Sun Devils on guard against letdown vs. Sacramento State
SEP 04, 2013 12:11p ET
Eight FBS schools -- including the Pac-12's Oregon State -- lost to lower-division FCS teams in what were supposed to be easy non-conference wins.
Those upsets served to reinforce that ASU -- if it hopes to make good on grand plans for 2013 -- cannot afford to overlook Sacramento State in its season opener Thursday night.
"They don't have anything to lose," coach Todd Graham said. "It would make their entire season to come in here and beat a Pac-12 team, and they're pretty good at doing it."
Sacramento State lost its opener 24-0 last week to San Jose State, but it has indeed played giant-killer in recent seasons. In 2011, the Hornets beat Oregon State in overtime, and in 2012 they beat Colorado on a last-second field goal. Impressive wins for an FCS team no doubt, but slightly misleading considering Oregon State won just three games in 2011 and Colorado just one in 2012.
Still, Sacramento State comes to Tempe looking to make it three years in a row. Graham knows what it feels like to be Sacramento State coach Marshal Sperbeck, having himself spent time at Rice and Tulsa, mid-major programs that had only infrequent shots at playing a marquee opponent.
"That's where I come from," Graham said. "I can remember playing those teams -- playing Oklahoma when I was at Tulsa and playing Notre Dame when I was at Tulsa -- and that was it. That was the ultimate deal."
Essentially, this is a little like a bowl game for Sacramento State, and since it has nothing to lose it can afford to empty the playbook in hopes of catching a better opponent off guard.
"We know that they're going to on-side kick, fakes, trick plays, the whole nine yards," ASU safety Alden Darby said. "Their whole season would be made if they beat us. So we know they're not going by a script. They'll just do anything to win, so we're prepared for everything. We can't let these guys stick around."
The Sun Devils say they have treated preparation as if they are playing Stanford or USC, approaching the game with a must-win mentality.
The reality is Thursday's game is not "must-win," at least in the context of ASU's goals for this season -- a Pac-12 South title and a Rose Bowl berth. But a loss would be a humiliating start to a season in which expectations are high.
ASU has failed to deliver on high expectations in recent years, but past failings cannot be held against this year's Sun Devils, who are coming off of an overachieving 2012 season in Graham's first year.
"We came in and said 'Here's the standard, this is how we're going to do things,'" Graham said. "But everyone needs to understand that was just a minimum standard that we were trying to get to. Now we've taken the standard and moved it up even higher than that."
Added quarterback Taylor Kelly: "He wants us to be perfect because we have a really good shot this year with the talent we have and all the puzzle pieces fitting together."
The stars do appear aligned for a special season if ASU can capitalize. The Sun Devils return 14 starters, nine of them seniors. Among them is All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, who decided not to enter the NFL Draft early. A new crop of highly touted wide receivers give Kelly additional weapons at his disposal. As talented as ASU's team was in 2012, this group appears even better.
The schedule, too, appears favorable. Though ASU faces tough non-conference opponents in Wisconsin and Notre Dame, those games serve as potential profiler builders and do not impact Pac-12 standings. ASU also must face Stanford and UCLA on the road but avoids playing Oregon and plays five of its nine Pac-12 games at home.
Considering UCLA's tough schedule, USC's potential to continue trending downward and Arizona's multitude of questions on both sides of the ball, ASU has a window of opportunity in the Pac-12 South.
"We realize how close the opportunity was last year," sophomore running back D.J. Foster said. "This year, with the schedule and everything, it's set up perfectly for us to control our destiny."
It begins Thursday night against Sacramento State, and Graham has clear-cut expectations for his team.
"I don't lie to them, I make it clear to them: You're expected to win this game," Graham said. "If you don't it's because you didn't prepare yourself and you didn't respect your opponent.
"Whatever you want to say, you're expected to win this game, and you should. If you don't, that's ridiculous. It's unacceptable."
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