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ASU’s offseason soul-searching must start with its historically bad defense

Todd Graham instructs the ASU Sun Devils in their 56-35 loss to the Arizona Wildcats on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. (Associated Press)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham was asked in his postgame press conference how quickly he’d start working on fixing Arizona State’s woes in the wake of Friday’s 56-35 loss to Arizona in the 90th Territorial Cup on Saturday at Arizona Stadium.

“When I get on that bus,” Graham growled.

He can start with his defense. That unit reached new lows in Tucson. Who knew that was possible?

The Sun Devils entered the game with the nation’s worst pass defense for the second straight season, but the Wildcats never bothered picking on that weakness, throwing just eight passes and completing three.

They didn’t need to pick on it. Arizona rushed for a school-record 511 yards with three players — Brandon Dawkins, Samajie Grant and Zach Green — each topping 100 yards on the ground, as the Cats recorded their first Pac-12 win of the season in their final game of the season.

ASU suffered its sixth straight loss and at 5-7, it is highly unlikely it will go to a bowl game for the first time in Graham’s tenure and the first time since 2010.

“We let our university down, let our program down,” Graham said. “Just absolutely didn’t show up defensively and gave up one big play after another. To give up that many yards rushing is just absolutely ridiculous.”

The Sun Devils allowed three more touchdowns of 50-plus yards (two on the ground) to bring their whopping season total to 18. Poor tackling and blown secondary coverages highlighted ASU’s defensive woes before this game, but the Sun Devils simply got beat repeatedly at the line of scrimmage and took poor angles in pursuit.

When asked if it was poor execution, Graham grimaced.

“It’s way past that,” he said.

When vice president for university of athletics Ray Anderson told Arizona Sports last week that Graham would return next season regardless of the outcome of this season, he also acknowledged that defensive changes would have to come.

“It’s no secret to anybody,” Anderson said. “It’s about outcomes and results. The responsibility of the head coach — the responsibility of anyone who leads any business or department or unit or enterprise is to make the appropriate adjustments they deem necessary to bring the outcome up to the expected standards. You leave it to them. That’s their responsibility and accountability and I have full faith that Todd will do that; do what’s right for the program.”

That doesn’t bode well for defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who wasn’t available after the game (nor were any defensive players). As the architect in title of this unit, Patterson is ultimately responsible for its performance, although it is no secret that Graham’s stamp is all over the defense.

Even if a change is cosmetic, Graham needs new ideas and a new voice on that side of the ball. Two straight seasons of poor play demand it.

When that change is made, however, the Sun Devils will have to come to grips with a more troubling reality. There isn’t enough depth on this unit and there isn’t enough talent. Yes, injuries impacted the Sun Devils, but why, in Year 5 of Graham’s program is this unit so perilously thin? Why hasn’t recruiting taken care of the requisite depth?

It’s one of many questions that should keep Graham awake and busy all offseason.

“I’m pretty motivated to go to work and get this thing back where it needs to be,” he said.

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