Sun Devils go from roadkill to road warriors
TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State coach Todd Graham said it before the Sun Devils’ first road game this season and has repeated himself for nearly each road game since: "The hardest thing to do in college football is win on the road."
Yet, somehow this season ASU — and much of the Pac-12 for that matter — has made it seem easy, and this week the No.6 Sun Devils have a chance to make history on the road.
With roads wins over New Mexico, Colorado, USC and Washington already this year, ASU has four road wins for the first time since 1997. Against Oregon State in Corvallis on Saturday night, ASU has the chance to make it five roads wins for the first time in program history.
That, coupled with ASU’s seven-game road winning streak dating back to last season, should say plenty about how successful ASU has been on the road recently. But fully understanding the significance of it requires historical context.
Prior to coach Todd Graham’s arrival, ASU had developed a reputation as a team that, among other shortcomings, couldn’t win on the road. For good reason.
In the decade prior to Graham’s tenure, ASU averaged fewer than two road wins per season, only once (2007) posting a winning road record in that span. From 2008 to 2011, ASU lost four road games each season; in three of those four seasons, it won just once away from home (neutral-site and postseason games are excluded).
Going back even further, ASU had just two winning seasons on the road since 1997. So the reputation was warranted, but it irked Graham nonetheless.
"There’s a lot of things that they would say that bothered me that I think are ridiculous," Graham said. "I just don’t think anything that was done in the past has anything to do with us. … Every team is different, and every situation is different."
Graham made quick work of chipping away at that reputation when he arrived in 2012, winning two of his first three road games — including the Sun Devils’ first win at Cal’s Memorial Stadium in Berkeley since 1997. ASU would finish 3-3 on the road that season before going 3-1 in true road games last season — including a Pac-12 South-clinching win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
This year, ASU won at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time since 1999, beating USC on a last-second Hail Mary pass. They also eked out a win in Washington amid heavy wind and rain.
So what’s different? How have Graham’s Sun Devils become a formidable road team?
"The main thing we didn’t have in past years that made us lose on the road was our focus and our mindset," fifth-year senior offensive lineman Jamil Douglas said. "Now we go into every game and we don’t think about being on the road. It’s our field we’re playing on. Coach Graham does a good job of keeping our minds on things that matter."
Quarterback Mike Bercovici, who backed up Brock Osweiler as a freshman in 2011 and now backs up Taylor Kelly, cites a drastic change from the way ASU handled itself on the road under previous head coach Dennis Erickson, who compiled an 8-17 road record in five seasons at ASU.
"It’s been a miraculous change," Bercovici said. "The focus is different from when we get on the bus here in Tempe and how we’re all looking like a unit, no headphones when we’re walking out it public. The communication is extremely intense as far as even when you’re moving from a bus to an airplane, from an airplane to a hotel. There’s not a lot chatter, not a lot of joking around.
"The whole mindset is it’s a business trip."
Both points align with the focus Graham has put on discipline since taking over.
Asked why he believes winning on the road in college football is so difficult, Graham didn’t have to think long.
"It’s just distractions," Graham said. "This game is a game that’s meant to be played with passion, and that passion really brings about momentum. The home-field crowd kind of ignites that. So when you’re on the road it takes a really mature team to implement that. … You don’t have your fans, you don’t have your band. It’s just an atmosphere where you have to get your energy level to where it is when you play at home, where it’s easy."
To try to mitigate some of the distractions, ASU does everything it can to mimic a home environment on the road, from game-day scheduling and travel routines to locker-room signage and even the scent of the locker room (Graham has said ASU takes the air fresheners it uses at home on the road).
"Nothing ever deviates from our schedule," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "We have something, we’ve followed it for years, and I think it contributes to the success of winning on the road. It’s just keeping our kids in that same routine. So it doesn’t matter if we’re here or on the road."
Oregon State coach Mike Riley, a veteran of 13-plus seasons in the Pac-12, echoed similar sentiments about the challenges of playing on the road.
"I think what makes it tough is No. 1 the travel and the change," Riley said. "And then obviously the home environment, whether it’s just familiarity or crowd noise, and there’s kind of the world-against-you feeling you can get sometimes."
The "world-against-you feeling" Riley mentions is perhaps most apparent to offenses playing in a hostile environment.
"It’s mainly crowd noise," Douglas said. "You have to key the ball differently, get off on the snap count differently. We have different ways to get off to on the snap count. It’s not the same because when we’re at home our fans quiet down before the ball is snapped."
And in some cases, road teams have to face adverse conditions the home team is used to. Plenty of teams have come to Tempe unprepared for the heat, the same way teams have gone to Seattle unprepared for rain or to Colorado unprepared for the elevation.
This week, ASU faces the possibility of temperatures below 40 degrees. And despite Oregon State’s 4-5 record this year, Corvallis maintains a reputation as a difficult place to play, as ASU learned in a 36-26 loss in 2012.
"Very, very tough place to play," Graham said. "We turned the football over, made too many mistakes, had critical errors in the back end and really didn’t play well. That’s what I remember about that game."
ASU enters Saturday’s game a heavy favorite. If it gets that historic fifth road win, ASU will have as many road wins (11) in three seasons under Graham as it had the previous six seasons.
But if the Beavers somehow pull out a win, ASU will have another shot when it travels to Tucson on Nov. 28. Or perhaps the Sun Devils will be going after road win No. 6 that day.
While road success can sometimes be a matter of luck (like the Hail Mary at USC) or scheduling (New Mexico and Colorado), the Sun Devils have worked hard to redefine their reputation.
"For me as a player, one of the most fun things in college football is being able to play on the road," Bercovici said. "Having the reputation that you can travel a three-hour plane ride away, go into someone else’s house and take what they want, that’s a beautiful thing."