ASU program in disarray after historic Territorial Cup loss

An Arizona State program that began the Todd Graham era with 28 wins over its first three seasons has now won seven of its past 19 games under Graham.

TUCSON -- This was the final indignity. 

An Arizona State season that went off the rails in recent weeks turned into a heaping train wreck at Arizona Stadium on Black Friday.

The smoldering pile of devastation that remains is the Todd Graham-era at the school. 

Arizona rushed for a school-record 511 yards in its 56-35 win over the Sun Devils in the 90th installment of the Territorial Cup. That's Arizona, the team that entered the game 2-9 overall and 0-8 in the Pac-12.

That's Arizona, a team that needed the victory to avoid its first winless season in conference play since 1957 when both programs were members of the Border Conference. 

Did you hear it? The sound of the collision ASU made at its 2016 terminus? That last stop wasn't really a stop at all, as much as it was the Sun Devils crashing and twisting into an unrecognizable mess of jagged pieces. 

The echoes of the collision, which traveled at the speed of sound, are probably still reverberating in Tempe, and will be felt for quite some time. 

"That was the worst performance we've had since we've been here (at ASU)," Graham said, an understatement if only because no words could sum up the scope of the disaster. "That was embarrassing. No excuses. That was very, very difficult to watch. We let our university down and let our program down. That was very, very difficult. Just didn't show up at all defensively and gave up one big play after another. Our seniors, we let them down. To have them go out like this was very disheartening.

"You can't play that bad and make up any excuses. I have no excuses. We just absolutely played atrocious. We did a poor job preparing them defensively. To give up that many yards rushing is absolutely ridiculous." 

At kickoff, the Wildcats appeared to be competing for the distinction of worst team in Pac-12 history. But somewhere in the second quarter of the game, an alternate scenario began to emerge:

Perhaps ASU just put forth the worst defense in Pac-12 history? 

It's not a difficult thing to sell. The Sun Devils will finish the season with the second-worst passing defense in Football Bowl Subdivision history, at 357 yards per game. That's roughly 20 yards worse than they were last season, when they finished last out of 128 teams in the FBS. 

In its six-game losing streak to end the season, ASU gave up an average of 46.7 points. This season, Cal is currently last in FBS in scoring defense at 45.5 points. 

The Sun Devils didn't beat a bowl team in their 5-7 season and only kept one of their seven losses within 17 points. They were a truly awful defense. Historically bad. 

"It starts up at the top with me and we obviously have things we've got to get straight," Graham said. 

A coach who went 29-12 record through three years at ASU, including back-to-back 10 win seasons, is now 7-12 in his last 19 games. It is a stunning failure that checks off virtually every box.

Graham and his staff failed to recruit the athletes to play at the key defensive back positions over a multi-year stretch; the players they did add in the secondary have failed to play assignment-sound football; he philosophically wants his offense to be a run-play-action-pass approach, but it was inept at running the ball this season; he wants his defense to make teams one-dimensional by taking away their rushing attack and yet a bad rival just set a school record for rushing yards. 

This was an Arizona team that didn't even attempt to throw a single pass in the second half on Friday, and still scored 28 points between the third and fourth quarters. 

Worst of all for Graham and ASU, the discipline he used to rebuild the program upon taking it over from former coach Dennis Erickson, is now starting to erode, and he's openly admitting it. 

"We had too many penalties," Graham said. "We had so many penalties tonight. Just undisciplined stuff...That's three straight games we've had eight and nine penalties and that's totally uncharacteristic of our program. We had a lot of procedure penalties.

"We really probably did some things good enough to win offensively, but we were so porous defensively against the run, you're not going to have a chance to win a game like that. I've never seen anything like that. I've never had anything like that. We're going to go to work. We've got a lot of things to do this off-season to get to work to get back to playing like we're accustomed to playing. Obviously it's disciplined football and that was the opposite of disciplined football." 

Sure, the Sun Devils had terrible luck with injuries and other absences this season. That was the case again on Friday, when they lost three starters in the secondary during the game: sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr (knee), sophomore safety Armand Perry (ejected for a flagrant personal foul) and junior safety Marcus Ball (arm in a sling). 

But their problems go well beyond injuries. It also goes beyond execution, as Graham candidly acknowledged. 

"Way past that," Graham said. "It was really poor."

The question now is where the Sun Devils go from here. Due to their APR, they won't go bowling this year baring a miracle in which a dozen or so other teams all lose on Saturday. That's a lot of practices that would have been crucial to the development of their young players. 

ASU Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson told ArizonaSports.com on Nov. 15 that Graham's job at the school was safe regardless of how the season ended. "You put his cumulative body of work together and it certainly translates for me that he will continue to be our coach," Anderson said. 

But Anderson was on the sidelines in Tucson Friday watching the Sun Devils get demolished in a way that makes everything around the program feel so uncertain. How could it not? 

Even ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins was eluding to how the Sun Devils have to figure out a way to stick together heading into 2017. That's not something that was even a possibility in earlier seasons under Graham. 

"Continue to be selfless," Wilkins said. "I think we have to do a good job and continue to better ourselves as people before football players and realize that this is more than a game. Through these situations, it's easy for a team to come apart. Obviously we're on a losing streak, so it's easy for a team to fall apart; not be pros, not be teammates, and start pointing fingers. It'll show a lot about our character. Just going out there and staying united."

The things that were a given no longer are. Discipline on the field; being bought into the program; players being on the same page. And that's on top of the historically bad defense for two years and an inability to run the football in a way that forced ASU to call upon Wilkins to throw the ball 58 times -- and a lot more considering he rushed 23 times for 79 yards and much of that wasn't by design. 

Where there's smoke, there's fire, and the Sun Devils are a program aflame and seemingly unsure of how to douse itself off. 

"I told them I loved them," Graham said. "That's what I said to them. This isn't about me or any of that. These [seniors] have been here five years. They've done a lot of great things for our program. Obviously we didn't want them to go out like that." 


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