ASU’s #SpeakingVictory era ends in 52-31 Sun Bowl loss to NC State

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ASU QB Manny Wilkins (AP Photo/Andres Leighton) ASU QB Manny Wilkins (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

His arrival in Tempe was basked in bravado. As he honored the legends of the past, he set the expectations for championships in the future. At the end of his introductory press conference, he asked Arizona State fans to “start speaking victory every day.”

A little over six years later, a humbled Todd Graham walked off the field for the final time as ASU’s head coach, still practicing what he had been preaching. He had been fired a month before, but was retained to coach through Friday’s Sun Bowl. The 52-31 loss to North Carolina State capped a roller coaster year, and arguably the most turbulent month in program history, but Graham continued to speak victory after the defeat.

“I am very thankful that the administration gave me the opportunity (to coach the Sun Bowl),” he said after the game. “This last month has mean the world to me.”

Upon taking over the program in Dec. 2011, Graham had overseen a resurgence that included 28 wins over his first three seasons and a division title. But consecutive losing seasons in 2015 and 2016 placed his job in jeopardy, and the axe finally fell just hours after leading the Sun Devils to a victory over archrival Arizona on Nov. 25.

What followed was an unorthodox sequence of events that resulted in ASU athletic director Ray Anderson replacing Graham with Herm Edwards—an ESPN analyst who hadn’t coached since 2008—and attempting to keep the rest of the assistants. In recent weeks, both coordinators and some assistants announced their departure, putting the players in the middle of a constant and chaotic whirlwind

In the midst of all of this was a team trying to prepare for a bowl game against a tough Wolfpack squad ranked No. 24 in the nation. That toll was evident from the outset of the game, as ASU came out sluggish and mistake-prone, falling behind 14-0 by the early second quarter and 28-10 at halftime.

“No excuses. We didn’t play well today,” Graham said. “But, it’s been very, very challenging preparing in this circumstance.”

“Obviously, the outcome isn’t what we wanted it to be,” said senior running back Demario Richard, who ran for 50 yards in his final game. “We came out too slow. You can’t come out slow against a team like that.”

ASU’s defense had a particularly hard time slowing down the NC State offense. The Wolfpack piled up 316 yards in the first half, and running back Nyheim Hines had three rushing touchdowns. The Sun Devil pass rush was ineffective, allowing quarterback Ryan Finley far too much time to pick apart the ASU secondary, particularly on third downs.

“You have to play better defense to have a chance,” Graham said. “We couldn’t get off the field in the first half on third down.”

The defense played better in the third quarter, limiting the Wolfpack to a field goal, but the Sun Devil offense was continually held in check. They needed a break, and appeared to get one in the middle of the quarter when the Sun Devils were able to recover a muffed punt at the NC State 27-yard line. But on the next play, Manny Wilkins was intercepted in the endzone.

“I thought that was critical,” Graham said. “That was the key play in the game.”

The Wolfpack would end that drive with a 23-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to squash any thoughts of an ASU comeback.

The Sun Devils would score three touchdowns in the quarter, including a pair of Wilkins touchdown passes, but NC State would answer with a touchdown of their own each time.

“We got away from what we usually do, and it got ugly, unfortunately,” said Richard, who ended the game No. 4 on ASU's all-time rushing yardage list.

With the outcome no longer in doubt, and the remaining minutes of his tenure ticking away, a group of ASU fans seated behind the team’s bench began a “Thank You, Todd” chant. That sincere message found its recipient, and provided a bittersweet coda for the afternoon.

“It meant a lot to me, the people that made the trip out here,” Graham said. “It meant a lot to me for them to thank me like they did. It was pretty special. It’s been a great honor for me to be the head football coach here at Arizona State.”

Graham went 46-32 as ASU’s head coach, including four wins in six meetings against Arizona. He led the Sun Devils to the 2013 Pac-12 South division title and five bowl trips. He also oversaw a vigorous overhaul of the program off the field, including the raising of the team GPA from just over 2.0 to 3.0 this past semester. He cultivated a culture of high character, and he was instrumental in the renovations of Sun Devil Stadium and the construction of the new state-of-the-art Student Athlete Facility.

“I poured my heart and soul into this thing,” said Graham. “I don’t have one regret. Not one regret. Only regret I have is I wish we would have had a little more time.”

But at the end of the day, the level of on-field success was not enough, and the displays similar to the team’s Sun Bowl showing were too frequent. So the Graham era has ended, and the Edwards regime officially takes over. Graham hopes that the Sun Devils of the future continue to speak victory.

“I’d love to see them win a championship,” Graham. “We’ve laid a great foundation with the culture we have in place. Coach Edwards is a solid person and he’ll build upon that.”

For Graham, he plans to “coach until they throw dirt on my head.” For his former team, the future is less certain.

ASU will potentially return 15 starters in 2018. They have the talent to make a run at the South title once again, but many questions surround the makeup of their coaching staff. The outlook of their self-described “New Leadership Model” remains unclear. It could be a success. It could fail and set the program back for years. Welcome to life as an ASU fan.

However, one thing that is certain.

Arizona State is better off now than they were before Graham arrived.

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