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Core ASU players focused, ready for trip to Pullman

As Arizona State packs its bags for Pullman, Wash., their 5-2 record in tow, the team’s past road results haunt them.

The Sun Devils still can’t shake the memory of their worst game of the season — a 42-28 loss at Stanford that finished with the opposition’s second stringers on the field.

Nor can it forget its missed opportunity in Arlington, where it blew its Shamrock Series cameo, losing by a field goal, 37-34, to Notre Dame.

Now, a less-daunting opponent awaits them in Washington State this Thursday, Halloween night, but their winless road record, combined with a hyped-up Cougar fan base, may not bode well for ASU, who will look to its core players to rise to the challenge at Martin Stadium.

“I think we travel too many people,” Coach Todd Graham candidly said when discussing the trip with the media Monday.

“People that aren’t playing, you know — let’s just put 35 guys on the plane that are going to play, let’s give them all the room, let’s double what everybody eats, you know what I’m saying?”

A trio of his guys who are playing, and who will likely be significant factors in Thursday’s game, spoke about the challenge awaiting them in Pullman, suggesting that they’re ready to respond to the criticism the program has faced regarding its road performances.

Senior tight end Chris Coyle, for one, wears such critics like a chip on his shoulder. “It’s our job to prove them wrong,” he said. “It’s our job to go out there and get wins like this.”

And the team’s leading receiver, Jaelen Strong, echoed his teammate’s sentiment, sounding as if he and his team owe their fans a road victory.

“We’ve played very poorly on the road this year so we’ve got to make a big turnaround and come out there ready to play,” he said.

Cornerback Osahon Irabor joined the concert, setting the trip to Pullman as a landmark on their remaining schedule.

“We want to prove to ourselves and to Sun Devil nation that we can focus up and play good on the road,” the senior said.

“This is the first step.”

But ASU knows that there’s more to a win against the 4-4 Cougars than a verbal vow to play better away from Sun Devil Stadium. The atmosphere in rural Washington on Halloween is expected to be rowdier than normal and challenging for any visitor, much less one who’s winless away from its own abode.

“We got to make sure that we go to Pullman focused, ready to go with one objective and that’s to leave with a W,” Irabor continued.

And he, of all people, needs to hear that, as his secondary unit is preparing to play an offense that coach Mike Leach has among the top in the nation in passing.

The Cougars, despite scoring just 30.9 points per game — 57th in the nation — rank sixth overall in passing yards, averaging more than 373 yards per game. Quarterback Connor Halliday needs 202 yards Thursday to surpass the 3,000-yard mark on the season, currently standing at third in the nation in passing yards. And his 428 passing attempts lead FBS, which makes Irabor’s task all the more difficult.

ASU’s own air threat, Strong, recognizes the Halloween test.

“They’re doing everything to go all out, so we have to go all out when we get there,” he said.
And his offensive comrade, Coyle, shared the outlook.

“It’s a tough atmosphere,” the team’s third-leading receiver said. “They’re a good team.

“They’ve got a lot of great athletes. We’ve got to go out there and treat them like they’re the number one team in the nation and play at that intensity.”

“It’s just distraction,” Graham, meanwhile, said of traveling with too many players.

Coyle, Strong and Irabor, we can assume, weren’t among the surplus he spoke of; they seem to understand that the last thing their team needs is more distraction on Halloween at Washington State.