TEMPE, Ariz. — When Todd Graham arrived on campus at Arizona State University in December 2011, there was immediate talk about character, discipline and championships.
“I think perception is reality, and we start the perception today that we’re going to build a championship program,” Graham said at his introductory press conference in December of 2011. “We’re going to win Pac-12 championships, we are going to win Rose Bowl championships and ultimately the National Championship. I’m going to have — our kids are going to be the hardest-working, best-prepared, most disciplined team in the country.”
Fast forward 23 months, we’ve seen great strides in the character of the program and the on-field discipline. We could be on the precipice of the championship portion, as well.
Running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster combined for 138 yards and three rushing touchdowns and senior cornerback Robert Nelson sealed the deal with a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown with just over five minutes remaining, and the 19th-ranked Sun Devils beat Oregon State 30-17 Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
The win pushed ASU’s record to 8-2 overall and 6-1 in conference play and kept it in the driver’s seat for a Pac-12 South championship. The Sun Devils can clinch the division with a win over UCLA (8-2, 5-2) next Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
“Everything we’ve worked for is in this 60 minutes this week,” Graham said following the win over the Beavers. “So, it ain’t just any game. I think I’ll just be truthful with (the players), I know I’m excited about it. I’m ready to go in there and get to work on it.”
There were plenty of doubters when Graham, fresh off a one-season stint at the University of Pittsburgh, made those statements. After all, he was taking over a program that severely lacked two of the ingredients he constantly preaches — discipline and character.
On the field, the 2011 Sun Devils of then-head coach Dennis Erickson collected yellow penalty flags like it was a hobby. ASU ranked second-to-last in the nation in penalties and accrued more penalty yardage than anyone — by a margin of almost 100 yards. Off the field, let’s just say there were many stories about the behavior of players in the program, which grew more common during the team’s season-ending five-game losing streak.
The doubters are a lot harder to find these days.
The Sun Devils are one win away from punching their ticket to the Pac-12 Championship Game December 7. Even if the ASU doesn’t beat UCLA Saturday, there’s still a chance the Devils would represent the South if they could beat Arizona and USC could knock off the Bruins in the final week of the season. That would leave the Devils and the Trojans with two conference losses, but Arizona State holds the tiebreaker by virtue of their 62-41 undressing of USC in September.
But that wouldn’t seem right, not for this team. The talk of championships and accomplishing goals has been so consistent and so constant that ASU’s journey to the doorstep of the promised land should be handled by them.
In 2011, ASU held their destiny in their hands to reach the same destination and the wheels fell off the bus — a process started by a crushing defeat at the hands of UCLA in Pasadena. Not only can ASU claim reach step one of their goal at the Rose Bowl, but they can exorcise some demons in the process.
We’re 23 games into the Todd Graham era at Arizona State and when you compare the list of things he promised to the list of things he and his staff have delivered, you’ll find they’re really close. Given the short amount of time he’s been in control of the program, that’s pretty remarkable — regardless of what happens next Saturday.