Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Arizona State is surging in South
By Ted Miller
Arizona State has won three games in a row in dominating fashion. Average score? 54-19, with the an average of 558 total yards of offense, including 267.3 yards rushing. Each foe’s offense was held below its season's scoring average by at least eight points.
Blowing away Colorado won't win any awards and winning at Washington State isn't terribly glamorous, but the Sun Devils’ 53-24 pounding of then-No. 20 Washington is difficult to dismiss.
Since losing at Notre Dame, Arizona State has won three straight and Taylor Kelly has thrown 10 touchdown passes.
"This team is starting to do some things to resemble a team that can compete for a championship," ASU coach Todd Graham said.
Pollsters have also noticed. Arizona State is 22nd in the BCS standings and 23rd in the AP poll.
The Sun Devils seem close to breaking through in Year 2 under Graham as they prepare for a visit to Utah. They control their own destiny in the South Division and own probably the most forgiving schedule among their top competition -- UCLA, USC and Arizona. The Nov. 23 visit to UCLA, in fact, looms large as potentially the deciding game in the division, just as it did in the preseason.
But that sort of forward-looking talk is the kind that shouldn't seep into a locker room. Looking ahead is akin to inviting disappointment into the room in college football.
And, yes, Graham has noticed that too, which is why he's most happy with his team's maturity.
"All we can do is control what is in front of us," he said. "This team has been very diligent about staying focused on the job at hand and getting better every week. We control our own destiny. All we've got to do is go out and figure out a way to beat Utah and then go on to the next one."
There are, however, plenty of potential distractions this week for the Sun Devils. For one, it was announced Tuesday that athletics director Steve Patterson is leaving for the same job at Texas, which inspired some rumblings that Graham might become a candidate for the Longhorns job if Mack Brown were to retire or get fired. That won't completely go away, despite all the Nick Saban talk, or because Arizona State made it a precondition for Patterson being granted permission to interview with Texas that he agreed to not hire anyone from Arizona State.
Further, Utah's offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson was Arizona State's coach from 2007-2011, though Erickson told reporters this week that the game has no special meaning for him.
"Dennis is a pretty even keel guy," Utes coach Whittingham said. "He keeps his emotions in check. I haven't noticed any difference in his demeanor this week compared to any other."
Another issue for the Sun Devils might be overconfidence. The Utes have lost three of four, including their last two, a pair of South Division road games at Arizona and USC. Erickson's once thriving offense has taken a nose dive, in large part because his quarterback, Travis Wilson, has been battling injuries to his throwing hand. Wilson has completed just 8 of 23 passes for 66 yards with four interceptions in the last two games, and he was replaced in both by backup Adam Schulz.
And, of course, the Sun Devils brutalized the Utes 37-7 last year in Tempe.
"That was one of our poorest performances in the Pac-12 since we joined the conference," Whittingham said.
Still, the Sun Devils should be wary. The Utes are coming off a bye week, and Whittingham said Wilson is healthy and won't need the protective glove that seemed to hinder his performance at USC. Rice-Eccles Stadium is not an easy place to play, just ask Stanford, which lost there three weeks after whipping Arizona State. And the stakes are high, as a loss would remove the Sun Devils one-game lead in the division race.
Graham, however, thinks he has an ace-in-the-hole there, too: Leadership, which starts with quarterback Taylor Kelly, who is making a push for second-team All-Pac-12 QB behind Oregon's Marcus Mariota.
"I think he is the leader of our team," Graham said. "Taylor is one of the most respected people in this building just because of how he works."
Graham calls Kelly, "A tremendous giver of respect." He also is one of the nation's top dual-threat QBs, presently ranking eighth in the nation and second in the Pac-12 in total QBR.
"He's getting close to having a mastery of what we are doing," Graham said. "He's almost like having an offensive coordinator on the field. He understands the strengths and weaknesses of what we are doing."
Arizona State has been showing more strength than weakness of late. It will test the Sun Devils, however, to bring those strengths in full force to a second-consecutive road game against a rested team coming off a bye.