Road to Pac-12 championship takes ASU out of comfort zone
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State has done many impressive things in coach Todd Graham's two seasons, but there's one big one it has yet to do with consistency: Win on the road.
With a Thursday night game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., the Sun Devils face their latest challenge away from home.
"We know we're 0-2 on the road, and we want to change that," senior cornerback Osahon Irabor said. "You've got to start winning games on the road if you want to be a champion, so it's kind of like put up or shut up. We've got to go to Pullman and get a win."
ASU has already lost on the road this season to Stanford and Notre Dame. Those were not easy opponents, but the Sun Devils did not perform well in either game, getting buried in the first half by Stanford and beating themselves against Notre Dame in Dallas.
Clearly, something has to change. With a bye week following ASU's most impressive win of the year over Washington, the team went to work figuring out what it will take to get the job done away from Sun Devil Stadium.
"You don't win on the road because you're not prepared and you're not focused and you don't play well," Graham said. "That's it. That's why people get beat on the road."
Graham typically takes credit for preparation deficiencies, as he has repeatedly for the Stanford game. He credits the Notre Dame loss to missed opportunities and mistakes. Lack of focus, though, might have played a significant role in both losses.
Be it the travel, an unfamiliar setting, the opposing crowd or something else, there are plenty of things that can throw off a visiting team's focus. Thursday's game comes with even more potential in that regard. It's a Halloween night game on national TV, and Washington State canceled classes to encourage student attendance.
"It's going to be an electric environment," tight end Chris Coyle said. "We've just got to stay focused on ourselves and what we have to do."
The atmosphere might not prove an intimidating factor to an ASU team that has already played in primetime at Cowboys Stadium, but it could serve as a little extra energy boost to the Cougars as they try to steal a win critical to their hopes of getting bowl eligible for the first time since 2003.
Therein lies one of the Sun Devils' biggest problems on the road: Failing to bring the same energy as their opponent.
"The biggest challenge is you have to match a home team's energy in a road game," defensive tackle Jaxon Hood said. "You see how we play at home, that's how everyone plays at home. Home is exciting. The music's pumping, the crowd is cheering for you, it's familiar, you don't have to get on a plane. Home field is great, but we're ready this week to match the intensity of Washington State and come out more intense than them."
The possibility of cold weather in Pullman also sparked a good bit of discussion this week.
Forecasts call for a chance of rain and kickoff temperatures in the mid 40s, but Graham has been animated this week in dismissing any such discussion.
"If we're on the road, and you can ask my coaches, if one of my coaches says something about the weather, I'll them to go get a meteorologist job," Graham said. "It's part of it. There's no excuses."
There will be plenty of challenges on the field as well. Washington State's "Air Raid" passing attack, under second-year coach Mike Leach, ranks second in the Pac-12 with 373.1 yards per game. Quarterback Connor Halliday ranks second in the conference in passing yards per game (349.8) and third in the nation in passing yards (2,798).
Graham said he discussed Washington State with his former offensive coordinator and current Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, whose Tigers faced Washington State in a tight game to open the season.
"He said he was almost shocked at how much better they were than what he had seen on film from 2012," Graham said. "That's my impression, too."
Graham said he actually prefers taking on a pass-first opponent because, as a defensive coach, he knows more ways to stop it. It's also a break from the run-heavy slate ASU has faced already this season. The Cougars only run the ball about 18 times per game.
ASU's passing defense, ranked second in the Pac-12 with 205.3 yards allowed per game, could see a good amount of opportunities for takeaways. Halliday is averaging 2.1 interceptions per game.
It should also provide ASU's defensive front plenty of chances for sacks and tackles for loss.
Washington State's defense, ranked 10th in the Pac-12, should be hard-pressed to stop an ASu offense averaging 45.4 points and 509.1 yards per game. From a schematic standpoint, it's easy to see why ASU is favored in this game.
As much as anything, though, Graham believes ASU's success on the road will come down to how it handles uncomfortable situations.
"We've got to be mentally tough," Graham said. "That's who wins on the road -- people that are mentally tough."
Graham said Tuesday he thought mental toughness was a "glaring weakness" when he arrived at ASU but now believes the team has made progress. That claim should be tested Thursday night.
While Washington State will probably not be ASU's toughest road test on its remaining schedule, it will be the first. It could be an indicator of how the Sun Devils will handle even tougher challenges on the road against Utah and UCLA that figure to be determining factors in their pursuit of the Pac-12 South title.
"If you want to be a champion, and that's what we say we want to be and what we talk about, no excuses," Graham said. "You go in rain, sleet, snow, Alaska, Maine -- it doesn't matter where it's at. You've got to go win."