After touring the state before the season began, attending luncheons with alunmni and speaking at length with former lettermen, ASU’s first-year head coach Todd Graham learned quickly that the Territorial Cup was about more than just bragging rights. It was the type of rivalry game that could very easily shape his legacy in the Valley.
ASU had 12 games on its schedule in 2012, but Graham understood that the perception of his first year in Tempe would largely hinge on the Sun Devils’ performance against UA.
So three days after his team’s 41-34 upset win over previously No. 24-ranked Wildcats, Graham still wasn’t shy about expressing his emotions.
“It was special,” Graham told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo Monday. “No doubt about it, this was the game for us. We had it up year-round in the locker room. We did that because for the fans this is their team, and we wanted to represent them.
“So, I know for me and my staff, the [win against UA] was very enjoyable.”
For a coach whose team was mired in a four-game losing streak just two weeks ago, Graham understands bowl eligibility and a win over the Wildcats is just a starting point for his program, nothing more and nothing less.
Graham admitted that while progress was made in all phases this season, his biggest goal during the year was to instill a new identity on the defensive side of the football.
While the Sun Devils finished 7-5 and had a four-game stretch where they surrendered 36 or more points, the team’s transformation on defense was still readily apparent.
ASU finished second in the country in sacks (48.0), second in tackles for a loss (106.0), third in interceptions (20) and 27th-best in total defense (350.8 yards allowed per game).
In addition to the defensive unit’s tremendous strides, junior defensive tackle Will Sutton had quite a year for himself (3 forced fumbles, 9.5 sacks, 20 tackles for a loss and 58 total tackles). Monday, Sutton was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first Sun Devil to win the award since linebacker Dale Robinson (2005).
“I think he’s only scratched the surface of what he can be,” said Graham on his star defensive lineman. “A year ago, I’m not sure anyone knew who Will Sutton was. We brought in a system I think he fit in. He’s excelled, but I think he’s only scratched the surface of what he can be.”
Graham and his coaching staff weren’t just successful implementing their philosophies on defense. The Sun Devils dramatically improved in the discipline department as well. In just one season under Graham, ASU went from the most-penalized team in the Pac-12 (79.8 penalty yards per game in 2011) to the least-penalized team in the conference (36.2 penalty yards per game in 2012).