Resilient ASU has heartbeat in Pac-12 South race

Todd Graham called the Pac-12 South a single elimination bracket at Monday's weekly press conference, but Arizona State wouldn't be in it at all if not for his team's remarkable win over UCLA two days earlier.

Even after a 42-14 loss to open conference play against the USC Trojans, Arizona State never wavered in its belief. Under head coach Todd Graham, the Sun Devils have prided themselves on their ability to win with a particular style of play, and for better or for worse, ASU remained committed to the ideals Graham has implemented into the program in the week leading up to the UCLA game despite suffering the potentially devastating defeat against USC.  

In year four under Graham, ASU isn’t out to fool anybody with its game-by-game and season-long objectives. The Sun Devils consider themselves a contender, and in order to reach their championship aspirations, ASU has made it abundantly clear it needs to have one of the most dynamic pressure schemes in the country defensively, and one of the most explosive, up-tempo offensive units.

For the fourth straight season under Graham, ASU took a fall in its climb up the mountain. The Sun Devils crave the opportunity to follow a championship trail, but after stumbling early this year, ASU struggled to regain its footing.

In each of the past two years, ASU lost an early-season conference matchup, and responded resiliently with emphatic victories that proved the Sun Devils were back on the right track.

This season, the Sun Devils' troubles began at the trailhead, with a 38-17 loss to Texas A&M in Houston. Their offense lacked an identity, their defense wore down, and for the next two weeks, the Sun Devils walked gingerly on flat ground next to lesser-caliber opponents.

Then, when asked to ascend and climb against USC, ASU couldn’t find its harness. The Sun Devils never locked in, and were subsequently routed by the Pac-12 South rival Trojans to open conference play, which made the 360-degree turnaround against the UCLA Bruins all the more surprising.

In a 38-23 road victory at the Rose Bowl, ASU looked rejuvenated, energized, and determined, and all of sudden, the Sun Devils find themselves back on the path they’ve already been knocked off twice.

“Well, I mean, obviously our backs were against the wall, and our guys -- I think their character -- your character gets exposed when you face great adversity, and I think our guys showed what they're made of,” Graham said at Monday’s press conference.”

In 2013, ASU was shell-shocked after a conference-opening loss to Stanford, and the Sun Devils responded with eight straight victories and a Pac-12 South Division title. In 2014, the Sun Devils were blown out at home by UCLA, and despite having to turn to unproven backup quarterback Mike Bercovici due to an injury to starter Taylor Kelly, ASU competed for the division crown down to the season’s final weekend.

After stunning UCLA, ASU is now 7-1 following losses since the start of the 2013 season. What’s the magic recipe for curing the disappointment? Simply put, after losing, ASU attacks the practice field as relentlessly as it hopes to attack opposing quarterbacks.

“I know you guys get tired of me saying that,” Graham said. “But we always have the best practice we've ever had. Everybody thinks I say that every week. Well, actually it was true last week. And in my mindset is one that -- our guys do practice well, but it was a different deal last Tuesday. It was really different, and I think there was a sense of urgency, and pretty sick and tired of not playing to our potential.”

Under Graham, ASU has set out to hike a trail the Sun Devils have never seemingly been fit enough to endure. They know what awaits at the peak, but realistically, the program would need remarkably favorable conditions to come close to achieving its highest goals.

Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped ASU from buying a map, and when the Sun Devils found themselves off course after four weeks, Graham said the team brought a new level of intensity to the practice field.

While its record and national perception may not have been sterling after the season’s first month, ASU took out its frustration, and according to Graham, played Saturday’s game “pissed,” which is a sentiment that began to build up in practice earlier in the week.

“You know, just a different level of intensity,” Graham said when asked about the change he saw in his team last week. “It's usually intense. But I think there was probably, you know -- I could tell everybody knew the sense of how important everything we'd worked for was -- we had to go win. But we really don't -- the biggest difference was our intensity as coaches. That's being honest.”

