For all the talk of the trouble Arizona State might run into on the road against Washington State, the Sun Devils sure looked right at home Thursday.
In a Halloween night game in Pullman, Wash., billed as a potential upset, ASU dominated the Cougars 55-21 in what was the most impressive road win in coach Todd Graham’s two seasons.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Graham said. “We’ve got a really good football team. I’m really proud of how they came up here and responded — very mature, very businesslike.”
Earlier in the week, ASU (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) faced questions about its ability to win on the road given an 0-2 record away from home this season. While the Sun Devils, who got bowl eligible with the win, still must beat a comparable opponent on the road, they answered many of those questions Thursday night.
Could they play with proper focus in what seemed likely to be a raucous atmosphere? ASU answered that quickly by forcing a three-and-out and driving 67 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.
Would the cold weather prove troublesome for the Sun Devils, who faced a kickoff temperature of 46 degrees? It didn’t appear to be a problem, as ASU’s high-powered offense steamrolled the Washington State defense en route to a 42-14 halftime lead.
How would ASU handle a little adversity without a home crowd and familiar surroundings on which to lean? Again, the Sun Devils handled themselves with poise. After giving up touchdowns on its last defensive series of the first half and first of the second half, ASU responded with a 75-yard drive that included a fake punt — the first of two in the game — on fourth down to retake a four-touchdown lead.
Graham said he was particularly proud of special-teams coordinator Joe Lorig in what was almost certainly ASU’s best special-teams performance of the season.
It all added up to ASU’s best effort away from Sun Devil Stadium since Graham took over prior to last season. The Sun Devils’ halftime lead against the Cougars was just their fourth in nine regular-season road games under Graham , but it was their largest by a good margin.
Certainly, ASU still has to prove it can beat a more formidable opponent on the road. The next three weeks offer opportunities with road games against Utah and No. 20 UCLA, the latter of which could very well decide the Pac-12 South. But it was hard not to be impressed by the way ASU went about preparing for and executing in Thursday’s dominant win.
Throughout their bye week and regular game preparation, the Sun Devils maintained the “no excuses” mindset Graham has demanded of them. Come game time, they took care of business just as they should against an inferior opponent, not overlooking upset-minded Washington State (4-5, 2-4), a team fighting for the two wins it needs to get bowl eligible.
With the win, ASU improved to 5-5 under Graham in games outside Tempe. While .500 football on the road — including a 1-2 mark this season — is nothing to brag about, the Sun Devils took a significant step forward Thursday night with their most complete road performance under Graham.
“Our kids have responded,” Graham said. “It’s nice just to let them play. That’s what we’re starting to do. That’s two weeks back-to-back that we gained a lot of confidence.”
Most impressive, of course, was ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, who was playing in front of nearly 40 family members and friends who made the roughly five-hour trip to Pullman from Kelly’s hometown of Eagle, Idaho. Kelly went 22 of 31 passing for 275 yards and five touchdowns while also rushing for 66 yards and two touchdowns.
“He was phenomenal tonight,” Graham said on KTAR 620 AM after the game. “He’s like having an offensive coordinator out there on the field. He does a tremendous job for us.”
Running back Marion Grice accounted for 94 of ASU’s 282 rushing yards, and D.J. Foster caught seven passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns. ASU outgained Washington State 557 yards to 302 and eclipsed 50 points for the fifth time this season, tying a school record.
More important than any questions about road play or individual performances, though, were the Pac-12 implications. With the win, ASU maintained its stronghold on first place in the South as it enters a stretch of the schedule that, while perhaps not as difficult as the early-season gauntlet, will decide the team’s fate.
With that in mind, as impressive as the win was, its glow will fade quickly. ASU has another tough road test in nine days, and the questions about the Sun Devils’ ability to win on the road consistently will return in the meantime.
That’s a question still to be answered, but with the way ASU is rolling right now, it’s about the only question left.
“All I’m worried about is that’s one more down and we’ve got five more to go to be Pac-12 champions and four to get there,” Graham said. “We’ve got another tough road game against a very good Utah team.”