Sun Devils see improvement, gain confidence as they enter Pac-12 play

Jeff Griffith, Staff Writer
ASU Devils
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It’s no secret that the non-conference slate didn’t turn out as planned for the Arizona State Sun Devils, with a 1-2 record in three of the more winnable games on their 2017 schedule.

For head coach Todd Graham, at least, those games are in the past.

The “new season” starts this Saturday against Oregon.

“This is conference play,” Graham said. “We’ve got a great team coming in here, everything we’ve worked for starts this week and we’ve just got to go figure out a way to get a win.”

At Monday’s press conference, Graham didn’t mince words when referencing how much stock he puts in his team’s non-conference games.

“None of those games mean anything,” he said. “What matters is what you do now and what you do moving forward.”

With that being said, Graham still made it clear that there were lessons learned from the Sun Devils slow start to this campaign.

“We take these three games, reflect on them, you learn from them,” he said. “They obviously tell you the things you’ve got to work on, and we’re going to work on those things. But it starts this week.”

One of the more glaring problems that revealed itself in ASU’s most recent loss — a 52-45 road defeat at the hands of Texas Tech — was the Sun Devils’ defensive inefficiency on third down.

Texas Tech quarterback Nic Shimonek also threw one of his six passing touchdowns on third and 17, the Red Raiders’ longest third down situation on the night.

“We’ve been in third and seven, third and eight, third and 12, third and 20, third and 19, 17, the percentages should be with you there,” Graham said. “Obviously we want to minimize risk, but also you’ve got to get off the field. That’s what we have to get better at right now, our third down defense.”

As a whole, ASU allowed the Red Raiders to convert on six of their 11 third down attempts, with four of those key conversions coming from distances of six or more yards.

“We get them in third down and six-plus, you better win most of those,” Graham added. “You’d like to win 70 percent of those. That’s something we’ve got to work hard to get better at.”

While Graham made it clear he isn’t necessarily looking for moral victories, the loss at Texas Tech revealed the resilience of his team on more than one occasion.

The Sun Devils responded to an hour-long lightning delay and a hot start by the Red Raiders, ultimately closing two separate 18-point gaps through the game.

“I can tell you this, our character, these players’ character, their leadership, it came through,” Graham said. “On the same hand, we’re about winning games. But that was huge for our team, especially offensively they gained a lot of confidence.”

Although ASU failed to close on its comeback, Graham praised the leadership of quarterback Manny Wilkins in particular.

“He might have played his best game in my opinion,” Graham said. “I was really pleased with his leadership at the critical (times). Just how he responded, how our leaders responded was impressive.”

While Graham praised several other aspects of his team, including his offensive line — which “took a step forward” and his secondary — he didn’t shy away from what matters most.

“When the game’s over, you have to be a point ahead,” he said. “So it’s not a good job unless you win.”

But all the good and bad from the Sun Devils’ trio of non-conference games aside, it’s time for Pac-12 play, and what Todd Graham hopes will be the turn of a new leaf.

“I say it every year, new season,” he said. “Our focus is learn, get better, forget what’s behind you, and let’s go. Let’s go beat Oregon.”


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