There will almost certainly be fewer questions about Arizona State’s ability to perform on the road this week after it turned in its best road performance under Todd Graham on Thursday night, a 55-21 drubbing of Washington State.
The win could hardly have been more impressive. It got ASU bowl eligible in October for just the third time since 1996 (the other seasons: 2002, 2004, 2007). It also made this the first time since 2004-06 that ASU has been bowl eligible in three straight seasons. That said, the Sun Devils have bigger things in mind.
“I’m not interested in that,” Graham said. “We’re interested in winning a championship. I mean, it’s great, we’re proud of that. It’s not something we take for granted or be arrogant about, but I don’t talk about that. We talked about it a little last year, but I have not talked about it this year.”
With that in mind, what was most important about the win was that it helped ASU maintain a stronghold on the Pac-12 South as it enters the most decisive stretch of the season. ASU still controls its own destiny and looks more and more destined for a high-stakes matchup with UCLA on Nov. 23 in Los Angeles.
But the Sun Devils know they must move on quickly and not get caught looking too far ahead with another tough road contest against Utah looming next week. Before looking toward that game, we take one more look back at the Halloween night win in Pullman.
When ASU went up 21-0 without any trouble in the first quarter, this game seemed pretty much over. Washington State showed a little life just before halftime, getting to within 42-14, but early in the second quarter, ASU killed any hopes of a comeback with a fake punt and a touchdown to go up 49-21. It was the Sun Devils’ fast start that did the Cougars in.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly. With nearly 40 family members and friends from his neighboring home state of Idaho in attendance to see him play, Kelly put on a show. The redshirt junior accounted for seven touchdowns, throwing for five and running for two more. He was 22 of 31 passing for 275 yards and rushed for 66 yards.
Linebacker Carl Bradford. While safety Alden Darby deserves honorable mention for his team-high eight tackles, three pass breakups and forced fumble (which ASU turned into seven points), Bradford was a force. He routinely pressured Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, flushing him out of the pocket and rendering him largely ineffective. Bradford was credited with just two tackles but had a sack, three quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED
— This team can win on the road. Sure, ASU showed it could do so last season, and they still need to win away from home against a more formidable opponent, but Thursday’s victory answered a lot of questions.
ASU came into the game focused, not distracted by the national TV setting or a Halloween night game in cold weather. A 21-0 first-quarter lead made it pretty clear ASU was in Pullman to get a win. The Sun Devils also responded well to moments of adversity, such as back-to-back defensive series allowing a touchdown between the second and third quarters, as they answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive.
The 42-14 lead ASU held at halftime was the largest it has taken to the locker room under Graham, and it should have been against an opponent like Washington State. The road tests get tougher now, with Utah next week and UCLA in three weeks, so ASU still has much to prove regarding its ability away from Sun Devil Stadium.
— All the extra special-teams work paid off. With a bye week before Thursday’s game, ASU had extra time to prepare, and that time was used to put in some additional work with the consistently underperforming special teams.
“We made a big commitment this week to our special teams,” Graham said. “We said that we’re going to make first priority our special teams. We came out and attacked, and I thought we did great things.”
That commitment showed in what Graham called the best special-teams performance of the season. ASU had no misadventures on punt returns like in the past few weeks. On average, ASU started on offense at its own 36-yard line, while Washington State started at its own 23-yard line on average.
Most impressive was the pair of fake punts ASU employed in the second half. First, linebacker Carl Bradford rushed 20 yards for a first down to kill Washington State’s building momentum and set up a touchdown that gave the Sun Devils a 28-point lead. Later, punter Alex Garoutte, rolling out for a rugby-style punt, decided to tuck and run when he saw an opening. That gave ASU another first down and led to a field goal.
“We’re going to play special teams just like we do offense and defense — we’re going to attack,” Graham said.
— ASU’s offense is really, really potent. We knew the Sun Devils were dynamic, but it’s getting a little ridiculous. ASU has now scored 54 points, 53 points and 55 points in its last three games, respectively, and is averaging 46.6 points per game, just 0.2 points shy of the highest scoring average in school history, achieved in 1972. Mike Norvell’s offense has eclipsed 50 points five times now, tying the 1972 team for the most times in a season.
“I say it every week: Mike is one of the best football coaches I know (and) the best offensive coach I’ve ever worked with,” Graham said. “I’m really proud of him and what he does.”
ASU’s offense now ranks sixth nationally in scoring and 10th in total offense (515.1 yards per game), though those numbers could change once this week’s games have been completed. It features the nations No. 1 and No. 2 scorers (running back Marion Grice and kicker Zane Gonzalez, respectively), and it has only gotten better as the season has progressed. At this rate, ASU will need to start fundraising for Norvell’s next raise or start looking for his replacement, as the 31-year-old coordinator could be a hot commodity this offseason.
WHERE THEY STAND
After byes in Week 1 and last week, ASU has caught up to much of the country with eight games played, though that will change after this weekend’s full slate of games has been completed. So too will ASU’s rankings in the major statistical categories, but with eight games in the books, here’s where the Sun Devils stand nationally:
— Total offense: 10th with 515.1 yards per game (up from 12th) — Total defense: 18th with 343.4 yards allowed per game (up from 21st) — Scoring offense: 6th with 46.6 points per game (no movement) — Scoring defense: 62nd with 26.0 points allowed per game (up from 63rd) — Rushing defense: 22nd with 126.3 rushing yards allowed per game (up from 41st) — Passing defense: 40th with 217.1 passing yards allowed per game (down from 22nd) — Fewest penalty yards per game: 9th with 31.88 penalty yards per game (up from 11th)
ODDS AND ENDS
— After using the bye week to heal, the Sun Devils got banged up again Thursday. Grice, defensive tackle Will Sutton, receiver Cameron Smith, linebacker Anthony Jones, cornerback Osahon Irabor and safety Robert Nelson all spent time with the trainer during Thursday’s game. Graham said afterward none of the injuries were serious, and most of those players returned to the field, but ASU will again benefit from the extra time it has before its next game.
— After two field goals Thursday night, from 37 and 36 yards, Gonzalez is now 17 of 20 on the season. The freshman has made 13 consecutive field goals and is tied for first nationally with 2.1 field goals per game.
— ASU improved to 11-1 under Graham when shutting out its opponent in the first quarter and 13-0 when leading at halftime.
— With 55 points, ASU tied its record for scoring against Washington State, which was set in 1990. It was also the most points the Sun Devils had scored in a Pac-12 road game since hanging 56 on Arizona in 1996 and the third-highest scoring total in a Pac-12 road game in school history.
— Receiver Richard Smith made a career-long 51-yard catch for a touchdown Thursday night. The impressive grab, which came on a deep ball Smith had to juggle a few times since it was underthrown and came amid defensive pass interference, was a big moment for Smith. The sophomore has struggled mightily this season with dropped passes and a costly fumble against Notre Dame. He finished with three catches for 79 yards.
— D.J. Foster saw significant action despite missing four of six practices leading up to the game due to a knee issue. He was effective, catching seven passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing eight times for 30 yards. It was Foster’s first career multi-touchdown game.
— Grice entered the night with 301 career touches at ASU (214 rushes, 74 receptions, 13 returns) and not a single fumble. After 14 touches (13 rushes, one return) Thursday, Grice put the ball on the ground for the first time, although the Sun Devils recovered.
— After two takeaways Thursday, ASU is now outscoring opponents 81-35 on points off turnovers this season.