No. 7 ASU continues run towards playoffs with battle at Oregon State

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TEMPE, Ariz. – Another week, another win over a ranked team. However, there is no time for Arizona State to rest on their laurels.

Well, maybe just a minute or two.

“The first half of the game against Notre Dame on Saturday was the best half of football I’ve ever been associated, and how we played and functioned was very special,” said ASU head coach Todd Graham. “It felt very good and it definitely has to be right there at the top.”

OK, now back to business.

“But our top priority and goal is to win the Pac-12 Championship, the Rose Bowl, and then obviously the National Championship,” Graham continued. “We haven’t accomplished those goals yet and we have to move on in the locker room and get ready for Oregon State.” 

Saturday's 55-31 win over then-No. 10 Notre Dame provided the Sun Devil with another signature win for Graham in what is quickly become a special 2014 season. ASU joined TCU as the only two teams in the nation to play five ranked teams, and the win moved the Sun Devils’ record in those games to an impressive games to 4-1.

It was all part of the plan for Graham, now in his third season at ASU.

“In year three, I feel very confident that we just function so much better as a team and unit even though we have a lot of youth and inexperience,” he said. “This is, and should be, the best team we’ve ever had because of our training and our efforts and personnel.”

ASU’s victory was keyed by a big play defense that forced five turnovers on the day, including a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns. The Sun Devils also notched a season-best seven sacks and had 10 tackles for loss. 

It continued an astonishing turnaround for the defense following their embarrassing loss to UCLA in September. The key has been an adjustment to a more physical 4-3 base and a refocusing on Graham’s long-held philosophy of bringing the attack to the offense. 

“I got to be a defensive coordinator at a very young age; I think I was twenty-five or twenty-six, and it’s what I’ve always done,” Graham said of bringing pressure. “I have spent a lot time with some great offensive coordinators and over the years I have come to the conclusion that it is much easier and much more efficient if we can find a way to attack with minimal risk. The key is to not be reckless and minimize as risk and much as possible, and obviously we have a little while to go before we perfect that.”

Early on against the Irish, the catalyst was defensive end Marcus Hardison. The senior continued his hot play with an interception off a tipped pass, a sack, and a tipped pass of his own that was returned for a score by Damarious Randall.

“He flat out lit it up,” Graham said of Hardison. “That was the most dominating performance he has had. Marcus has everything it takes to be a great player and he took it to the next level. He was big time from a toughness and competitive standpoint. He is an unbelievable athlete with great size that can run and rush the passer. He dominated the game. During the game I stopped what I was doing and said to him ‘Man you are tearing it up’.” 

Yet for as good as Hardison was, it was one of his teammates that took home the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Week award.

In a secondary full of playmakers, cornerback Lloyd Carrington stood out above the rest last week. He made eight tackles, including a sack, forced a fumble, and iced the game with a 58-yard interception return for a touchdown with just under four minutes left in the game.

“I coach the corners so I am really close to Lloyd. It seems like we have been together about 10 years, but I am really proud,” Graham said. “I thought he played his best game to this point. Big-time interception for a touchdown, but he has played so physical and has been one of the most improved players on our team. He is a silent leader, has great character, and he has one of the smarter players I have been around.”

ASU is now ranked 7th in the new AP poll, and they control their own destiny in their pursuit of a spot in the college football playoff. Their head coach feels that hard-fought wins like Saturday will only help his players down the stretch.

"These guys have had a lot of close and emotional wins, and I think they understand that they need to always be prepared, especially in a conference like the Pac-12 where every team can beat you," Graham said. "We just go about our business and really work hard on being focused and being proactive. We have been focused keeping our guys humbled and hungry."

Their next task is a road battle against a talented yet underperforming Oregon State team.

The Beavers enter Saturday’s game scuffling after a disappointing 39-32 home loss to Washington State. It was Oregon State's fourth consecutive loss, dropping them to 4-5 overall and just 1-5 in Pac-12 play. Nevertheless, Graham believes that OSU head coach Mike Riley will have his team well prepared for the upset.

“They are so well-coached from a schematics stand point and they use their personal so well,” said Graham. “It is a game you can’t relax with because he understands spacings and blocking surfaces. He has a lot of experience and they are just sound in what they do schematically. They are one of the best teams fundamentally at each position and that is why I have so much respect for him.”

ASU is currently a 9.5-point favorite in the game, but despite the mismatch on paper, Graham knows the Beavers are going to put up a fight. No win in the Pac-12 comes easy.

“Just from watching his teams play, the toughness is what stands out,” Graham said. “They are going to play you hard especially up front on both sides of the ball.”

Injuries have taken their toll on the Beavers, but they still will field a potent team more than capable of derailing ASU's postseason hopes. 

The Beavers feature their pass-heavy offense led by quarterback Sean Mannion, who has thrown for 2,437 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s been able to spread the ball around, as six different players have 200 or more receiving yards so far. On the other side of the ball, Oregon State fields a stout, if unspectacular defense, that has proven capable to bring pressure at times. 

Factor in a road atmosphere in Corvallis (where ASU lost 36-26 in their last trip in 2012), a late 7:45 start, and the come down after beating one of the game’s most storied programs on a national stage, and the pieces are in place for a trap game.

Graham says that blocking out those other factors will be a key piece of the preparation this week.

“Right now the most important thing is to minimize distraction and focus fundamentally on getting better and continue to win games,” said Graham. “I want our players to believe that they are better than they are, and I expect them to play like that on Saturday.

"The achievement of our goals is close."

Other Graham bites:

  • Jaelen Strong’s one-handed first quarter left jaws dropped around the country and filled top plays lists. “Wow, pretty impressive,” said Graham of his reaction to the catch. “I just went ‘Wow’. I rewinded that a couple times when I was watching film. That was as good a catch as I have seen in a while.”
  • Defensive tackle Jaxon Hood missed the Notre Dame game due to “personal issues” and his status for this week remains uncertain. “I don’t know. He is taking care of some personal things and we will see how that goes.”
  • Running back D.J. Foster ran for 120 yards against Notre Dame, his first 100-yard game since Sept. 13 against Colorado. “I thought D.J. had an attitude about how he played. I was so impressed.”