2012 rewind: Promising start to Graham era

Top 10 Arizona sports stories of the year, as selected by FOX Sports Arizona staff.

No. 5: Territorial Cup win caps promising

start to Todd Graham era

After four straight seasons without a winning record, Arizona State had seen enough of coach Dennis Erickson and dismissed him after the 2011 regular season. After a messy search, administrators introduced Pittsburgh’s Todd Graham to a skeptical Sun Devil Nation as the 23rd coach in ASU football history.

Graham took heavy criticism for leaving Pitt after just one season, as he had done at Rice in 2006, but the Texas native endured it all and went to work on selling his vision for the Sun Devils. After 135 public appearances in his first 107 days in Arizona, Graham had won over much of the fan base. Landing top local recruit D.J. Foster and taking the team back to Camp Tontozona for part of fall camp helped his cause.

Next came a tougher task: Winning.

ASU entered fall camp with a three-man quarterback battle and a shortage of returning starters. Considering the team’s five-game losing streak to end 2011 and the exodus of talents like quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Vontaze Burfict, expectations were low. Still, Graham promised success and scoffed at the notion that the Sun Devils couldn’t win right away.

Graham quickly made good on his word, leading ASU to a 5-1 start behind quarterback Taylor Kelly, running backs Foster and Marion Grice, defensive tackle Will Sutton and the Pac-12’s top defense. The Sun Devils also displayed new-found discipline on the field, having shaken a penalty problem developed under Erickson. The season turned with bad loss to Oregon in a much-anticipated game. ASU would lose its next three games before getting bowl eligible with a win over Washington State.

The highlight of Graham’s first year, however, came in the final week of the season as the Sun Devils took to Tucson to play Arizona in the Territorial Cup, a rivalry now charged by the shared history between Graham and first-year UA coach Rich Rodriguez. ASU used a little offensive creativity and some key takeaways on defense to rally for a thrilling 41-34 win and 7-5 regular season mark.

The Sun Devils earned a Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl invitation and will attempt to wrap up the season by beating Navy for their first bowl win since 2005, but the most lasting memory for fans of Graham’s first season is the victory lap of sorts he took with the Territorial Cup at Arizona Stadium.

–Tyler Lockman