Todd Graham has some catch phrases he likes to lean on when talking to the media.
“Left lane, hammer down”
They’re all part of Graham’s vernacular. Another, more recent entry, has been “it’s hard to handle adversity, but it’s harder to handle success.”
On Thursday night in Boulder, the Sun Devils experienced both ends of that maxim.
In the first thirty minutes of the contest, Arizona State looked very much like a team who was having trouble handling success. The 4-1 Sun Devils came into the contest as a 22-point favorite against a floundering Colorado team whose four losses had come by an average of 22.5 points. ASU was generous and unfocused and went to their locker room at Folsom Field up by just three points.
ESPN analysts hinted at a Colorado upset. Mark May said he’d much rather be in the Buffaloes’ shoes in the second half as they were the team with the momentum. CU had scored 10 points in the last 24 seconds of the half to shrink ASU’s lead to 20-17.
At halftime, the Devils got a chance to reflect and to deal with adversity.
What followed was a nearly-perfect thirty minutes of football. Rashad Ross set the tone by returning the second half kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
The stingy ASU defense allowed Colorado to gain just 89 yards on 33 second half offensive plays. Meanwhile, the offense rolled up 290 yards and scored points on five of their eight possessions. It spelled a 31-0 half that propelled the Sun Devils to an easy 51-17 win, which pushed their record to 5-1 and 3-0 in Pac-12 play.
More importantly, under adversity, ASU came out and played a clean half. Zero penalties. One turnover, early in the fourth quarter with ASU already up 17 points.
“I’m really proud of our guys — we faced a lot of adversity right there before the half,” Graham said following the game. “You’ve got to give Colorado a lot of credit, they came out with their home crowd and really had a lot of intensity. Our guys responded with great poise and great character. We came out and shut them out in the second half.”
Whatever Graham told his team at halftime obviously worked. But it’s more than that. Thursday night’s second half was further proof of the transformation that’s gone on with the Sun Devils’ program.
Don’t believe me? Let’s revisit the ugly five-game skid that ended the Dennis Erickson era. ASU committed 34 penalties for 335 yards, turned the ball over ten times, allowed opponents to gain an average of 498 yards per game and yielded the most points ever in a five-game stretch in school history.
Graham didn’t have a culture change to install — he had an exorcism to perform.
But before “this house is clean”, the Sun Devils must apply what they’ve learned in the first six weeks of the season to the next six, because things get a lot tougher from here on out. Based on the current Jeff Sagarin ratings, the Sun Devils’ first six opponents had an average rank of 80.2. The next six have an average rank of 35.5 and there are two teams in the top ten (Oregon and USC).
I’m not going to sit here and say that Arizona State is a great football team — they don’t have victories against quality teams that would put them in that category.
But thanks to what Todd Graham and his coaching staff have instilled in half a season, along with the players applying themselves to these teachings, ASU is conducting itself like a great football team — and that might be a good chunk of the battle right there.