ASU must end its road woes to stay unbeaten

ASU must end its road woes to stay unbeaten

Published Sep. 13, 2012 10:20 p.m. ET

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona State football program has had plenty of problems over the past decade or so. Perhaps most notable, though, has been its inability to win away from Sun Devil Stadium.

Taking on Missouri at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the Sun Devils hope to start building a new road reputation and stay unbeaten in the Todd Graham era.

"It doesn’t really matter to me what we have done in the past one way or another," Graham said. "You want to be a championship-caliber team, you have to go on the road, and you have to win. That is just the way it is."

Players admitted this week that the team has lacked the focus and attitude required to win on the road in recent seasons. A look back to last season alone supports that notion, as ASU went 1-4, losing its final three games on the road and squandering an easy path to the Pac-12 championship game.

"Last year, as people know, we didn't have a lot of discipline on our team," junior cornerback Osahon Irabor said. "So it was hard for guys to focus. We didn't really look at (playing on the road) as a business trip as much as we do this year."

Added senior receiver Rashad Ross: "Last year, we weren't really focused on the road until we started losing. Then we tried to group up and come back together, but it was too late."

While last season's road woes may have been the most costly in recent history, the failure away from home stretches back well beyond the disastrous 2011 campaign. The Sun Devils are a combined 5-16 on the road the past four seasons and went 8-17 under Dennis Erickson. Under Erickson and his predecessor, Dirk Koetter, ASU posted a winning road record just once (2007) in 11 seasons.

Moreover, ASU has not defeated a nonconference foe on the road since 2006 (then-Big 12 opponent Colorado). Saturday's game offers a chance to end that streak and set a new tone under Graham.

"My whole deal is that we're a new team (and) this is the first time for us to go on a business trip," Graham said Thursday. "They know it's going to be a different environment. It’s going to be a different surrounding than playing at home."

As different as it might be playing in a stadium packed with opposing fans, Graham and his staff are doing everything they can to keep everything the same. They will take home signage along to hang in the visiting locker room, and they will walk Faurot Field on game day, just like they do Frank Kush Field.

"As much as you can keep them in the routine, the better it is," Graham said.

One significant difference from past seasons will be ASU's travel's schedule. While in past seasons the team left two days before a road game, it will leave the day before this season, making the hotel stay just one night, the same as it is before home games.

"The only time we're going to have is to focus," Irabor said. "We'll get there, rest up a little bit, and the rest of the time we're going to be focused mentally on the game."

ASU's first road test of the season coincides with its first major challenge from an opposing offense -- probably. The Sun Devils were supposed to get that out of the way last week against Illinois, but the Illini offense struggled without injured starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The previous week, Northern Arizona lost its starting quarterback and running back to injuries before halftime.

This week's opposing quarterback, junior James Franklin, is reportedly dealing with a shoulder injury, and rumors circulated Friday night that he will be unable to play against ASU. If he can't go, Missouri will turn to freshman Corbin Berkstresser, who has thrown just two career passes, both in mop-up time in the season opener.

Franklin, the centerpiece of the Tigers' dynamic offense, is in his second season starting. Last season against ASU, he threw for 319 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 84 yards and a score. It's that dual threat that has Graham concerned.

"Franklin’s the most dynamic player, by far, that we have played against," Graham said. "(He has) a tremendous command of what he is doing. You can tell he really understands the system and knows it well."

That system, which Graham called Missouri's strength, has created a particularly dangerous offense. The average time of Missouri's seven scoring drives so far this year is one minute and forty seconds. Five of those took less than a minute.

ASU's thin secondary has not yet been tested by a threat like Franklin and Missouri. Because of that, Graham has stressed all week the challenge it will be stopping big plays.

"The biggest thing for us in the secondary is not giving up any cheap ones," Irabor said. "If they're going to score on us passing the ball, we want to force them to drive. No cheap ones, no one-play touchdowns."

Graham has also emphasized this week more than usual the need to protect the ball. Through two games, ASU has turned the ball over three times on fumbles, twice in the red zone last week.

"I'm telling you right now, we have two this week, we have one this week, we won't be near as happy," Graham said. "The weakest thing we're doing right now is taking care of the football. It's the worst thing we're doing as a football team."

By the same token, Graham hopes the Devils can take advantage of every mistake the Tigers make, just as Georgia did last week. Georgia rallied from down 17-9 in the third quarter and capitalized on Missouri's two fourth-quarter turnovers to open up a three-touchdown lead.

ASU might also exploit Missouri's inexperienced offensive line, which has been ravaged by injuries. That could make pressuring Franklin and limiting Missouri's ground attack much easier, especially if Franklin is already dinged up.

If ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly continues playing with poise and the team's rushing attack establishes itself again, the Sun Devils should have little trouble scoring again this week. The difference will likely come on the defensive side of the ball.

If things start going wrong for the Devils, they will be faced with their first opportunity to prove their newfound discipline and focus extend beyond successful games.

"You can't get rattled when you face adversity," Graham said. "I'm kind of waiting for us to face some, see what's going to happen. ... If we go to Missouri and we don't face adversity I will be shocked."