Coming off of a loss against Stanford that placed Arizona State back below .500 and left it with a few key injury holes, the Sun Devils’ week off came at the perfect time.
A bye week that head coach Todd Graham said “rejuvenated” his team allowed ASU to spend some time working out key issues and resting up.
“We really worked hard on being fundamentally disciplined, getting better at the things we needed to work on, and I think we were pretty productive as far as our time spent in the film room studying,” Graham said in his Monday press conference. “And just to be able to rest and heal up a little bit I think is very much needed.”
Back to reality.
A rude awakening, to say the least, defending Pac-12 champion No. 5 Washington (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) looms on the other side of the bye week, at a pivotal point in the season for ASU (2-3, 1-1 Pac-12).
“They’re obviously the team to beat in our league,” Graham said. “They won the league and made it all the way to the playoff last year. Very good personnel, the same guys have been playing on defense — it seems like those guys have been there for three or four years all of them. Very good, very well-coached, really good football team.”
It won’t get any easier from there, as No. 21 Utah and No. 8 USC wait in the following weeks, but Graham continues to preach a day-by-day mantra.
“I just talk to them about the next day. Win the rep, next rep you’re fixing it to do, win the next practice you’re fixing to have,” Graham said. “They know that you can’t worry about anything other than the team that’s in front of you, and the next rep and then next practice.”
Situated In a Pac-12 South that hasn’t produced an undefeated winner in the six seasons since the league split into two divisions, Graham pointed to parity as a staple of ASU’s division.
At this point, with five of the South’s six teams already holding exactly one loss — and Colorado holding three — the division’s wide-open nature has already begun to reveal itself in a small sample size.
“I think it says a lot about how hard it is to win football games in this league and the parity that you have,” Graham said. “It’s just going to be a dogfight every week, and you have to improve, you have to continue to develop and you have to get better every week because you want to be one of the ones left standing going into November.”
As far as this week’s opponent goes, though, Graham knows what to expect. The Huskies handed ASU a 44-18 loss in Seattle on the road to their College Football Playoff berth in 2016, and are poised to make a similar run this season.
It’s not hard to tell what Washington does well — then again, there’s not much the Huskies don’t do well. Especially on offense, the Huskies boast one of the country’s best quarterbacks in junior Jake Browning, a pair of talented backs in junior Myles Gaskin and senior Lavon Coleman, and another nationally-regarded weapon in senior receiver Austin Pettis.
But in Graham’s eyes — in no way discrediting their talent at the skill positions — the Huskies’ offensive line talented is elevated to an elite level by an outstanding offensive line.
“You’ve got to stop the run,” he said. “Gaskin is a great back, Coleman’s a really good back, they’re going to run the ball. I think where they’ve really matured is on the offensive line, their offensive line is very good, very physical. Obviously, the running backs are very good, but the strength to me is in their offensive line and how well they’re coached and how they execute what they’re doing.”
Graham noted several of the offensive line schemes the Huskies will deploy in order to execute their efficient offense, including an array of pre-snap adjustments.
“You’ve got to get lined up, you’ve got to be sound about what you’re doing,” he said. “They’re very good at what they do. You’re going to get anywhere from 10 to 15 shifts prior to the cadence starting, and then you’re going to get somewhere around 15 to 17 motions. A lot of wing sets, broad blocking surfaces, you’ve just got to be sound about what you’re doing.”
While clearly making a point to praise Washington’s offensive line, Graham also didn’t mince words when talking about how impressed he’s been with the play of Browning.
Beyond any of his stats — such as 1466 yards, 14 touchdowns to three interceptions and a completion percentage of 70.5 — Browning has led the Huskies to a record of 25-8 in this two-and-a-half seasons at the reigns.
Todd Graham has taken notice.
“There’s a lot of guys that get a lot more attention, but he just wins football games,” Graham said. “He’s a championship quarterback and as far as I’m concerned, he sets the standard in our league. You prove it on the football field every week and we’re out here to win, and he’s just a winner. He’s a guy that goes out there and wins and doesn’t require a lot of credit for it. “
“I really like his demeanor and his personality,” he added. “You can tell he’s a high character kid and you can’t argue with his win-loss totals.”
In order to stop the ever-talented Browning, though, the Sun Devils will need their inexperienced secondary to not only play its best game but do so without Joey Bryant, who started at cornerback in the first couple of games this season.
As a result, ASU has begun developing sophomore receiver John Humphrey in order. Humphrey, who missed the last three games due to a knee injury, will return to the field this Saturday, likely on both sides of the ball.
“With the injury to Joey, we have other players but they’re younger. John, if he can be 100 percent healthy, I think he can help us. Obviously, he’s in the starting rotation as a receiver, but it’s very important that we have corners. So with Joey being injured, I think it’s something that we’ve looked at and obviously, he doesn’t have a lot of experience there and we’re trying to teach it to him in a very quick amount of time. I don’t know how much he’ll play there, but we’re starting to work him there to definitely be able to do it in the future because of the need that we have. Joey being injured is the No. 1 reason we’re looking to him.”
Another area the Sun Devils have struggled — one Graham said he’s been surprised by to this point — has been special teams.
While Graham “can’t say enough positive things” about the development of freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz, other aspects of the special teams have been a cause for concern.
“I think one of the biggest things that we have to do is we have to get back to winning special teams,” he said. “It’s so critical in those close games that special teams has to be a win or a tie, you can’t lose special teams, and I think that’s what hurt us early in the year.”
In the punt return game, in particular, the Sun Devils will look to get Ryan Newsome back into high gear after he spent part of the early season hampered by a quad injury.
“Ryan had some injuries there, and that kind of set us back a little bit, but definitely Ryan’s the guy there we’re trying to develop,” Graham said. “A couple other guys there as well, we need to get our best players the ball in their hands, so we’re working different guys to try to progress them there.”
With all things considered, though, Graham’s confidence in his team never wavers with the season’s toughest test just five days away.
“I’m not surprised by how hard our guys have played, the character our guys play with,” he said. “We’ve got a good football team. Obviously, we play the best in the league this Saturday, and we know we’ve got to bring our best game, so I’m looking for our guys to do that.”