Graham: ASU moves on with no margin for error
OCT 07, 2013 9:59p ET
ASU coach Todd Graham stressed Monday that there is now little room for error in that pursuit.
"I think our guys know that we can win this thing, but to do it, it's a single-elimination tournament now," Graham said. "You control your own destiny. All you have to do is go win every week."
ASU remains in prime position in the South, having already beaten USC. The division could be determined when ASU and UCLA meet on Nov. 23 at the Rose Bowl, or the following week when ASU hosts Arizona, but there's much football to be played between now and then.
Graham doesn't want the Sun Devils getting ahead of themselves, as they have to keep winning to even have a shot at the South title. It starts this Saturday with Colorado (2-2, 0-2 Pac-12), certainly an inferior opponent but one Graham says ASU must respect.
"Obviously the caliber of team we've been playing and where (Colorado is) at right now is a little bit different," Graham said. "What will happen is guys will think, 'This is not going to be as big of a challenge,' and you can't do that.
"You can't overlook anybody. You better have as much respect for each team every week as you do anybody else. That's the challenge is to get everybody focused."
Beyond that focus, though, Graham admits ASU has many areas in need of improvement. He went through those needs at length during his weekly press conference Monday, starting with the defense.
One defensive area of concern that may be improved going forward: field safety. The position has been a weak spot since Keelan Johnson graduated last season. Redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola started the first four games of the season, and junior college transfer Damarious Randall started Saturday. Randall impressed Graham tremendously, so the position may be one of confidence for the time being.
Graham also mentioned linebacker still being a position of concern. There's been some upheaval at those spots this season. Redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso and senior Steffon Martin have both started at strong side, and Chris Young started at weak side but moved to spur last week over Anthony Jones before moving back to weak side midgame.
"We've been kind of one guy short there," Graham said. "That's hurt us."
Graham believes the defense has improved at each position on an individual. Some players, he said, are playing "at a really high level on defense," but he stressed that the unit must play better together.
Also an ongoing issue: special teams, particularly punting, which Graham called a "silent killer" against Notre Dame. Freshman Matt Haack handled punting duties and averaged 38.4 yards per punt on five kicks Saturday.
Senior Robert Nelson also made a key special-teams mistake late in the game when he allowed a punt to hit the ground and bounce to ASU's 1-yard line instead of fielding it. The ensuing drive ended quickly, as quarterback Taylor Kelly threw an interception for a touchdown on the first play.
"You can't do that," Graham said of Nelson's decision. "On the sideline we were telling him, 'Hey, make sure you field this football, because the worst thing we could do is get pinned.'"
Clearly there's a myriad of issues still needing improvement -- including turnovers, the running game and defensive pressure -- but Graham remains confident as Pac-12 play begins in earnest.
"I feel good about where we're at," Graham said. "We've got a lot better football team than we had this time last year."
RUN GAME STILL ABSENT
For a team returning two dynamic running backs in Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, ASU has certainly been quiet in the run game. The Sun Devils are averaging 130.0 rushing yards per game; Grice is averaging 61.4, and Foster has mostly been used as a receiver.
"We've got to get Marion and especially D.J. more opportunities," Graham said. "I didn't think (Foster) had as many opportunities as he needed to have (Saturday)."
Foster had a career-high nine receptions against Notre Dame but did not run the ball once. He has carried the ball 15 times this season, while Grice has carried it 77 times and Deantre Lewis 16 times.
ASU finished with just 65 rushing yards against Notre Dame, 10 of those coming on Tyler Sulka's recovered fumble.
"We can't come out of a game and have 55 yards rushing and be successful," Graham said.
DEFENDING THE LINE
Despite the six sacks allowed Saturday and the absent run game, Graham thought the offensive line did not regress from its dominant performance against USC the previous week.
"You're going to have games like that," Graham said. "The reality is Notre Dame's defensive line is a whole heck of a lot better than we played the week before. USC's got a really good defensive line, but it ain't like that defensive line. You're not going to play against bigger or better people than that."
Graham credited one of those six sacks to a receiver misalignment on what was supposed to be a quick pass play. Another he credited to coaches calling a bad play because they believed a play deep in Notre Dame territory was a third-and-1 situation when it was actually third-and-4, a mistake he chalked up to ASU's fast tempo. Three of the other four, Graham said, came late in the game.
"I don't think they took a step back," Graham said. "I think they battled."
-- Starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood (hamstring) dressed but did not play Saturday. Graham said Hood wanted to play and probably could have, but ASU did not want him playing at less than 100 percent. He could be ready to play against Colorado.
-- Graham made a point that ASU's rushing defense should start to look more improved than it has so far, as the toughest rushing teams the Sun Devils will face -- Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame -- are all behind them now, but a few big challenges remain. Washington is ranked 15th nationally in rushing offense (258.8 yards per game), UCLA is 14th (259.8) and Arizona is 10th (259.8).