TEMPE, Ariz. — In football as in life, it is natural to prefer the comforts of home. From the familiarity of the locker room and the sideline to a home crowd and not having to get on a plane afterward, home games offer plenty of advantages.
Great teams, however, win on the road, too.
No. 22 Arizona State faces its latest test away from the comforts of Tempe this Saturday when it takes on Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, and while technically this would be considered a neutral-site game, the Sun Devils realize this is an opportunity to show they can perform at a high enough level away from Sun Devil Stadium to reach their lofty goals.
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“If you want to win a championship, you have got to win on the road,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “That is something we have talked to our players about. It shows great maturity to do that. We have got to go on the road in Dallas and play well.”
In a season-plus under Graham, ASU is 3-4 in true road games, plus a neutral-site win over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Saturday’s game at Cowboy Stadium is part of Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series, and the crowd is widely expected to be Notre Dame friendly.
ASU’s three road wins under Graham came last season against California, Colorado and Arizona, only one of which (UA) was bowl eligible. The losses have come against Missouri, Oregon State, USC and Stanford.
Playing No. 5 Stanford two weeks ago provided ASU a grand stage for an upset, but the Sun Devils fell flat, trailing 29-0 at halftime before mounting a second half rally in the 42-28 loss. The stage Saturday in Texas may be even grander.
Notre Dame is unranked and coming off a loss to Oklahoma, but it is still less than a year removed from an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game and has perhaps the most dedicated following in college football. The Sun Devils firmly believe they will be prepared for the challenge.
“I think last time it was sort of just ‘big time game, Stanford, first road game’ and people were just a little bit on their heels,” tight end Chris Coyle said. “Going into this game, none of that. We’re never going to let that happen again. Everybody’s mentally prepared.”
Quarterback Taylor Kelly has been at the center of the discussion about ASU’s recent road woes. Away from Sun Devil Stadium, Kelly often looks like a different quarterback than the one who broke school records for passing efficiency and completion percentage last season.
Here’s a look at Kelly’s passing splits.
“I think that is pretty common,” Graham said. “You could probably take any quarterback and they would have the same stats.
“We play pretty well right here on this field and (Kelly) plays exceptional. I think he is still learning, and I think he is still getting better.”
Kelly isn’t shy about admitting he has struggled on the road.
“Last year for me it was just getting used to different environments,” Kelly said. “I’m still kind of getting used to that. I think I was a little late transferring that into the Stanford game.”
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Norvell is quick to point out Kelly’s performances against Colorado (20 of 28, 308 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions) and Navy (17 of 19, 268 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions). He also recalls Kelly’s performance against Arizona in which he didn’t put up big numbers but led the offense with great poise.
Norvell said he and Kelly have discussed things that might get Kelly out of his comfort zone on the road.
“It’s just making sure we have a focus on our job and not letting the atmosphere get to you,” Norvell said. “It’s the same thing when you’re at home — don’t get too high, don’t get too low. We’ve played a couple games at home he probably didn’t play his best in, maybe because of that. You’re emotions can get going a bit too much.
“You just have to focus on the next play and focus on your fundamentals. When Taylor does that, it doesn’t matter where we play, he’s going to do a great job.”
The other big challenge: Bouncing back from a negative. Kelly admits it can be harder to move on from a miscue on the road, and said the Stanford loss was a case of one negative leading to another in a first half that snowballed into a complete disaster.
“When someone does something bad, your (senses) go up,” Kelly said. “You can hear everything — what the crowd is saying, what the opponent is saying. You’ve just got to have that short-term memory, block everything out and trust yourself.”
It is not just Kelly, though, that has failed to match his home performance on the road.
“I think it’s just a mental thing,” senior defensive end Gannon Conway said. “It’s something that in this game we’re really going to have to prove we can win on the road. We just need to overcome that mental side and focus.”
Coyle said he heard about a few players who were goofing around during the trip to Stanford. He did not elaborate on what occurred or who was involved, but was not happy to hear about it.
“That just shows a lack of focus,” Coyle said. “They weren’t necessarily starters, but the biggest thing is we’ve got to have everybody buying in and nobody distracting anybody. So coaches have made it completely clear that nobody’s allowed to be messing around this trip. This is 100 percent business. We’ve got to go in there focused.”
A 4-4 record away from Sun Devil Stadium may not seem all that unusual, but .500 football on the road won’t bring home the championships Graham talks about regularly.
Coaches are trying to stress to players that regardless of the location, the crowd or the opponent, they are still capable of playing at a high level.
“It’s the same football field,” Conway said. “It doesn’t matter where it is. You just have to come out there and play like it’s at home.”