Has Arizona State been decoding opponents' on-field signals? According to ASU head coach Todd Graham, yes, yes it has.
“Do we steal signs?” Graham rhetorically asked reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “Yeah we steal signs. Do other teams steal our signs? Yeah.”
Responding to signal stealing accusations from players and coaches from both Utah and Oregon’s respective teams in back-to-back weeks, Graham addressed the reports with his straightforward, matter-of-fact response.
“We are definitely going by the rules,” Graham said. “There’s not anything illegal about looking at somebody’s signals.”
As Graham said, stealing signs technically isn’t illegal in the world of college football. The NCAA rule clearly states: "Any attempt to record, either through audio or video means, any signals given by an opposing player, coach or other team personnel is prohibited,” so being able to read signs in game isn’t off limits so long as it isn't being done electronically.
Even Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said on Tuesday’s Pac-12 teleconference that stealing signs is “an accepted part of the game” and the responsibility has to be on the opposing offense to hide its signals.
During ASU’s matchup with Utah on Oct. 17, it was reported from the Salt Lake Tribune that the Utes seemed to think ASU was stealing their signals in the third quarter so they went into a huddle for the remainder of the game.
"They called out a couple of our plays last year," Utah center Siaosi Aiono said in a report from the Salt Lake Tribune. "So it was like a tool in our tool bag to have just in case we had to pull it out, and it worked out for us."
With this notion that ASU might be trying to steal signs during games, the Ducks took precautionary measures in their Thursday night game against the Sun Devils, breaking out long white sheets to use as shields in an attempt to stop ASU coaches from deciphering their calls.
In his Monday press conference from Eugene, Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said the reasoning behind the sheets was that the Ducks “got some intel on them that they (the Sun Devils) were diligently working to steal signs to give their defensive play caller run-pass.”
But with ASU (4-4, 2-3) set to take on Washington State (5-3, 3-2) on Saturday in Pullman, Washington, how are these accusations regarding the Sun Devils sitting with WSU head coach Mike Leach?
Apparently not too well.
In his Monday press conference Leach escalated the conversation by saying the Pac-12 should do an investigation on ASU after two-straight schools had concerns in back-to-back weeks.
On Tuesday, Leach went even further when asked his opinion about stealing signs on the Pac-12 teleconference and said while it is one thing if a team picks up an opponent’s signals, “it’s another thing to kind of break it down as a science and film various things.”
Though not a direct accusation, it was the harshest rebuke of the Sun Devils' alleged practices to this point. But despite the accusations from two teams and possibly a third coming on Saturday, Graham doesn’t seem concerned.
"I can tell you that we do things by the book and by the rules," Graham said. "So investigate all you want."
Close ones frustrating ASU, Graham
A more pressing concern for ASU than veiled accuations of signal stealing, and certainly with its fan base, is whether ASU can even make it to a bowl game after such high initial hopes for the season have faded to a 4-4 record at the start of November.
Already trying to pick up the pieces from its heart-breaking loss to Oregon Thursday night, ASU has to travel to Pullman and play a pass-heavy Washington State team that barely lost to then-No. 8 Stanford on Saturday night.
If ASU happens to lose to WSU that means the Sun Devils will have to win two out of their last three games to secure a six-win season and bowl eligibility. If ASU wins, it will have to win one of its last three games – finishing out the season with Washington at home, Arizona at home and Cal on the road.
“We’re just frustrated where we’re at and we know we should be doing a lot better than what we’re doing,” ASU senior wide receiver Devin Lucien said.
But how did ASU go from a preseason playoff contender in many analysts’ eyes to a .500 record team with four games left?
“The reality of it is that we've lost two really close games, one to Utah and one to Oregon that we didn't -- and those are games that we won the year before,” Graham said on Monday. “That's what it boils down to every year. You've got to win the close games. We've got to pick ourselves off the ground, go to work.”
This year the Sun Devils are 0-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown – ASU’s loss 61-55 to Oregon last Thursday night.
“We feel like we should have won that football game and that wasn’t the case at the end of the day so really we just got to move on,” ASU sophomore running back Kalen Ballage said. “We can’t do anything about that now.”
In addition – like Graham said – ASU losing to the Utes can also be considered part of the Sun Devils’ close games losses this season. ASU stuck with Utah for three quarters, even leading 18-14 early in the fourth quarter, but then the wheels came off the train, a microcosm of the 2015 season.
In the Sun Devils' 10-3 season in 2014, they had a 3-0 record in games decided by less than a touchdown. In early October 2014, ASU beat USC by four points on ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici's infamous Hail Mary heave to former ASU wide receiver Jaelen Strong as the clock expired.
Then, three weeks later, ASU beat Utah by three points at Sun Devil Stadium in an overtime thriller off ASU kicker Zane Gonzalez's field goal to clinch ASU’S win in the first overtime series. Then in the Sun Bowl against Duke, ASU beat the Blue Devils in a nail-biting five-point win.
In both the USC and Utah games, ASU got blatantly lucky – a thing that the Sun Devils haven’t gotten a lot of this season. The Hail Mary against USC last year was a stroke of pure luck and against Utah, one of the best kicker’s in the Pac-12, Andy Phillips, missed a 35-yard field goal in overtime.
Even going back to ASU’s 10-4 2013 season, the Sun Devils were 3-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown – which included a three-point loss to Notre Dame, a lucky two-point win in a hectic and much-debated finish against Wisconsin, a one-point overtime win against Utah, and a five-point win against UCLA.
For the past two years ASU was able to make stops on defense, make plays on offense, and at times get a lucky bounce. All these things and more contributed to ASU’s back-to-back 10-win seasons. But ASU’s inability to close out the tight games this season has hampered the Sun Devils’ chances of exceeding or even meeting preseason predictions.
Now being out of the Pac-12 race, ASU has to have a change in mindset.
“We're not in the same situation that we thought at the beginning of the season but that's the beautiful part about football is that you win or you lose,” Bercovici said. “So I think right now what we have is that we have a team that plays for the person next to them. So it's not about whether we're 8-0 right now or whatever the case may be."