- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- You show up at the used car lot and you see the smiling salesman. He wants to tell you about this great car. It's got everything. Perfect for you. Best deal ever! It hurts him to sell you this great car for such a low, low price but -- nudge, nudge -- he's doing it special. Just for you.
More often than not, it's pure cheese. But, sometimes, the guy beneath the grin is telling you the truth. It's a great car and a great deal.
Todd Graham arrived at Arizona State under a cloud of recrimination for the way he left Pittsburgh. He spent his early months as the Sun Devils' coach pitching himself and the program with evangelical zeal. He'd expertly touch all the best talking points. He talked about a high-octane offense and an aggressive defense. He talked about discipline and winning with class. He talked about players starting with clean slates. He talked about competition. He talked about relationships.
Some fans and reporters bought in. Some reserved judgment. And some were skeptical.
Well, folks have been driving the 2012 Sun Devils around Tempe for two games and, suffice it to say, it's been a nice ride. Yes, it's only two games. Sun Devils fans have been burned before, such as last year. But those talking points and words have become deed, revealing a coach -- so far -- with a plan and a program on the uptick.
High octane offense? The Sun Devils rank first in the Pac-12 in scoring with 54 points per game. They are averaging 7.7 yards per play. And while the schedule hasn't been daunting, Illinois was ranked seventh in the nation in total defense a year ago.
Aggressive defense? The Sun Devils' eight sacks ranks second in the conference. They've forced six turnovers, which is tied for the most in the conference.
Discipline? The Sun Devils are seventh in the nation and first in the Pac-12 with just 17.5 penalty yards per game. They ranked last -- 120th -- in the nation last year with 79.77 yards per game. They have been flagged just five times. Nine Pac-12 teams have been flagged at least 11 times. USC has 20 penalties in two games.
Winning with class? Graham has told his players not to trash talk -- or counter trash talk -- during games. And he's keeping score, noting during Monday's news conference two instances against Northern Arizona when he was unhappy with players mouthing off to opponents.
Competition? Few folks projected Taylor Kelly as the winner of the three-way QB competition. In fact, just about everyone ranked him third. But he straight won the job by asserting himself during preseason camp. And guess who is the Pac-12's highest rated passer at present?
Of course, it pays to be cautious. Don't forget Arizona State was 5-1 and ranked 18th heading to Oregon on Oct. 15 of last year. Thereafter, the season imploded.
Still, this team certainly feels different than that strutting collection from a year ago. Former coach Dennis Erickson liked his team to be loose and edgy. Graham's answer to just about any question is discipline.
Such as what it's going to take for the Sun Devils, a program known for its struggles on the road, to play at a high level at Missouri on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
“I think focus," he said. "I think that is probably the key. One of the things we try to have the guys do -- how we do everything we do -- we do it a certain way. I think just the mental aspect of it."
Graham tries to recreate the home locker room on the road. That means shipping as much as he can from Tempe to Columbia.
"We take all of the signs that are in our locker room and actually have them made and carry them with us," he said. "We have plug-in air fresheners and we use the same air fresheners to try to make things as normal as they can possibly be. I don’t change anything. Everything is at exactly the same time. We try to keep things like that. As much as you can keep them in the routine the better it is."
This is definitely a different sort of attention to detail.
Respecting the details is why Kelly won the QB job. While Mike Bercovici has a better arm, and Michael Eubank is a better runner, Kelly figured out that protecting the football, understanding the underpinnings of the new offense and taking charge in the huddle was going to win over Graham and his staff.
"Taylor is a leader," Graham said. "He's a born winner."
And he has no turnovers in two games while completing nearly 79 percent of his passes.
Yet things are different on the road. Missouri will be smarting after folding up in the second half against Georgia. And it surely remembers losing at Arizona State in overtime last year.
The Sun Devils have to prove they can handle success. And then when adversity inevitably arrives, they have to handle that -- the 2011 season being exhibit A of how not to.
Still, the ride so far with Graham's Sun Devils has been far smoother than expected.
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