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Graham’s Sun Devils are way ahead of schedule

TEMPE—OK, maybe Todd Graham is on to something.
Beating Northern Arizona by 57 points on opening night was one thing. After all, NAU is considered a middle-of-the-road FCS squad. Those who were less than jazzed about the Sun Devils’ near-perfect victory were quick to point out, “it was only NAU.”

But the 54,128 that watched Arizona State take apart a decent Big Ten team in Illinois by a 45-14 margin probably exited Sun Devil Stadium thinking that this year’s squad is a little different.

ASU flexed their muscles early and often against a good defensive Illinois team. The Devils looked like a well-oiled machine on their first possession, taking over at their own 31-yard line and methodically moving down to the Illinois four. On a first down play, senior running back Cameron Marshall coughed up the football and Illini safety Pat Nixon-Youman recovered.

ASU would force an Illinois punt, and undeterred, the offense picked up where they left off before the untimely turnover, marching 65 yards on eight plays, capped off by a five-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Kelly to Kevin Ozier.

The Sun Devils would score on four straight possessions in building a comfortable 28-7 halftime lead. Then, after safety Alden Darby intercepted Illinois quarterback Miles Osei on the second play of the second half, D.J. Foster carried it in from one-yard away and the rout was on.

Offensively, the Devils looked well ahead of the curve again, rolling up over 500 yards and 45 points against a defense that ranked seventh in the nation a year ago. Think that satisfied Graham? Nope.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said following the game.

Meanwhile, there were times Saturday night where I was trying to remember an ASU offense that looked as crisp in my 30-plus years of watching, following and covering this program. I’ll admit, I had trouble coming up with anything.

ASU has had 26 offensive possessions this season. They’ve scored touchdowns on 15 of them, punted seven times and turned it over thrice. That is amazing efficiency.

So if indeed the Devils’ offense does have a long way to go, consider me absolutely giddy over what it’ll look like when it gets there.

On the defensive side, amazingly, the Sun Devils played another full football game without committing a penalty. Think about that. Two straight games without a single defensive miscue. There were times over the previous three seasons that a certain linebacker who shall remain unnamed, but wore #7, would get two penalties on one snap.

The 2011 Sun Devils of now-departed head coach Dennis Erickson completely unraveled on one play, and the genesis of that collapse was the defense. In November, ASU was in the driver’s seat for a Pac-12 South title, and then UCLA’s Kevin Prince completed a 33-yard pass to Nelson Rosario on a third-and-29. The Bruins went on to score and win the game. Arizona State went into a shell defensively, lost their last five games, and gave up the most points in a five-game stretch in school history in the process.

So not only did Graham have to come in and lay the groundwork for a culture change – he had to “unteach” leftover players bad habits that were tolerated in the past. Two weeks in, the process is well under way.

Graham’s Sun Devils look like one of the sharpest, most-disciplined teams in the nation while his former squad, the Pitt Panthers, are 0-2 and in complete disarray after getting blown out by Cincinnati on national television Thursday night.

He’d never say it flatly, but you can tell the native Texan is pleased, even somewhat surprised, how this team has performed in 2012.

So is Sun Devil Nation.