ASU earns bowl eligibility, shot at strong finish
NOV 17, 2012 5:35p ET
The most significant impact of the win, however, will be felt in the big picture, as a trip to the postseason in coach Todd Graham's first year provides a boost in momentum few predicted when he took over the Sun Devils.
"That's something that's got to be a minimum for our program every year," Graham said of getting bowl-eligible. "Obviously our expectations are a lot higher than that, but the extra practices and the extra time with these seniors is pretty important. And obviously there's the impact it has on recruiting.
"You can't build a program without it."
Graham is right. To build what he is attempting to in Tempe, the Sun Devils have to play in bowl games nearly every year. The true goal is obviously a Rose Bowl or better, but earning a bowl bid in the first year of a new regime is a nice way to help speed up the process.
ASU won't end up in a particularly prestigious bowl game, but being there at all means the Sun Devils exceeded the low expectations that came with a leadership change and an exodus of talent.
"It's great for our program," ASU sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly said. "We've just got to keep improving and focus up on this Friday."
There was plenty of talk after Saturday's game about the looming Territorial Cup showdown -- the "Friday" to which Kelly referred -- and the significance of bowl eligibility, but there was much more about the senior class of 17 wrapping their careers at Sun Devil Stadium.
"That’s what we were preaching all week," freshman running back D.J. Foster said. "This whole week at practice was dedicated to the seniors and all of the hard work they put in."
The tone might have been a lot different had ASU played any of its last four opponents Saturday instead of lowly Washington State. The Cougars remain the only Pac-12 team without a conference win, and it was easy to see why on Saturday.
Washington State's porous defense gave the ASU offense an opportunity to get back on track after a couple unproductive weeks. The Devils outgained the Cougars 561-241, and Kelly completed 20 of 23 passes for 246 yards and four touchdowns, also setting a new school record by completing his last 18 passes consecutively. Junior tight end Chris Coyle and senior receiver Rashad Ross each caught two touchdown passes.
"I think one of the biggest parts of it was getting back to our run-first offense, because that really opened things up for our receivers," Coyle said. "Once we were able to do that, it loosened up the secondary and guys like Ross and Ozier were able to go in. It was the perfect game plan for this game."
The ASU defense, which Graham hopes to make his team's calling card, was even more impressive. Against the Pac-12's top passing attack, the unit held Washington State scoreless until the final minute of the game, when ASU had almost exclusively second-team players on the field.
The Cougars managed just one rushing yard and converted one third down in 17 attempts. ASU tallied 10 tackles for loss, including seven sacks. Senior safety Keelan Johnson registered two interceptions.
As striking as the numbers from the game may be, they are not all that surprising. The Devils may have overachieved a bit in shutting down Washington State's offense so definitively, but at the end of the day, they did exactly what they were supposed to -- win.
Now, attention turns to the much greater challenge of beating Arizona on the road Friday night. It is hardly enough for ASU to simply get bowl-eligible, and Saturday's win added another degree of importance to the game in Tucson.
A loss to the Wildcats would give the Devils their third straight 6-6 regular season. It would be better than most expected but a flat way to finish. A win, however, would give ASU a strong regular-season finish and its highest win total since 2007.
"I can tell you we know the significance of it, and we’re going to work our tails off because we know that’s the most important game," Graham said. "You can go 11-0 and lose that game and it’s an unsuccessful year."
Should the Sun Devils win that game, they would then have a shot an eighth win -- no small number for a program in its first year under a new coach. Say what you will about the New Mexico Bowl or similar lower-tier games ASU could end up in next month, but eight wins -- including a postseason one -- would resonate with at least some recruits and fans.
It would also give Graham and his staff solid ground on which to continue building the program.
"I'm not interested in going to a bowl game; I'm interested in going and winning," Graham said. "That's right now what we're focused on as a team -- winning the Territorial Cup and then winning a bowl championship."