The mood within the Arizona State football program could not be more different than it was a year ago.
Instead of a four-game losing streak ahead of a disappointing bowl game, the Sun Devils are on a two-game winning streak that includes a Territorial Cup win over Arizona. Instead of a lame-duck coach, they have a first-year coach who is being credited with reviving the program.
But that mood could be dampened in a hurry if the Devils don’t accomplish what they came to San Francisco to do. In Saturday’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Navy, ASU has the chance to capture a crucial win with implications now and into next season, and coach Todd Graham considers anything less a failure.
“We just have one focus: winning,” Graham said. “The momentum going into the offseason, these seniors, everything that we’re doing to move forward, we have to win. Our preparation has been that.”
ASU has plenty to play for at AT&T Park. First, there’s the chance for eight wins in Graham’s first season, a feat few would have even considered possible when he sat at the microphone being introduced last Dec. 14. The eighth win might not seem particularly significant on its own, but in the eyes of recruiting targets, an 8-5 team is closer to big things than a 7-6 team.
“It’s about building the program even more for ASU into the future, and this is going to be a huge part of that,” junior tight end Chris Coyle said. “Getting this last win is really going to help us with our momentum into next season.”
There’s also the shot to give Arizona State its first bowl win since the 2005 Insight Bowl, snapping a three-game postseason losing streak.
“Getting one when it’s been that long would be huge,” junior safety Alden Darby said. “It’ll be big to get one and start a new tradition of winning a bowl game every year from here on out.”
More than anything, though, the Sun Devils have a teammate to play for. Junior running back Marion Grice left the team last week to be with family in Houston, where his 22-year-old brother had been shot and killed when two men attempted to rob him of a pair of newly-purchased shoes.
As ASU continued bowl practice without Grice, Graham dedicated the team’s performance in the game to the memory of Grice’s brother. Grice re-joined the team for practices in San Francisco on Tuesday and is expected to play in Saturday’s game.
Several players extended words of support on social media for Grice — a well-liked teammate often characterized by his understated demeanor — before news of the tragedy reached the public. It’s hard to imagine that the Sun Devils won’t play with a little extra motivation.
But no matter the motivation to beat Navy on Saturday, it won’t be easy. The Midshipmen run the rarely-seen flexbone triple option, in which the quarterback hands the ball off to the fullback, keeps it or pitches it to a running back based on what the opposing defense is doing.
It’s an approach just four FBS teams (Georgia Tech and all three service academies) employ and is, according to Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, the Midshipmen’s best shot to stay competitive against bigger, faster teams.
“We’re hoping, because they haven’t seen us, that maybe we’ll have some unfamiliarity with what we do will help us, because that’s our only chance,” Niumatalolo said. “If we thought we could line up like a conventional team and run at Will Sutton, try to run the power or something, we’d get killed.”
Arizona State has spent a month trying to simulate Navy’s triple option, which is led by freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who finished the season with more rushing yards than any ASU running back.
The Sun Devils plugged in defensive backs at quarterback on the scout team in an effort to better prepare for Reynolds and the offense as a whole.
ASU also must account for senior running back Gee Gee Greene, the team’s leading rusher. To stop the run, which ASU has struggled to do at times this season, players and coaches say defenders must simply stick to their assignments, play disciplined football and not get rattled by an unconventional offense.
The Sun Devils also face the challenge of playing after a five-week layoff, their last game being a Nov. 23 win over Arizona. Navy, meanwhile, jumped straight from the regular season finale against Army into three weeks of bowl preparation.
“This is a really long stretch for a team to wait to play,” ASU senior linebacker Brandon Magee said. “I’m pretty sure when we get to the first quarter it’s going to be a little shaky because it’s been so long since we played.”
As long as the Devils can shake any rust quickly, they should be in good position to come home happy. Their three-pronged running attack — Grice, D.J. Foster and Cameron Marshall — along with Taylor Kelly’s passing prowess should thrive against Navy’s defense.
The Midshipmen allowed an average of 38 points against the three major-conference teams on their schedule. And ASU’s dominant defensive line and deep linebacker group should be able to limit Navy’s rushing attack.
That will all, however, require the Sun Devils to continue playing with the focus and discipline that got them this far. If they do that, they will make their bowl trip a successful one.
“These guys had the experience of going to a bowl game last year, and you can see there’s nothing fun about going and not winning,” Graham said. “We want to go and we want to win.”