TEMPE, Ariz. — Had Arizona State played Utah in the same tight game it did Saturday a month or so ago, the result might have been different for the Sun Devils. Consider the Notre Dame game Oct. 5, a close contest ASU felt it should have won but let slip away.
Now, with lessons learned from early in the season, ASU appears to be playing its best football at the time it’s going to matter most.
“I think we are hitting our stride,” coach Todd Graham said at his weekly Monday press conference. “I think we better be.
“When you’re experiencing success, everybody’s kind of patting you on the back and you think you’ve done it. We’ve not done anything. Win the next four games then we’ve done something.”
With Oregon State coming to Tempe on Saturday, a road game against UCLA after that and a home game against rival Arizona before a possible Pac-12 Championship Game appearance, ASU is entering its most critical stretch.
ASU navigated a tough early season schedule and arrived at the halfway point 4-2. The Sun Devils have since won three straight and taken control of the Pac-12 South. Saturday’s win in Salt Lake City wasn’t pretty, but ASU escaped with the win it needed to stay on track for a South division title and a spot in the Pac-12 title game.
The offense struggled to get anything going against an impressive Utah defense but eventually scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter. It was the ASU defense that kept the Sun Devils in position for such a comeback.
The defense allowed 109 offensive yards in the first half and 138 in the second half but just 17 in the fourth quarter while ASU rallied to win 20-19.
“You want to win this league, you’re going to have to play championship-level defense,” Graham said. “You’re (also) going to have to have championship-level quarterback play. That’s it. You’ve got to have that. Those are non-negotiables if you’re going to win this league.”
ASU’s defense has quietly started playing its best football over the past few weeks. After the Utah win, it moved into first in the Pac-12 for total defense with 332.7 yards allowed per game. ASU’s passing defense ranks first in the conference, and its rushing defense ranks third.
Asked Monday if the defense was playing its best right now, though, Graham said he thinks the whole team is. But Graham again stressed he’ll continue stressing that they need to continue improving.
“I tell our guys our meetings have to be different, our practices have to be different,” Graham said. “I’m talking about better than what we’ve done.”
ASU’s widely praised discipline is typically displayed in penalty numbers — ASU ranks sixth nationally in fewest penalties per game and fifth nationally in fewest penalty yards per game — but Saturday’s game provided perhaps an even better picture of the change Graham has instilled in two seasons.
Graham said there was a lot of “extracurricular” stuff happening on the field. That is, Utah players were jawing at ASU’s players and even shoving a few times. Graham thought his players were going to respond on a couple occasions but was pleased to see they did not.
In one instance, Graham said, a Utah player directed a fist at a Sun Devil, who did not retaliate.
“I thought he was going to punch back, but that’s not us,” Graham said. “We can’t do that. We don’t get penalties. I think that discipline helped us there.”
The best example: A second-quarter confrontation between Utah running back Kelvin York and ASU linebacker Chris Young. York carried the ball but was wrapped up for a 1-yard loss by two ASU defenders, one of them Young. Something irked York, who shoved Young and got in the linebacker’s face.
Young stood there and took it while officials flagged York for a personal foul. The flag backed Utah up to ASU’s 46-yard line, and the Utes eventually punted.
“That was a key in the game,” Graham said. “They were in field-goal range and they get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.”
Three points for Utah there could have made for a different outcome. Graham said he talked specifically about the play at halftime and was convinced by the show of discipline his team is buying in on another level to his approach.
“When people are punching or doing extra things on you, guys get really emotional about that stuff,” Graham said. “I talked to them about being a champion is being able to control your emotion. You control two things in life: your attitude and your effort. And your emotions are what control your attitude. We want to be in control of those and be disciplined.”
— The kickoff time for ASU’s Nov. 23 game against UCLA in Los Angeles will not be announced until next Sunday or Monday. FOX exercised the right to use a six-day selection to make its first pick for that week of games. Should both teams win next weekend, it appears likely FOX would select the game for its national game of the week slot with a 4 p.m. PT/5 p.m. MT start.
— Graham said defensive end Gannon Conway had his best game of the season against Utah, so much that Graham watched the game film and questioned why ASU has been removing Conway on third downs in favor of a different pass rusher. Graham said Conway, who had 1 1/2 tackles for loss and a sacky, likely won’t come out in those situations anymore.
— Graham on playing a team coming off a bye week for the third consecutive game this week: “I’d be a liar if I told you it didn’t bother me. … I wish that wasn’t like that. I think it should be equal, but obviously you can’t do anything about the schedule.”