The 2013 ASU football season didn’t end up with a Rose Bowl berth, but it will still probably go down as one of the Sun Devils’ best seasons in program history.
With one of the hardest schedules in the nation, ASU still managed to finish with a 10-4 record (8-2 Pac-12), and made it to the National University Holiday Bowl, improving from its 8-5 season from last year that included a trip to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. The Sun Devils ended the season ranked 21st in the final AP Top 25 poll.
Here’s a look at this season’s highlights:
Biggest story: ASU returns to contention
In Todd Graham’s second season as head coach, the Sun Devils broke almost every negative stereotype that defined the program in recent years. ASU continued to play disciplined football, won most of its road games, didn’t blow a big lead, won its biggest games in November and stayed focused throughout the regular season. The year didn’t end with the Sun Devils booking a trip to the Rose Bowl, but it set a yearly standard for ASU to win 10-12 games plus the Pac-12 South as long as Graham runs the team.
Best moment: ASU’s 38-33 win at UCLA
The Sun Devils are notorious for rolling over in these types of games, but they didn’t this time. ASU raced out to a big lead and squashed UCLA’s comeback efforts to upset the Bruins at Rose Bowl Stadium on Nov. 23, clinching the Sun Devils’ first Pac-12 South title. After the win, the entire team moved to the northwest endzone to celebrate with the 20,000 ASU fans that made the trip.
Worst moment: ASU’s 38-14 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game
Ignore ASU’s embarrassing 37-23 loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl for a moment, as it probably could’ve been avoided if the Sun Devils properly prepared for their rematch against Stanford. The second bout on Dec. 7 between the division champions ended up being déjà vu of their first meeting in Palo Alto, Calif., from Sept. 21.
Students rioted and camped for prime seating for the first-ever championship game at Sun Devil Stadium, only to see ASU’s window at a Rose Bowl close with a thud.
Offensive MVP: QB Taylor Kelly
It seemed all season that whenever redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly played well, the offense would do its part, too. Kelly didn’t have much of an improvement from his sophomore season, but he still remained as the core of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s high-octane offense, whether it was by getting the ball to his receivers or by breaking out huge runs from the read option. Even the times when senior running back Marion Grice wasn’t running the ball well or missed time due to his leg injury, the offense still willed its way through under Kelly.
Defensive MVP: Multiple
It’s difficult to point out just one player on ASU’s defense that shined the brightest. You could recognize redshirt senior defensive tackle Will Sutton on the line, senior linebacker Chris Young in the middle or senior safety Alden Darby in the secondary. The Sun Devils’ success on defense was a collective effort, and just about every starter should be commended. The defense saw big individual contributions from all around, from the expected (like redshirt junior linebacker Carl Bradford and redshirt senior defensive back Robert Nelson, Jr.) to the unexpected (like redshirt senior defensive end Gannon Conway and redshirt freshman linebacker Salamo Fiso).
Most Improved: FS Damarious Randall
What a long journey redshirt junior safety Damarious Randall went through all season. The free safety position was one of the few open starting spots in fall camp, and Randall came onto the team with a nagging groin injury. Randall made cameos — and looked lost — against Wisconsin, Stanford and USC before recording 17 tackles against Notre Dame in his first start. He beat out redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola for the permanent starting gig and became a reliable defender in the second half of the season. With Bradford’s decision to leave ASU early, Randall arguably becomes the Sun Devils’ best returning defender.
It’s tough to follow up a successful season like the Sun Devils’ 2013 campaign, especially given the fact ASU loses 14 starters (five on offense, nine on defense) next year.
The offense will still somewhat be intact, as the Sun Devils retain Kelly, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong and sophomore running back D.J. Foster. Fiso and Randall will likely anchor the defense while sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood and redshirt sophomore defensive back Lloyd Carrington will probably be key players from this year’s second unit. While freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez returns, Graham hinted an overhaul on special teams, which has been ASU’s Achilles’ heel all season.
Other than that, ASU will have to rely on incoming freshmen and transfers to pick up bigger roles than they traditionally would.
Next season may be Graham’s toughest, as most of the Sun Devils are now players that he and his coaching staff recruited. Will his current formula work in the long run?
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