Sun Devils rested and ready for rest of season
TEMPE - Arizona State coach Todd Graham pointed to his team's games against Utah and California as critical points of the season, measuring sticks to see how far it might able to go.
The Sun Devils got through both with victories and find themselves atop the Pac-12 South, the preseason goal of a Pac-12 championship still within reach.
The next step will be to build off those successes.
Rested and rejuvenated after its bye week, Arizona State faces a crucial road game against Colorado on Thursday night before closing with five teams that are or were previously ranked in the final six weeks.
Stay focused or the Sun Devils could end up with another disappointing stagger to the finish like they had last season.
"I said this early in the year: I think coming back from adversity is hard, but handling success is harder," Graham said Monday. "You have to stay hungry, you have to stay focused on what you're doing, stay motivated on the opponent that's right in front of you."
The Sun Devils have done a good job staying on task so far.
Playing with the discipline and pace Graham has preached since the day he arrived in the desert, Arizona State has been one of college football's mild surprises this season.
Former coach Dennis Erickson did a good job recruiting before he left, so the cupboard wasn't completely empty when Graham arrived, but few outside the program expected the Sun Devils to be this good under a new coach and a new system.
Arizona State enters the Colorado game at 4-1 and could have been undefeated if a comeback against Missouri hadn't come up just short. The Sun Devils also are 2-0 in the Pac-12 after knocking off Utah at home and California on the road, putting them a game ahead of No. 11 Southern California in the South Division.
They've done it by playing well on both sides of the ball.
Arizona State has been solid on offense, second in the Pac-12 with 38.4 points per game. Taylor Kelly, the somewhat-surprising winner of a three-way quarterback battle heading into the season, has been a dynamic force running Graham's up-tempo offense, leading the conference in passing efficiency at 166.34 while extending plays with his athleticism and calm under pressure.
Arizona State's defense has been superb despite a lack of depth in the secondary, leading the Pac-12 in numerous categories, including scoring (13.6 points), total defense (276.2 yards) and tackles for loss (9.8 per game).
It has, by almost all accounts, been a successful start to Graham's tenure at Arizona State.
"To this point, what we've talked to our guys about is that we've played five ball games," Graham said. "We beat four teams we should have beat and we lost to a team we should have beat. So it's all about preparation and bottom line, you better go into every game and understand that."
That resolve will be needed this week.
Colorado got it second season under coach Jon Embree off to a disappointing start, opening with three straight losses: to rival Colorado State, Sacramento State of the FCS and a 69-14 blowout by Fresno State. The Buffaloes pulled out a shootout victory over Washington State on Sept. 22, but were run over by UCLA the next week.
Well-rested and relatively healthy after its bye week, Arizona State is a heavy favorite to beat Colorado, opening as a more than a two-touchdown favorite.
The key will be to not look ahead.
After playing the Buffaloes, the Sun Devils get No. 2 Oregon in another Thursday night game at home. Then comes UCLA, which has been in and out of the polls, followed by road games against 10th-ranked Oregon State and USC. Arizona State gets a little break in the schedule against Washington State on Nov. 27, then closes the season against Arizona, a rivalry game where anything can and often does happen.
Considering the Sun Devils lost six of their final seven games last season after a 5-1 start, this week's game is one they can't afford to overlook.
"When we play together as a team, we've got a pretty good football team," Graham said. "That's the hardest thing about my job, is keeping 18- to 22-year-olds focused on something."
Keep doing it and the Sun Devils can keep rolling, maybe into the Pac-12 championship game or even the Rose Bowl.