ASU Sun Devils

Sun Devils victory over Oregon offers brief reprieve for Todd Graham

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 23: Oregon head coach Will Taggart and Arizona State head coach Todd Graham share a laugh before the NCAA football game between the Oregon Ducks and the Arizona State Sun Devils on September 23, 2017 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ (Photo by Adam Bow/Icon Sportswire)
Adam Bow/Icon Sportswire

The Arizona State Sun Devils football program has had a unique way of handling their head coaches’ contract status in recent years. Coach Todd Graham had been granted one-year contract extensions in the summers of 2013 through 2016; keeping him in Tempe as the leader of a competitive program. But success has waned in recent years for Graham, whose record since 2015 entering Saturday’s game was 12-16. And with two consecutive losing seasons, there was no contract extension for Graham this summer.

That decision from the university caused a swell of speculation from both fans and the media. “Is Coach Graham on the hot seat?” The speculation only got worse as the Sun Devils stumbled to a 1-2 record, with losses to San Diego State and Texas Tech. Add in an injury to ASU’s best defender, Koron Crump, and it seemed this season was primed to derail at any moment.

It still could, but Saturday night’s victory over No. 24 Oregon offers a brief reprieve from the hot seat talk. For a week, the team can relish in a tough, hard-nosed victory over a quality opponent. That break will be needed, as three of the team’s next four opponents are ranked, including top-10 teams USC and Washington.

This showing from the Sun Devils is one Graham can point to on his updated resume when the conversation turns to his employment. A lot of young players stepped up and made a victory happen, most notably true sophomore and hometown talent WR N’Keal Harry. The former 5-star recruit was a dominating presence against the Ducks. Yet it wasn’t just a player making things happen that impressed. There was a conscious effort from the ASU coaching staff and new quarterback Manny Wilkins (another fresh face and plus contributor) to feed Harry the ball. The reward? Plays like this one:

The Sun Devils’ offensive production was bogged down by a lackluster second quarter, but the team spent most of the period inside its own 15-yard line, so it’s understandable that the team played things close to the vest. Nonetheless, the Sun Devils were aggressive with the football and logged nearly 500 yards of total offense against the Ducks.

Wilkins was another difference maker, playing aggressive, throwing the football down the field and using his legs to supplement the ground game. If two players on this roster could catch fire and generate some momentum for Graham’s current final year under contract, it would be Wilkins and Harry.

Growing chemistry in the passing game would also make life easier for star senior running back Kalen Ballage, who had one attending NFL scout commenting about his raw physical ability and how frustrating it can be watching him try to run with little room to work. Ballage, yet again, tallied under 4.0 yards per carry (3.9) against the Ducks. But there were some creases down the stretch, most notably a late possession where the Ducks conceded the passing threat was legitimate. Teammate Demario Richard handled ball-carrying duties on that possession, and he gouged the Ducks for 20-plus yards on three carries to kick start the drive.

Defensively, the Sun Devils will continue to have their hands full. But the team was opportunistic if nothing else with some plays down the stretch, including a stop of Ducks QB Justin Herbert on a scramble late in the game.

The formula is laid out for this Sun Devils program to have success. Make big plays in the vertical passing game, stay committed to the ground game after forcing teams to back off the line of scrimmage and find a way to make a handful of key plays defensively.

Todd Graham’s job does hang in the balance this season, but for just a week, the focus can shift toward ASU’s first victory over the Oregon Ducks in a decade. Next week the Sun Devils travel to Stanford to take on a Cardinal team which hung 58 points on UCLA this weekend. Graham’s hot seat would cool mighty quick with a duplicate performance of what Wilkins, Harry and the rest of the Sun Devils produced against the Ducks.

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