After Arizona State became bowl eligible with a win over Washington State last month, coach Todd Graham made a bold statement about how ASU would finish in his first season.
“I’m not interested in going to a bowl game,” Graham said. “I’m interested in going and winning.”
Making that reality would be no small triumph for the Sun Devils, who have not enjoyed a bowl win the past six seasons. ASU’s last bowl victory came in 2005, when a team coached by Dirk Koetter topped Rutgers 45-40 in the Insight Bowl. Koetter took ASU to a Hawaii Bowl the next season, but Hawaii came away victorious and Koetter was dismissed.
Dennis Erickson took over in 2007 and led ASU to a 10-2 regular-season finish, good for a spot in Holiday Bowl, but the Sun Devils lost badly to Texas. Three bowl-less years followed before ASU’s disappointing 2011 campaign ended with a blowout loss to Boise State in the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas after Erickson had already been fired.
For Graham, the opportunity to snap ASU’s bowl losing streak against Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 29 has become paramount to the rebuilding process he is leading.
“That’s what I want, more than anything else,” Graham said. “These guys had the experience of going to a bowl game last year, and you can see that there’s nothing fun about going and not winning. We want to go and we want to win.”
A postseason win would give ASU an 8-5 finish, its best since 2007. It also would put the Sun Devils on a three-game winning streak heading into the 2013 season, momentum that can be beneficial to a program still in transition.
“It’ll be really good for us to perform well against (Navy) and promote ourselves on a national stage for next season,” junior tight end Chris Coyle said. “We have a pretty tough schedule (in 2013), and it’ll be good to have momentum going into the offseason so we can build on it next year.”
That tough schedule includes both teams playing in this year’s Rose Bowl, Wisconsin and Stanford, as well as Notre Dame, which will play in the upcoming BCS championship game, and the usual Pac-12 foils.
An eighth win and postseason success could help ASU position itself better for a tough 2013 season, using the victory and Graham’s success in his debut season as a selling point to lure recruits to Tempe.
“When you walk into those schools and talk to coaches and kids and you’re selling bowl games, that’s a big, big thing to sell for your university,” ASU recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Chip Long said.
Added junior offensive lineman Evan Finkenberg: “It’s exposure on national TV. A lot more recruits can see us on TV, kind of see our style, the hard-nosed running we try to do, the great defense we try to do. And I think it’s just great overall exposure for the program if everyone knows that we’re winning again and we’re building something here.”
The chance to capture a bowl win carries added significance for ASU’s seniors, who have not won a bowl game in their college careers and won’t get another shot. Juniors and underclassmen have remarked recently that getting a win for the senior class is a big motivator, but the seniors themselves are perhaps more motivated than anyone else.
Senior linebacker Brandon Magee has come to represent the kind of person and athlete the Sun Devils want to produce. In five seasons, Magee has given the program much and now wants to leave the university, his teammates and ASU fans with one final gift: a bowl victory.
“It will mean everything,” Magee said. “Just to go out a winner, send my teammates out winners and just for the city of Tempe and Arizona State. To put stamp on the season and put a stamp on my career, I’ve got to go out with a ‘W,’ nothing else.”
This will be Magee’s first bowl game as a Sun Devil, as he missed all of last season with an Achilles’ injury.
Graham enters the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with a career 3-1 record in bowl games. His only loss came with Rice in 2006, when the Owls played in their first postseason game in 45 seasons. With Tulsa, Graham won the GMAC Bowl twice and Hawaii Bowl once. He left Pittsburgh last season before the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Graham has lamented more than once recently how close the Sun Devils might have been to reaching the Pac-12 championship game this season had they held onto a late lead against UCLA in October, but he also knows taking ASU to the next level is a process.
The next step in that process, which Graham has promised will lead to regular Rose Bowl appearances and more, comes in San Francisco, where the Sun Devils have mandated a victory.
“We just have one focus: winning,” Graham said. “Everything that we’re doing here, to move forward we have to win.”