The expectations were low for this season in Tempe, Arizona. The Arizona State Sun Devils were coming off a disappointing 6-7 season in 2011 where they lost their last five games and were returning just 10 starters. There was an expectation of growing pains under first-year head coach Todd Graham, who had to install a new offense and turn around a failed football culture.
But year one has gone better than anyone could have hoped. ASU finished the season at 7-5 and avoided the end-of-season tailspin that has come to define this program in recent history. After starting strong and losing just one close game to the Missouri Tigers, the Sun Devils were sitting at 5-1 and getting ready to host the Oregon Ducks. The game quickly got out of hand as Oregon blew the doors off in Tempe, jumping out to a 43-7 second quarter lead before calling off the dogs and winning 43-21.
That was the first of four consecutive losses to ranked opponents for ASU and many people feared they had fallen into the same trap of starting strong before the bottom falling out. However, Graham rallied his team for a blowout win over the Washington State Cougars before heading into Tucson to face the rival Arizona Wildcats. They showed determination and mental toughness, traits they noticeably lacked in recent years, in a 41-34 win.
The Todd Graham era didn’t start off so smoothly with the coach’s less-than-eloquent exit from coaching the Pitt Panthers. But the coach quickly put his stamp on this team, announcing that they would be moving to a more downhill-style running game, pounding between the tackles, which would better utilize the talent already in the Arizona State backfield.
Then he made the best choice of the season. Entering fall camp, the quarterback job looked to be a two-person race between Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici. But it was the dark horse contender, sophomore Taylor Kelly, who came out on top and efficiently led the Sun Devils offense, throwing for 2,772 yards with 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He is likely the biggest reason ASU was able to finish 7-5 this year.
Graham has also been helped out by a strong defense led by Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton. The big defensive tackle was a monster in the middle and was out or limited for the four-game losing streak this season. That is probably not a coincidence.
Now, ASU heads to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl to face the Navy Midshipmen with a chance to get to eight wins in Graham’s first year. It would be the most wins, and first winning record, for the Sun Devils since 2007, when they went 10-3.
Win or lose, however, Todd Graham has been a slam-dunk hire in Tempe. He has made an immediate impact on the program and got the best out of this team, exceeding any expectations for the club back in August. The future is bright at Arizona State and Graham is a big reason why.