The sense of urgency didn’t extend just to ASU’s players, as the coaching staff felt the heat after last Saturday’s loss against the Trojans. For a month-long stretch, ASU mixed in a lack of offensive consistency with head-scratching ball security issues, and the troubles forced offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to accept blame for the Sun Devils’ performances on Wednesday.

Additionally, in both of ASU’s losses, the Sun Devils were thoroughly outplayed on special teams, and the struggles came to a head when redshirt junior returner De'Chavon Hayes fumbled a kick return that ultimately led to a touchdown at his own five-yard line moments before halftime against USC.

Norvell and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum knew their units’ outputs would be analyzed closely on Saturday, and Graham felt each coach responded with their best game plan of the season.

“I thought almost every person -- there's very few times that you can have that, going from like four weeks of being frustrated where you have one person here, one person there, one coach here, one coach there, where most of the time it would be me messing it up, but, you know, I thought our coaching staff got better,” Graham said. “I thought we -- I thought in all three phases, I thought every player gave everything they've got, and there was a determination about that that was really special, and so we've got to match that and continue to take that each week to the next level.

Senior wide receiver D.J. Foster said on Tuesday of last week the coaching staff was as fired up as he had seen in a long time, and the enthusiasm carried over into the game plan.

By the end of Saturday night’s game, the Sun Devils were playing with far more passion than the Bruins, and they were ready to deliver the knock out blow. For a team that fell off the trail just seven days earlier, ASU was now racing full speed ahead to make up for lost time.

That competitive fire manifested itself on the game-sealing play from sophomore running back Kalen Ballage who with the help of nearly half of ASU’s offense, bulldozed his way into the end zone while dragging UCLA defenders for the duration of a 23-yard touchdown run.

The run served as ASU’s closing statement on the evening, and epitomized the manner in which the Sun Devils responded to their previous setbacks.

“I thought it capped off the night,” Graham said of Ballage’s run. “It wasn't just -- Kalen wasn't going to go down, but it was every guy on offense carrying him to the end zone, and that was kind of what the night was all about. There really wasn't one person. There really wasn't one phase. It was offense, defense, special teams, every guy out there giving everything he's got on every single play.”

Now, after splitting the first two games of conference play with the Los Angeles schools, the Sun Devils turn their attention to an improved Colorado Buffaloes team under the direction of third-year head coach Mike MacIntyre.

The Buffaloes have a quarterback in junior Sefo Liufau with three years of experience, and their offense has continued to stabilize around him with the receiving tandem of senior Nelson Spruce and sophomore Shay Fields.

Spruce is among the Pac-12’s elite receivers, as his 31 receptions are second only to Washington State’s Gabe Marks in the Pac-12.

Though Oregon isn’t playing at the same level it has in recent years, the Buffaloes competed well into the second half against the Ducks before falling 41-24. Graham said Colorado looks much improved on film and could have come away with a victory on Saturday night if not for turnovers.

“If they don't turn the football over, they could have really easily beat Oregon last week,” Graham said. “Did a tremendous job. They are vastly improved, and you can tell they play and compete with a great passion.”

Since joining the Pac-12, the Buffaloes have typically been the weakest team in the South Division, managing just one conference win in two-plus seasons under MacIntyre. Though Colorado may not improve on its sixth place finish this season in an ultra-competitive league, the Buffaloes are finally beginning to show signs of growth.

After responding with tremendous maturity from a loss to USC, ASU knows it now has to channel the passion and focus it used to knock off a highly ranked foe in UCLA and bring the same type of intensity to its battle with a rising Buffaloes squad this weekend.

“It's single-game elimination,” Graham said. “You've got to go win the next one and win the next one, so obviously it was a huge, huge win for us, and very proud of our guys, but we've got seven more steps to get to the game we want to be playing in, and the next one and the most important one is Colorado, and I can tell you we've got a lot of respect for Coach MacIntyre, the job he's done.”

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