TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State coach Todd Graham expressed early in his tenure that he believed it much more difficult to handle adversity than success. The Sun Devils handled success in a 5-1 start and are now taking on harder times.
Amid a four-game losing streak, Graham believes his team is handling adversity the right way, refusing to give up or revert to old habits learned under not-as-demanding leadership.
“I love the character our guys continue to show,” Graham said Monday. “We’ve fallen short four times straight, and these guys haven’t folded one bit. I think that speaks volumes about their character.”
With a road loss to USC on Saturday, ASU matched its four-game regular-season losing streak of last season. The Sun Devils have now experienced such streaks in four of the last five seasons.
Under Graham’s leadership, though, the response has been different. Even in the moments after tough losses, players have remained positive and supportive of each other. On the field, they have not regressed to the undisciplined style that came to define Dennis Erickson’s teams. They have refused to let frustration get the better of them.
“You find out about people when you face setbacks,” Graham said. “It’s not going to be as easy as we thought it might be. … There has been no stepping backward in regard to how they conduct themselves.”
While the results have not been what Graham was hoping for, the attitude clearly has. He has praised endlessly the effort players give right the to end of games, even when a win is out of reach.
Graham expressed disappointment after Saturday’s loss, and again Monday, that ASU fell short of its goal to win the Pac-12 South and play for the conference championship. He has, however, quickly shifted motivation.
“We talked a lot about the seniors, talked a lot about this program and where we want this program to be,” Graham said. “Coming back home, these seniors are going to play in their last game here at Sun Devil Stadium. … We want them to finish up only one way, and that’s with a win.
“So we’ve got to get bowl eligible and we’ve got to get a win for these seniors.”
For the third straight week, ASU’s defense committed a penalty on an unconverted third down that extended its opponents drive and eventually resulted in a score. USC scored a touchdown on a drive kept alive by a pass interference call on ASU senior cornerback Deveron Carr.
Junior safety Alden Dabry also nullified a punt with a running-into-the-kicker penalty, but the Sun Devils were able to stop the Trojans on that drive. The third-down penalties committed the two previous weeks were for roughing the passer, but Graham said Monday those were different.
“I think in the game with USC our guys were competing, and sometimes that gets called and sometimes it doesn’t,” Graham said. “Unfortunately it got called on us a couple times that extended plays, but I didn’t think it was the same thing we’ve had. … It’s tough when you’re competing on third down. Sometimes those things get called, sometimes they don’t.”
Graham essentially said the penalties committed were understandable and he did not feel his players need to adjust their third-down mindset to be more careful.
HELP ON THE WAY
Senior right guard Andrew Sampson missed his third straight game Saturday due to a right ankle injury that’s healed slower than expected, but Graham expects him back against Washington State this week.
Graham has praised the job redshirt freshman Vi Teofilo has done starting in place of Sampson, but the offensive line as a whole has struggled recently. It gave up a season-high seven sacks against USC on Saturday and 14 total in Sampson’s absence.
“That has hurt us a lot, him being gone these last few weeks,” Graham said. “We could have put him out there last week, but I think it would have been detrimental to him, so we didn’t do that.
“It’s his last game here at Sun Devil Stadium (on Saturday), so I look for him to play and play extremely well.”
— Junior defensive tackle Mike Pennel did not travel to Los Angeles on Saturday and, according to reports, has again been suspended for a violation of team rules. The juco transfer has now missed five games due to suspensions.
— With five catches Saturday, junior tight end Chris Coyle tied Todd Heap on ASU’s for fifth place on the school’s single-season receptions list for tight ends. He needs just eight more to catch Zach Miller’s all-time best of 56, set in 2004. Coyle, with 586 yards on the season, has already surpassed Miller’s total from that season (552) and ranks fifth all-time for receiving yards in a season by an ASU tight end. Coyle would need 250 more to tie Heap’s record of 832 (1999) but just 69 to move past Ken Dyer’s 654 (1967) and into second place.
— Sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly again slid in the conference and national pass-efficiency rankings after going 19 for 30 and throwing three interceptions against USC. Kelly, with a 151.2 pass efficiency rating, is now fourth in the Pac-12 and 24th nationally. Kelly has thrown seven interceptions over the past four games after throwing just two in ASU’s first six games, though he has been under more pressure with the offensive line struggling.
— Freshman running back D.J. Foster had a season-low five touches against USC — despite being targeted several more times in the passing game — after having just seven touches against Oregon State. The decrease in production certainly has not been by design, but rather teams have keyed on Foster along with running back Marion Grice while knowing that the Sun Devils lack a game-breaking threat among their receivers.