Graham’s first year a building block for success

SAN FRANCISCO — When the Arizona State football team was mired in a four-game losing streak earlier this season, coach Todd Graham bristled at the notion that this was the same, old program Dennis Erickson had left behind.

For proof, he cited the discipline of his players, he cited their character and he cited their work ethic. But Graham knew deep down his words meant nothing. He had to prove that his changes had made an impact where it mattered most. He had to prove it on the field.

With the season in the rear-view mirror, that goal has clearly been achieved. ASU’s 62-28 rout of Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Saturday at AT&T Park gave the Sun Devils wins in their final three games, making them the first ASU team to accomplish that feat since Frank Kush’s 1978 club. The win also ended a three-game bowl losing streak.

ASU’s 34-point margin of victory was the most lopsided bowl win in the program’s history, eclipsing a 22-point win over North Carolina in the 1970 Peach Bowl. The Devils’ 62 points were the most any Pac-12, Pac-10 or Pac-8 team has scored in a bowl game, and the eight wins ASU (8-5) achieved are its most since 2007.

If you can’t feel momentum right now, you don’t know where to find the pulse of a program.

“There’s no doubt that this will propel us into next season,” Graham said. “The first thing we talked about in the locker room was the foundation that these seniors have laid. We’ve got a great core coming back next year, and I’m excited for the future.”

ASU certainly benefited from a favorable schedule this season. According to Phil Steele, ASU played the easiest schedule in the Pac-12. But that didn’t mean a national championship or a Rose Bowl was a realistic expectation this season. With a new staff, a lot of fresh faces on the field and some key leaders lost to graduation and early NFL defection, those goals weren’t going to be attained.

The only thing that truly went wrong for ASU this season was a last-second field goal by UCLA at Sun Devil Stadium — which may never have materialized had Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton played that game instead of watching from the sideline with a knee injury.

Had ASU won that game, it would have won the Pac-12 South and staked its claim as the heir apparent to fading USC in the division.

Fortunately for the Devils, a few things transpired later in the season (and earlier) to leave that door open. UCLA lost its final three games — including a blowout loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl — to kill much of the good vibe created by Jim Mora’s first year as coach.

ASU beat Arizona in Tucson to grab the early lead in in-state recruiting and bragging rights. Utah fell off the face of the map, Colorado never graced it and USC’s NCAA-imposed scholarship limits will start showing up on the field over the next four seasons.

There is still opportunity in the Pac-12 South, and ASU’s young core of returning players gives it a leg up over every team with the possible exception of the Bruins, who return quarterback Brett Hundley and still have the advantage of recruiting roots in the fertile grounds of Southern California.

“People were starting to think it was going to be a rerun of last year,” Sutton said. “The good thing is our coaches weren’t going to let it happen. We practiced like it was camp year-round. Everybody on the team had the passion to win.”

The Sun Devils will clearly have holes to fill. Senior linebacker Brandon Magee played his final game at ASU, and Sutton, a junior, will decide whether to enter the NFL Draft by Jan. 15. But there is a tangible belief that the program will withstand such losses because of those newly installed Graham traits and a relentless staff of recruiters.

The Sun Devils’ only wins over FBS clubs with winning records this season were Arizona and Navy. But those were also the Sun Devils’ final two wins. It sure looks like this program is on an upward arc.

“They’ve got a bunch of guys in place,” departing running back Cameron Marshall said. “I think this team is going to be a very difficult team to deal with in the future. We went out winning a bowl game; winning our last three games. That by itself says it’s headed in the right direction.”

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