Sun Devils still have Pac-12 title in sights
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)
Arizona State could have gotten through its first five games a little better had it not had such a slow start against Stanford or been able to at least put up a speed bump against Notre Dame's offense.
The Sun Devils' recent four-game stretch was as difficult as any team in the country will face this season, but 5-0 or even 4-1 would have sounded a lot better than 3-2 as they head into the bulk of the conference season.
Despite not living up to their own expectations, the Sun Devils still have a shot at their primary goal from the start of the season: The Pac-12 championship.
At 1-1, Arizona State is right behind UCLA (1-0) in the Pac-12 South and plays its final seven games within the conference.
''I feel good about where we are at,'' Arizona State coach Todd Graham said on Monday. ''Obviously, we wanted to be 5-0, but we were close to 4-1. That would have been nice for our fans. It was just an incredible turnout down in Dallas. We have got a good football team. We have a lot better football team then we had at this time last year.''
The Sun Devils weren't too far from having a really good run through the four-game stretch.
Arizona State opened this gauntlet of games by holding off then-No. 20 Wisconsin after a controversial finish and fell flat to start its next game, falling behind 29-0 to No. 5 Stanford before three fourth-quarter touchdowns kept it from being a complete rout.
The Sun Devils bounced back from that by steamrolling Southern California, putting up 62 points, matching the most ever scored against the Trojans.
That set up Saturday's game against Notre Dame in Texas, a chance for Arizona State to make a national statement and gain exposure in a fertile recruiting area.
The Sun Devils came up short, thanks to untimely miscues on offense and an inability to stop the Fighting Irish on defense.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly threw for three touchdowns, but also had two of Arizona State's three second-half turnovers, including an interception that was returned for a touchdown, and was sacked six times. Arizona State also struggled to get anything going on the ground, needing 25 carries to gain 65 yards.
The bigger problems were on defense.
Notre Dame had no trouble deflecting the attacking Sun Devils' constant pressure, giving quarterback Tommy Rees plenty of time to pick apart their secondary. Rees threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns after managing 104 yards the week before.
Arizona State's secondary also had its share of problems despite Osahon Irabor's interception return for a touchdown, dropping two other potential picks and struggling at times with man coverage. Notre Dame also ran for 145 yards.
The result was a 37-34 defeat that dropped the Sun Devils out of the rankings and to 2-2 through this difficult stretch in the schedule.
''We have to improve defensively to get to the level where we want to be,'' Graham said. ''We are not far from that. I feel good about our team.''
The good news for the Sun Devils is that the rest of the schedule figures to be less punishing.
During its four-game run, Arizona State faced some of the best running teams in the nation, powerful teams loaded with massive offensive linemen who towered over the Sun Devils.
Now that run is over, Arizona State will face the more familiar, up-tempo styles of the Pac-12, which it had success against last season.
''We finished up the first third of the season and I think we are in good shape,'' Graham said. ''I know that we are a lot better football team because of the schedule we just played. We are really close in a lot of things.''
Arizona State starts the next stretch of its schedule Saturday night at home against Colorado.