Long suffering Arizona State fans started the season with a check list of what they wanted from their program. So far, new coach Todd Graham has delivered a lot.
Fewer penalties? Check. Arizona State has been docked the fewest penalty yards per game in the Pac-12. Fewer miscues? Check. Arizona State is plus-3 in turnover margin. Production on both sides of the ball? Check. Arizona State is No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense and No. 2 in scoring offense. An attacking defense? Check. Arizona State leads the nation with 39 tackles for a loss and is tied for second in the conference with 14 sacks.
The lone hiccup so far was a sloppy performance at Missouri. And that touches an area where the Sun Devils have long been lacking: Performing on the road. They are 5-16 on the road since 2008 and have a long history of futility in the state of California, where they are 4-22 since 2000, and two of those wins came over San Diego State.
The visit to California on Saturday is a great place to earn another check. Cal has beaten Arizona State in eight of nine meetings and the Sun Devils haven't won in Berkeley since 1997. That track record is probably why the 1-3 Bears are favored over the 3-1 Sun Devils.
Graham, of course, has been made aware of this road shortcoming, as well as its specificity to Berkeley.
"What you did last year has nothing to do with what you're going to do this year," he said. "The hardest thing you have to do is win on the road. That's not easy. It's the hardest thing in college football. We do focus on that. I'll probably focus more on correcting the mistakes we had from our first road game more than I will focus on what we did in 1999."
Make sense. Start with a Graham obsession: Protecting the football. The Sun Devils have seven turnover this year, and four of them happened at Missouri -- two fumbles, two interceptions. Those are the only two picks ASU QBs have thrown this season.
So, priority No. 1 is cleaning things up when the crowd isn't cheering for you.
"We just have to do a better job of executing," Graham said of the Missouri loss. "I think that there are some things we learned in that game that we won't do again."
While the Bears have a losing record, they might be the most talented team ASU has faced this year. At least Cal will have its starting QB, Zach Maynard. As noted by the Arizona Republic, the Sun Devils have "faced a first-team quarterback for all of 14 snaps."
If the Sun Devils win at Cal, they will check another box, possibly earn a national ranking and probably win over a handful of fans who remained on the fence about the program's progress.