Todd Graham: Special teams will be ASU's key to a Pac-12 title
Since falling short in a three-point loss to Notre Dame back on Oct. 5, Arizona State has more or less destroyed every opponent placed in front of them.
First, it was the 54-13 blowout of Colorado. Then, it was a surprising 53-24 rout of No. 20-ranked Washington. And finally, it was a 55-21 primetime beatdown at Washington State.
With four games left to play in the regular season and a berth in the Pac-12 title game still very much up for grabs, the Sun Devils seem to be hitting their stride at just the right time.
So much so, that their head coach admits to feeling mighty confident about his team's chances to represent not only the Pac-12 South in the Championship Game but the conference on New Year's Day in Pasadena.
"I do [feel like I'm a part of something special]," Todd Graham told Arizona Sports 620's Doug & Wolf Friday. "I feel like we're coming off the back-to-back best performances since we've been here. We've made special teams our number one priority over the last third of the season. We're going to be in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and we're going to win it."
He did offer up one caveat, however.
"The only way [we win the Pac-12 Championship and go to the Rose Bowl] is if we check off special teams like we want it," said Graham. "I like the fact they we ran a fake punt last week [at Washington State]. Our kickoff coverage, you look out there and you see Marion Grice covering points. You see Marion Grice returning kicks. You see Alden Darby, you see [Osahon] Irabor, you see our starters choosing not to tap out...putting special teams as a priority. We run a fake point, and Will Sutton is the lead blocker and Carl Bradford has the ball in his hands. These guys are buying in."
That they are.
In addition to some of the team's star defenders pitching in, ASU has received some notable contributions from its main special teams personnel during the three-game win streak. Kicker Zane Gonzalez has converted on all nine of his field goal attempts. Alex Garoutte has an average of 40 yards per punt. Quarterback Taylor Kelly has recorded two punts for 37 yards and 40 yards respectively. Starting tailback Marion Grice has returned four kickoffs for 91 yards. And, Reggie Nelson has returned 15 punts for 130 yards.
"A lot of people out there don't agree with [having starters in on special teams]," said Graham. "Everybody's got their opinion. They are worried like, 'Oh, Marion is going to get hurt returning kicks. Or this or that.' But, you have to play to win. You've got be who you are, and that's who we are. It's all hands on deck. You know De'Marieya Nelson plays three back and comes over and rushes the quarterback on third down. A lot of people wouldn't do that but we do. That's who we are.
"We want our guys to understand that every snap, every play on that field is an opportunity for us to win. It's such a small margin that will be the difference between winning the Pac-12 and not. I think [special teams] is the key for us."
Next up for Graham and Co. is a date in Salt Lake City Saturday afternoon with the Utah Utes. While Kyle Wittingham's squad limps into the contest with a 4-4 record, it did already knock off a top 10 foe in Stanford earlier in the campaign.
"We know this team has already been a spoiler for one of the top teams in the country in Stanford," said Graham. "So we know that we have to go and play our A-game."
Dave Dulberg, Web Content Editor - ArizonaSports.com
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