Before last Saturday, the stars seemed to have been aligned for ASU football.
The Sun Devils sported a No. 22 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll. They had a chance to make a big statement on primetime television at AT&T; Stadium with new helmets. All three “College Gameday” analysts picked them to win, and ASU could’ve made history by being the first team to beat USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks.
Then the Sun Devils lost to Notre Dame 37-34 and dropped out of the rankings for the second time this season.
It should give the team a reason to be more modest about the rest of the season, right?
Coach Todd Graham didn’t approach it that way in his Monday press conference.
“Going back and looking at film and reflecting on it, one thing I know is we have a really good football team,” he said. “I know that we are a lot better (as a) football team because of the schedule we just played. We are really close in a lot of things. We just did not get enough opportunities.”
Although Graham understood the significance of the Notre Dame game, he reiterated the loss has no effect on ASU’s goal of winning the Pac-12 Championship.
He was most pleased with the players’ effort throughout the game, especially when redshirt senior defensive back Osahon Irabor returned his interception for a touchdown in the third quarter. Graham added many players had their personal bests in the game, like redshirt senior defensive end Davon Coleman and redshirt sophomore defensive back Lloyd Carrington.
Of course, Graham said the team has to make a lot of improvements in several instances, notably on special teams and defense.
Special teams remain a glaring problem on the team, particularly on the kicking game where ASU is averaging just 34.2 yards per punt. Graham said although he’s been happy with the defensive line’s improvement in stopping the run, the defense must fix on alignment and avoid miscommunication. He also wants the other wide receivers besides redshirt sophomore Jaelen Strong to step up as well.
“The kicking game is the number one thing that will determine our success,” Graham said. “We have to improve defensively to get to the level where we want to be. We are not far from that. “
Another noticeable issue from Saturday’s game was on the offensive line, which allowed six sacks and helped the running backs to only 55 rushing yards.
When asked about the offensive line, Graham simply said Notre Dame had a bigger and better defensive line than any of the teams ASU has faced,
“We played against a very good team, and they won that battle up front,” he said. “We have been pretty good at being innovative about how to create a run game. We did that last week. Notre Dame’s defense is better than USC’s. We didn’t get it done last game.”
ASU has just seven games left on the schedule, and all of them are Pac-12 matchups. Now that every game counts toward the Sun Devils’ goal of a conference title, there isn’t any room to make the same mistakes.
Graham has accepted the challenge.
“Our positions and where we’re at are better at every place and we’ve got a legitimate shot to be in this thing,” Graham said. “We just got to take it one week at a time. We beat Colorado and go to the next one.”
Graham praises safety Damarious Randall
Prior to Saturday’s game, Graham was unsure whether redshirt junior safety Damarious Randall would be ready to make his first start at field safety.
The transfer from Mesa Community College didn’t participate at all over fall camp and had made a slow adjustment in practice while appearing in cameos the past four games. It worried Graham, and he kept asking safeties coach Chris Ball whether Randall could perform against Notre Dame.
To Graham’s surprise, Randall delivered.
Randall recorded 17 tackles — the most any Sun Devil has made in one game this season — and nearly came away with an interception.
“He didn’t just play average, he played really good,” Graham said. “That is as good as I have ever had a free safety play in the first game for me.
Graham explains NT Jaxon Hood’s DNP
Sophomore nose tackle Jaxon Hood was dressed and in pads for Saturday’s game but didn’t play a single snap, even though the defensive line struggled without him. Graham listed him as doubtful four days prior to the game, but Hood asked if he could play.
“Jaxon (Hood) could have played,” Graham said. “He wasn’t 100 percent. He wanted to play, but we didn’t let him.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Josh_Nacion