TEMPE – Five games into 2013, Todd Graham is like any other head coach. He wanted to be undefeated.
“Obviously we wanted to be 5-0,” he said. “But we were very, very close to being 4-1. That would’ve been nice and deliver that for our fans.”
ASU, unfortunately, is not 4-1. The Sun Devils are 3-2, beaten by Notre Dame last Saturday night in Arlington, Texas. The game closed the book on the team’s incredibly tough four-game stretch in which they defeated Wisconsin and USC at home and lost to Stanford and the Fighting Irish on the road.
“I feel good about where we’re at,” Graham said at his weekly Monday press conference. “We got a good football team. We got a lot better football than we had this time last year, a lot better football team. As I go through and evaluate our positions and where we’re at, we’re better at every place.
“We’ve got a legitimate shot to be in this thing.”
“This thing” being the Pac-12 South Division and conference championship, earning what would be the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1996 season.
“This is a very, very competitive league and there’s a lot of parity,” he said. “There’s no doubt that our goals are in our reach because I do think that we have the talent. I do think that we got to continue to get better every week and get things corrected.”
Graham lamented the number of mental errors, including alignment issues on both sides of the ball.
“We’ve got an offense that can score points — you’ve got to have that to win this league,” Graham said, acknowledging they must get better in the ground game (65 yards vs. Notre Dame), specifically more touches for D.J. Foster, who has no carries in two of the past three games.
The biggest improvement, however, has to come on defense according to the second-year head coach.
“A lot of people look and say, ‘Where were you last year at this point with TFLs (tackles for loss) and sacks?’ Well, it wasn’t even close,” Graham said. “It’s also you’re playing different people. Now we’re not playing different people. We’re playing the same people we played last year, right? So, we better see that productivity going way up for us to be successful.”
Thus far, ASU has 28 TFLs, averaging 5.6 per game, a significant drop from last season’s nation-leading 9.0 mark.
The sack total is also down. The Sun Devils have gotten to the opposing team’s quarterback seven times, four of which came against USC. Against Notre Dame, the defense failed to register a sack for the first time since Graham arrived on campus.
“Where we’ve got to get better is defensively and creating those things that we created last year,” he said. “We got guys playing at a really high level on defense. We’ve just got to, as a unit; we’ve got to get those things corrected.”
Once that happens, Graham believes his team, which hosts Colorado this week, will be a contender in the Pac-12.
“I think our guys know that we can win this thing,” he said. “But to do it, it’s a single-elimination tournament now. You control your own destiny. All you have to do is go win every week; and that’s obviously the hard part.”