Sun Devils’ new era off to picture perfect start
TEMPE, Ariz. — The Todd Graham era at Arizona State
could not have gotten off to much better of a start than it did Thursday.
ASU blew out Northern Arizona 63-6, firing on all cylinders and displaying a
discipline not seen at Sun Devil Stadium in any recent season.
“I was really anxious to see, when we’re standing on the sideline, just
exactly how they would respond,” Graham said. “Obviously there’s
going to be corrections and things, but I couldn’t have scripted a better
Granted, NAU is an FCS opponent and lost its starting running back and
quarterback to injuries during the game, but as first impressions go ASU could
have done little more to showcase exactly the kind of football Graham intends
it to play.
Perhaps the most anticipated showing was that of ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly.
The redshirt sophomore performed just as advertised — smart decisions, ball
protection and good mobility — and then some, lofting a few long passes down
Kelly, who took 38 snaps to redshirt freshman Michael Eubank’s 29, finished the
night 15 of 19 for 247 yards and a touchdown. Aside from a sack and a couple
overthrown passes, Kelly did everything he could have to validate Graham’s
choosing him as the Sun Devils’ starting quarterback.
“He did exactly what I thought he would do,” Graham said. “I
knew Taylor would manage the game. (He) pulled the ball down and ran when he
Added Kelly: “I was nervous, but once that first snap hit it was just
another game of football.”
Eubank did all the right things, too, giving ASU the short-yardage signal
caller it sought to compliment Kelly. Eubank threw just one pass, for two
yards, but ran seven times for 36 yards and a touchdown.
And that “High Octane” offense Graham advertised all offseason? In 71
plays, it produced more points than ASU has scored in a game since its 2005
season opener, a 63-16 win over Temple. ASU outgained NAU 554-237 and went a
perfect 8 for 8 in the red zone. The 305 rushing yards complied by seven ball
carriers was the most in a game since Oct. 20, 2001.
All the particulars promised on offense were there, too. Senior running back
Cameron Marshall scored twice. Freshman running back D.J. Foster scored once
and gained 67 yards, flashing the potential touted when he chose ASU over USC
But as good as the offense was, it was not perfect. Both Marshall and Foster
fumbled. Senior wide receiver Jamal Miles was suspended for a team rules
violation dating back to the spring. And apparently seven of eight scoring
drives under three minutes was not quite high octane enough for Graham.
“Believe it or not that tempo was excruciatingly slow tonight,”
Graham said. “We’ve got to get faster with our tempo.”
The defense, too, was just as aggressive and exciting as it was talked up to be
by players and coaches all fall. Though shutting NAU out in the first half may
have been the defense’s most impressive feat, its three interceptions and two
sacks were the kind of big plays co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph
predicted. Senior linebacker Brandon Magee provided the highlight with a
45-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Though the explosive, sound defense may have been a surprise to a crowd used to
mistakes and mental lapses, it was, again, exactly what the Sun Devils
“I knew what we were going to do out there,” junior safety Alden
Darby said. “The style of defense coach Graham is having us play, an
attacking style, I knew we were going to bring it to them.”
Added Magee: “As a defense, we had a lot of plays we did very well, but we
also had some minor mistakes that we have to correct. (Against) Illinois we
can’t make those mistakes because Illinois is a lot better ball team.”
Amid a jubilant postgame full of laughter and praise, Magee’s comment brought
the game back into context. It won’t be like this every week. The opponents
will get better, starting with Illinois next week, and the pressure will be
greater. But with a strong first impression and sharp play all around, ASU was
able to build momentum for the tougher times.
Regardless of opponent, the greatest impression ASU made Thursday was
undoubtedly its discipline. The difference from past seasons was striking, and
the Sun Devils committed just four penalties for 30 yards. None of the
penalties came on defense.
Graham likely experienced in his first game what Dennis Erickson, ASU’s coach
the last five seasons, probably never did during his tenure: An official
approached Graham late in the game to compliment his team’s sportsmanship and
“The (official) came over to me and said ‘Coach, I just want to tell you
you’re guys are absolutely incredible,'” Graham said. “That meant as
much to me as the win did.”