TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State might have survived its brutal first half schedule in good position to challenge for a Pac-12 title, but that doesn’t mean things are getting any easier.
At the halfway mark, coach Todd Graham says the Sun Devils must be more motivated than ever to finish strong and remain in the Pac-12 race.
“At this point in the year we ought to be extremely motivated,” Graham said. “We’re extremely healthy, and we have a shot. It’s the team that plays with that kind of spirit and that kind of enthusiasm that is the key.”
The second half begins for ASU on Saturday with No. 20 Washington coming to Tempe on the heels of losses to Stanford and Oregon, both top five teams when they beat the Huskies. Further tests await in road games against Washington State, Utah and UCLA and home contests with Oregon State and Arizona.
In recent seasons, ASU has slumped in the second half. Last season — Graham’s first — ASU lost four of its last six games after a 5-1 start. The year before, ASU lost five of its last six after starting 5-1. Over the past five seasons, ASU is a combined 10-22 in second half games, including a win in last season’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
After a 4-2 start this season, the second half arrives with little or no margin for error. One loss could derail ASU’s chances of winning the Pac-12 South, in which ASU currently trails only UCLA.
“This is an exciting time of the year for us,” Graham said. “I think we’re exactly where I thought we would be, and that’s in a good position.”
Graham is right that ASU very healthy. The only significant injury thus far has been to starting nose tackle Jaxon Hood (hamstring), who missed two games before returning against Colorado. The Sun Devils also remain in control of their own destiny in the South. If ASU and UCLA keep winning, the South title could be on the line Nov. 23 at the Rose Bowl.
Graham said he was proud of the way ASU handled Colorado in a 54-13 win Saturday but insisted the Sun Devils must improve this week and every week going forward.
“I think we’re a lot better than we were in Week 1,” Graham said. “But you’ve got to realize everybody else is getting better, too. This is the time of year you better rise up.
“You can really be feeling good, but you better be improving no matter how good you are.”
Washington provides the latest measuring stick for ASU, which remains a bit of an enigma after beating Wisconsin and USC but losing to Stanford and Notre Dame. Graham on Monday compared Washington’s talent level to USC’s.
The Washington offense features numerous weapons. Running back Bishop Sankey leads the nation in rushing (149.8 yards per game). Quarterback Keith Price ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency (154.7). Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins has had a slow first half but remains among the elite at his position in the Pac-12.
On top of that, Washington enters the week with the Pac-12’s third-ranked defense (344.2 yards allowed per game), top-ranked pass defense (182.2 yards per game) and fourth-ranked scoring defense (19.8 points allowed per game).
“It’s going to be a big, big game for us,” Graham said. “This is one of those games that we’ll find out exactly where we’re at.”
The past two games, senior Davon Coleman has started in place of Hood at nose tackle. The result, Graham said, has been two “all-conference Pac-12 level” games.
“All of a sudden his light’s come on,” Graham said.
In the two starts, Coleman has totaled 11 tackles, including three for loss and half a sack. Against Colorado on Saturday, he lined up as a fullback and caught a 1-yard touchdown pass. Coleman started eight games last season at defensive end but lost his starting job this season to Gannon Conway. Graham admitted Monday that Coleman has been in his doghouse perhaps more than any other player, and Graham wasn’t sure Coleman would make it.
So what has been the difference the past two weeks?
“I think what happened with Davon is he can see that it’s coming to an end,” Graham said. “I think that’s been the difference.”
As a motivational tool, Graham likes to remind his seniors regularly how many practices and games they have left. Right now, that means only six games and 18 practices guaranteed.
“Obviously, it means something to him,” Graham said. “It starts to hit you about right now.”
— Graham said he hoped freshman safety Marcus Ball would be cleared to play Monday. Ball injured his shoulder Aug. 17 and has now missed half the season. Still, Graham says if Ball gets cleared, he will play rather than redshirt.
— Graham mentioned on Saturday the possibility of tight end De’Marieya Nelson being used as a pass rusher. Monday, he said Nelson would get limited practice reps on defense and could play five or so snaps there against Washington.