Heading into last Saturday's game, Graham knew the challenge he and his team faced as they took on an angry USC team hoping to avoid their own three game losing streak while keeping their division championship hopes alive in a raucous Memorial Coliseum.
Just like they had done in eight of their nine previous games already this season, the Sun Devils jumped ahead early, looking like a team that could steal a victory on the road and turn around a season that had been splitting at the seams. Unfortunately, the Trojans proved to be too much for Graham's Sun Devils, falling 38-17 and to 5-5 (3-4 conference) on the year.
"Obviously Saturday was disappointing for us but after looking at the film we had some spectacular plays and guys were giving unbelievable effort," Graham said about the loss on Monday at his weekly press conference. "I love the character that our guys continue to show. These guys have had every opportunity in the last four weeks - we've played four of the, I'd say five, top teams in the Pac-12 and we've fallen short four times straight - and these guys haven't folded one bit.
"I think it speaks volumes about their character and about this team and how they feel about each other."
The Sun Devils wasted one of their better defensive efforts of the season in the loss to the Trojans, as the offense continues to sputter in the season's second half. Arizona State forced USC senior quarterback into throwing a career-high three interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown by junior safety Alden Darby, while a number of other defensive standouts turned in similar spectacular performances.
Linebacker Brandon Magee had a career-high 13 tackles, giving him 201 for his Sun Devil career, while Carl Bradford had his own career-high ten tackles, along with a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Still, the offense remains a mystery for Graham's team as the high octane style has fizzled in recent weeks.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly threw three interceptions himself, giving him seven in the last four games after only throwing two in the team's first six games, stunting any momentum the defense forced throughout the day. The Sun Devils struggled to get the ball into the hands of their best playmakers for the second consecutive week, frustrating Graham as the offense looks to bounce back with just two games remaining on the schedule.
"As the year has gone on, we have a lot of depth in our best players as far as playmakers at the running back position and opposing teams do plan and do look to take away that and we have struggled to have play makers on the outside at the receiver position," said Graham on the offensive struggles. "We have to get better there. We have to do a better job at taking care of the football. We are a run, play action pass team. That is what fits our personnel right now and that is what we will always be. We want to be a physical, downhill running football team.
A senior sendoff
This Saturday's game against Washington State, scheduled to kickoff at 1:00 PM Arizona time, will be Senior Day for the Sun Devils. While the season has not unfolded the way many hoped and thought it might have, especially after the hot start by ASU in the season's first 6 weeks, Graham took time on Monday to share his thoughts on this year's senior class, which he says have been instrumental in helping him turn the Arizona State program around since he arrived back in January.
"I was really concerned," said Graham on coming in and changing the attitude of the program. "All the things that go along with transition are very difficult. It was such a drastic change on a lot of the little things we were asking them to do. We asked them to do it and they did it. Guys like Cameron Marshall, Brandon Magee and Andrew Sampson were incredible.
"I was very concerned because it could have not been as positive of a deal. I think we did a good job of conforming and transforming this team."
In order for Graham to change the foundation and ways of Sun Devil football, he needed his players to buy in. Throughout the season, the mantra for Graham's team has been "all in," and that had to start with the seniors in order to have any effect on the team. With very little resistance, the Sun Devils have taken on the personality of their coach, through the guidance of its senior, and while the first year results may not reflect that change, the truth lies in the details.
"What I found is that these guys have a great love for this university and for this program and it means something to them," said Graham. "In that locker room after that game, I am proud of how they even respond. You find out about people when you face setbacks. It's not going to be as easy as we thought it might be. We never thought it was going to be easy but our expectations are never going to change. We are going to be a program that is about winning championships. Period. That's our expectation.
"This group is definitely special to me and on the same end I have given them everything I've got. Our staff, we have worked and I think that has been reciprocated on both sides. I think these guys have laid a great foundation for our future."
Two of the seniors to be honored this Saturday will be defensive secondary specialists Keelan Johnson and Deveron Carr. Both Johnson and Carr are local products who committed to the Sun Devils under Dennis Erickson and have had their share of ups and downs throughout their Sun Devil careers.
Together though this year, they have helped shape one of the more impressive secondary units in recent years at ASU, turning a once overmatched defensive backfield into a now fly zone in which they've helped register 15 interceptions in 2012, good enough for eight in the nation.
"I would love for those guys to get the chance to sit up here and tell you their progression," said Graham. "I think he (Johnson) is one of the guys, much like Carr and those guys in the back end, kind of went through a year where they didn't have a lot of successes. As far as the secondary, what they have been able to do and accomplish has really moved this program forward. When you think of defense I think there is a great respect here now. They have been a part of establishing that."
"Keelan has probably been one of the most improved players in the program. I think Carr is probably the most improved player in the program. Those guys mean a lot to me and I think they will be guys that will go on and have success. It meant a lot to me personally because they bought in to what we were doing."
Behind the efforts of Johnson and Carr, amongst other Sun Devil defensive playmakers, Graham and his coaching staff have been able to begin transforming the Arizona State defense back into the kind of unit that can help the team contend for championships, as Graham has often said is the goal for his program.
While a lot of the talk coming into the year had been about playing high octane offense, Graham knows if his team hopes to reach the levels of success he talks about, it'll be the defense that leads them there.
"I want this program to be a place where people want to come play defensive football," he said. "I think that's the key, that's the niche for us. Obviously we want to be an explosive offense. I've done that as a coach. We want the same thing. We want an explosive and exciting offense, and we're going to make that happen as we move forward. But I think that's the key to us being a program that wins championships each and every year.
"I want to be known for defense. I think these guys have taken a giant step this year in establishing that."
Final Home Game
Not only is Saturday's game senior day for the Sun Devils, but it's also the final home game for the season. Despite the current four game slide, ASU still has plenty to play for, including becoming bowl eligible for the second consecutive year with a win over the Cougars and the chance to establish a winning streak before the season is said and done. Even though Washington State enters the game a lowly 2-8 (0-7 conference) and in last place in the Pac-12 North division, Graham understands the threat they pose with a powerful offense, backed by Head Coach Mike Leach.
"Obviously their coach is a great offensive coach," said Graham about Leach. "You can tell the difference between where their system was four weeks ago to where it is now. They came back and gave UCLA a run for their money. You look at the Stanford game and they're sitting there in the red zone getting ready to score and tie the game up. They're making great strides there, and it's a very difficult offense to defend. They're a very capable football team. I see a very capable offense that's putting up 400 yards, as they did against Stanford and UCLA, two really good defenses.
"They play hard, those guys. Obviously defensively, their guys play extremely hard and extremely physical. We have to play well, and our guys know that. Our guys know that last year this was a game they know exactly how Washington State is going to play and how you have to prepare. It doesn't matter who you play in this conference. You have to go in ready to play and win. We've come up short four games in a row, and we have to go out and get the win. Our guys are going to be very motivated and focused and know that they're playing a capable team."