For a second, I believed him. Looking up and down ASU’s roster, watching its play and speculating its performance, it was easy to believe Todd Graham when he called this his best team yet.
But four weeks into the season, ASU’s fourth-year head coach just looks to be in denial. I’m out, and so seems are most of the Sun Devil faithful.
Graham continued to heap praise on a team that’s 2-2, with one of those wins being a close call against Cal Poly — not only not a power-five team but one relegated to the FCS.
For the fourth straight week, the Sun Devils didn’t put together a clean half, let alone one that made them look like a Pac-12 title contender. God forbid a national title contender.
It took an act of god — or at least a saint — for ASU to beat USC last year. Nothing was going to save the Sun Devils from “self-destructing,” as Graham said, Saturday night. But Mike Bercovici might want to have a chat with Mary again, or some other omnipotent figure, to help save this season.
On paper, this could be Graham’s most talented team. But even down to the simplest football play, tackling, this team can’t live up to expectations.
Defensively, the Sun Devils were able to consistently pressure USC quarterback Cody Kessler and mostly deter the running game. But the Trojans star receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree' Jackson, ran circles around the secondary.
When an ASU player had the fortune of catching Smith-Schuster or a handful of other Trojans who torched the Sun Devils, he often got juked, stiff-armed or just straight run over.
Saturday’s loss will draw many comparisons to UCLA’s walloping of ASU in week four last season. Although the Bruins beat the Sun Devils by one more touchdown than USC did, this loss has far more concerning consequences. Last season’s blowout came a week after the team lost starting quarterback Taylor Kelly and defensive leader Laiu Moeakiola.
With three convincing wins under their belts and the returns of two star players on the horizon, it was possible to take the UCLA loss in stride. But 2015’s week four comes with no asterisks. The team you see is the team you get.
Both teams had tackling issues — to Graham’s credit, those improved as the season progressed in 2014 — but 2014’s didn’t have a self-destruct button, as this year’s has demonstrated in a minimum two, maximum four, of its games thus far.
As Graham stepped out from behind the podium, he took a look at his iPad with the game’s stats on it. “Twenty-eight points off turnovers,” he said and shook his head.
“We’ve never done that,” Graham said of his team’s sloppiness. “That’s been the problem.” It’s an all encompassing word. It covers the four turnovers, the aforementioned 28 points that came of them, the numerous missed tackles and dropped passes. The list can go on.
Graham, from the start, has recognized this team isn’t like any of his others. The words he likes to use are “talented” and “best.” But Saturday, he did realize it’s different in another way. None of his previous teams have come close to leading the nation in fumbles, which this one does at 13 (ASU’s only lost seven). When it’s surprising that its turnover margin is only minus-three, that’s all that needs to be said.
Last year’s team bounced back from the loss to UCLA by winning five straight games, including the next week. In Los Angeles. Against a top-25 team. Sound familiar? To rebound from this embarrassment, the Sun Devils need to do the same.
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