TEMPE, Ariz. — The last time Arizona State traveled to Pullman, Wash., to play Washington State, its season began to unravel.
The Sun Devils had a week earlier let the chance to clinch the Pac-12 South slip away against UCLA. They were still in position to win the division but lost to the 3-6 Cougars in the second of five straight losses to close out the 2011 season.
Two years later and once again in the driver’s seat in the South, ASU travels to Pullman on Thursday looking to rewrite its history there and bury some bad memories.
“Same position,” senior cornerback Osahon Irabor said Sunday. “We have a new attitude as a team, we’re a lot more focused as a group, we’re a lot closer and we understand the goal that’s ahead of us.
“We’re going to Pullman to get a win. That’s it.”
Certainly much has changed since that last trip to Pullman that saw the Sun Devils lose 37-27 in rain, snow and near-freezing temperatures. Todd Graham took over the program last season. Many of the players on that 2011 team are gone. New leaders are holding teammates accountable.
But while ASU moved on from the loss long ago, the memory of the game itself and everything that happened after still stings.
“That’s always going to be a bad memory,” senior tight end Chris Coyle said. “That’s probably one of the worst games I’ve ever played in in my life. At least for the guys that have been here, it’s a bad memory.”
A few things stick out to veterans who were part of that 2011 loss to the Cougars, who were then coached by Paul Wulff. For Coyle, it’s mental errors, a lack of preparation and the bitter cold weather.
The cold has come up more than once already, which Graham seems to take exception to.
“That’s an excuse,” Graham said. “That was an excuse for playing like crap. I wasn’t here, and I shouldn’t comment on that, but that’s all that is. That’s all it is.”
Players admit that they let the weather affect them in ways they should not have and have learned from the experience.
“Being one of the older guys, one of the senior leaders, I’m going to make sure that all the guys aren’t worried about that, aren’t thinking about that,” Irabor said.
Players have also admitted there was a significant lack of focus on the 2011 trip. Veteran players have made it their mission this week to eliminate any such problems.
Coyle said preparation for the trip to Pullman has been markedly different from what it was two years ago. Coaches have emphasized different things, and on Sunday the offense practiced with crowd noise blaring over a speaker system.
“These coaches understand what happened last time, and they don’t want it to happen again,” Coyle said.
With a win over Washington State on Thursday, ASU would remain in pole position in the South. With a loss, it would likely fall into a first-place tie and have no margin for error with two conference losses already. Hence the desire to make a better memory in Pullman than the one that lingers today.
But as much as the upperclassmen still remember what the loss felt like, they are more focused on getting a win this time around. To do that, perhaps it’s best they don’t even think about their past failure in Pullman.
“You have to forget,” defensive tackle Will Sutton said. “I feel like it’s a new season, a new team. You can’t control what happened in the past. So whatever happened that year is forgotten.”
— For the third time this season, ASU is back in the Associated Press poll, coming in at No. 25 after a bye week. The Sun Devils have been ranked as high as 22nd this season.
— Receiver Jaelen Strong did more in practice Sunday than he did last week but appears to still be battling the ankle injury suffered against Washington. His status for Thursday’s game is not yet known.
— Running back D.J. Foster returned to practice Sunday after not participating last week due to an unknown injury.
— After ASU’s bye week, running back Marion Grice remains the nation’s leading scorer (15.4 points per game), and placekicker Zane Gonzalez has moved into second nationally (11.4 points per game).