TEMPE, Ariz. – Todd Graham’s impact on the Arizona State football program has been both sudden and expansive.
A team that once was among the yearly leaders in penalty yards is now seventh in the nation in fewest yards per game (31.33). A team that once underachieved is now playing to its talent level. A program that has struggled to attract fans has seen an uptick in interest and donations. A team that once lacked structure now sits in assigned seats at team meetings, keeps its locker room spotless and uses the phrase ‘yes, sir’ more than a military platoon.
“He’s done everything he said he was going to do,” first-year athletic director Steve Patterson said of his first-year coach. “We wanted far better relationships with our community, its donors, our supporters, the media and high school coaches. We wanted somebody that could be a leader and those are the characteristics Todd has shown.”
None of it would matter if Graham weren’t winning.
While the three other new coaches in the Pac-12 — Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, Washington State’s Mike Leach and UCLA’s Jim Mora — all had bigger name-recognition and better résumés when they agreed to terms, Graham’s Sun Devils (5-1) had the best record when the conference schedule hit its midpoint last week.
Still, there are doubters nationally. There are doubters locally. And there is one very knowledgeable skeptic within the program: Graham.
“Let’s be realistic,” Graham said. “We beat five teams we should have beat and we lost to a team we probably should have beat. We’ve got a long ways to go.”
Which is why Sun Devil Nation has reached a fevered pitch in anticipation of Thursday night’s game against No. 2 Oregon at Sun Devil Stadium. The fan base is already on board with Graham’s high-octane style and disciplined approach, but it will surely go overboard if the Sun Devils can post such a landmark win in Graham’s first season.
“This is what you work for. This is what you play for. It’s why you’re at this level, to play in this kind of game with this kind of opportunity because of what they stand for,” Graham said of Oregon. “To be able to do it in our first year would be monumental. There’s no measuring it. That’s how big it is.”
It’s difficult to handicap the Sun Devils’ chances. Few analysts would have predicted such poor starts for Illinois, Missouri, Utah and California, but the fact remains: ASU has not played an FBS team with a winning record this season. Worse yet, that loss at Missouri looks bad now that the Tigers are 3-4 and 0-4 in the SEC, including a confidence-shattering home loss to Vanderbilt.
But there is another side to that coin. Missouri was ASU’s first road game with what was largely a new cast of characters from 2011. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is a redshirt sophomore, the Sun Devils receivers are all inexperienced, the offensive line lost three key players to graduation, the only four linebackers who saw significant snaps last year are gone and both starting safeties and two defensive line starters are gone.
“I’m really proud of my teammates for the way they’ve bought in and stepped when not much was expected of us,” senior linebacker Brandon Magee said. “We know we’ve still got some proving to do, but we plan on playing Sun Devil football which is attacking them, staying disciplined and staying gap-sound. Then, after the game, let’s talk.”
It’s important that ASU remember the season does not end with a loss Thursday night. Graham has bought himself some cache with this start, and even if the Devils can play .500 ball over the second half, he will have posted eight wins and provided hope for the future.
“The guys have done everything we asked them to do,” offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “If we can get this game or even some of the next games, it’s like breaking that next rock and moving forward toward our ultimate quest.”
But a national audience will be watching Thursday — meaning potential implications for recruiting and prestige. A sellout crowd is projected, decked out in black like the team on the field. ASU has played just six home games in its history against No. 1 or No. 2 ranked teams. The last time they won one was when quarterback Jake Plummer led the Sun Devils to a 19-0 shutout of Nebraska in 1996, foreshadowing the team’s run to the Rose Bowl.
“The community will be hyped up, man. I honestly believe this game is bigger than when we beat USC last year,” Magee said. “Thursday night. It’s a blackout game. ESPN. Hopefully it will be sold out.