we're doing, we know we've got to go on the road and get it done.”
Assessing the Bruins
A week after ASU expressed confidence in its gameplan and ability to out-scheme the Trojans, Graham didn’t hold back praise for UCLA at his Monday press conference.
Graham expressed admiration and respect for what Jim Mora, Jr., has done during his tenure at the helm of the Bruins’ program, and he singled out redshirt junior running back Paul Perkins as one of the conference’s elite talents.
Through four games, Perkins is on pace for a 1,500-yard season, and his 128.5 yards per game average trails only Nick Wilson of Arizona in the Pac-12. Perkins, the older brother of ASU freshman quarterback Bryce Perkins, has consistently improved each season, and this year, Graham said he considers the Arizona native’s efforts MVP-caliber.
“There's not anybody that I would rank in front of him (Perkins),” Graham said. “I think that USC's running back corps top to bottom, probably it's hard to say anybody is better than that whole group. But I can tell you that UCLA's is right up there with them, and I think Perkins to this point has been playing at an MVP-caliber in the league.”
Last season, Perkins became the first Bruin to lead the Pac-12 in rushing since DeShaun Foster in 2001, and one of his six 100-yard performances came in Tempe against the Sun Devils. Perkins needed just 14 carries to rack up 137 yards on the ground, and his skillset left quite an impression on Graham.
“Obviously you can't be as strong as he is,” Graham said. “He's a guy that probably is -- impeccable training habits, very strong, great balance, keeps his pads down, doesn't put the ball in jeopardy. He is just as solid as they get. So what makes him is I think his balance, his vision and his strength. He's just a guy that's really strong.”
Perkins is the primary concern for ASU’s defense, but the Bruins haven’t lost much from a passing attack that graduated three-year starting quarterback Brett Hundley in the offseason.
Though Hundley’s ability to scramble and make plays with his feet is something UCLA will miss, true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen has stepped in and looked poised beyond his years through his first four collegiate starts.
Rosen was the No. 1 overall quarterback recruit in his class, and he’s backed up the ranking with 964 passing yards and a 62.5 percent completion percentage. Beyond the stats, Rosen has incredible touch on his passes and has just about every throw in his arsenal, which is remarkable for a quarterback with such little seasoning.
ASU will undoubtedly try to pressure Rosen more than he’s ever seen before, but the Sun Devils also have to focus on stopping a veteran receiving corps that has great balance.
The Bruins are paced by senior Jordan Payton who has 19 catches for 319 yards already, but they also have six other players with at least six catches on the season, so Graham said ASU’s rush must be prepared to impact Rosen’s timing.
“We'd better, because UCLA is very, very well-coached,” Graham said. “They make it very difficult for you because they spread the field. You've got to also deal with the receivers and how they go about doing that is they are a different structure in how they do it. It's a challenge. But you have to stop the run and you can't give up cheap ones.”
Aside from contending with talent and depth on both sides of the ball, ASU knows it’s going head-to-head with one of the better coaching staffs in the conference when it lines up against UCLA. Mora has developed the team’s identity on both sides of the ball, and despite some turnover on the defensive staff including the hiring of new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, the Bruins are always ready to play.
The most significant impediment UCLA has faced this season in its quest for a Pac-12 South title is injuries. The Bruins have lost three critical pieces in cornerback Fabian Moreau linebacker Myles Jack and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes to season-ending injuries, but if any team can sustain its level of play, odds are on UCLA because of its impressive depth across the board.
Even with the injuries, Graham thinks the Bruins are a consistent threat to win the conference because of their coaching staff.
“These guys have been at the top of the conference,” Graham said. “In my opinion, offensively have been one of the best over the last three years I've been here. They have been probably one of the toughest to defend and do a really, really good job of coaching their offense.”
Graham and Mora are each in year four at their respective schools, and both coaches have seen the conference, and specifically, the Pac-12 South division, evolve since their arrivals.
The Pac-12 South has become one of, if not the most, unpredictable and rigorous single division in college football, as it now rivals the SEC West in terms of national attention.
Toward the end of his press conference on Monday, Graham reflected on the uptick in talent he’s seen across the board and the general level of competition on display each Saturday.
“I think it's (the conference) gotten a lot more competitive,” Graham said. “Obviously the level of player that's in this league, you can look and see their success the guys are having as they leave this league and just every team, I mean, top to bottom. I think just looking in the South Division, Colorado, Utah, every team in our league, Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and USC, I think you can look at all those teams and I think they have all gotten better over the last three years that I've been in the league.”
After Graham and Mora concluded their first year as coaches in the league, the Pac-12 South had zero teams represented in the final AP poll. Last season, the division had as many as five teams in the Top 25 at once, and as a result, the majority of Pac-12 conference games now feature at least one ranked team.
All of that talent means there’s no longer a margin for error, and that’s why you see teams taking advantage of turnovers in the manner in which they do. On Saturday, ASU wasn’t the only team suffering a lopsided defeat, as Oregon and Arizona, the two representatives in the 2014 Pac-12 Championship game lost by at least three touchdowns as well. Parity is widespread throughout the conference, and that’s why Graham knows ASU must eliminate the self-destruction tendencies it has displayed so far this season.
“You see improvement, you look at Utah, go into Oregon, win 62-20, and you look at all those games, it's just the margin for error is very small, because the offenses are so explosive, if you have two or three turnovers, we had four turnovers result in 28 points, and that tilts it in a hurry in a game like that,” Graham said.