Arizona State didn't exactly kickoff Pac-12 Conference play the way head coach Todd Graham might have envisioned when he talked about playing for championships at July's media day.
The Sun Devils fell behind defending league champion Stanford 29-0 in the first half of their Sept. 21 tilt in Stanford Stadium, and the Cardinal lead ballooned to as much as 32 points.
"That was a humbling experience," Graham said in his weekly press conference on Monday, per TheSunDevils.com. "We learned a lot from that game...The second half in that game showed what kind of heart we have."
In fourth quarter, Arizona State rolled off three straight touchdowns. The rally came primarily against Stanford's reverse, though it forced Cardinal head coach David Shaw to put his starters back in for the final minutes. Stanford may have won more comfortably than the final score indicated, but Arizona State came away with a belief that it could get another shot, as wide receiver Jaelen Strong expressed.
“They’re in the Pac-12 North, and we will see them again,” Strong told AZPreps2Pros.com following his 168-yard performance against the Cardinal, in a bit of foreshadowing what was to come.
A flame ignited under the Sun Devils in that fourth quarter that has yet to be extinguished in the 11 weeks since. The 42-28 loss was Arizona State's only setback in conference. Graham's team has won eight games since by an average margin of 22.6 points per game.
Central to the Sun Devils righting their championship course was the celebrated defense regaining its rhythm. Arizona State had one of the conference's most intimidating defensive units in 2012, second in the nation in sacks to only Stanford and best overall in tackles for loss.
However, the 42 points given up to the Cardinal was the high of a run wherein Arizona State's opponents rolled off 30, 41 and 37. Big plays came at a premium in Arizona State's four-game stretch through the season's early weeks against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame, and defensive tackle Will Sutton, the conference's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, seemed to struggle adjusting to a bulkier frame. The Sun Devils also had a noticeable void with defensive end Junior Onyeali lost to injury and linebacker captain Brandon Magee graduated.
Arizona State's sack and tackle for loss production dipped considerably in that first month, and against Stanford, it managed five. The Sun Devils have surpassed that mark in seven of their last nine. Of the two games they didn’t hit five tackles for loss, one was their other defeat, 37-34 to Notre Dame.
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Not coincidentally, Arizona State failed to generate any turnovers in that contest, and creating turnovers has been key to Arizona State's torrid second half. More pressure up front is crucial in that effort.
Sutton has had no trouble regaining his form since the season’s initial weeks. Monday, the Pac-12 awarded him Defensive Player of the Year honors for a second time.
Junior Carl Bradford has been as dynamic a defensive playmaker as the conference has from his hybrid “Devil” position—“he can play A gap, B gap, C gap, D gap, E gap, F gap,” Graham explained in a teleconference call last month—but the emergence of other contributors has made Arizona State particularly dangerous in the trenches.
Defensive end Davon Coleman and linebacker Chris Young both improved on their already steady production from 2012, Gannon Conway has emerged as a force up front and freshman Salamo Fiso is a seamless fit.
All of that is translated into a pursuit from the front seven as tenacious, if not more so than last year's for Arizona State, and certainly a more consistent presence than the Sun Devils brought to Stanford in September.
More pressure on opposing quarterbacks has turned into takeaways for the secondary. With 21 interceptions on the year, only Florida State and Houston have been greedier than Arizona State. Five of those picks have been returned for touchdowns, including Damarious Randall's 64-yarder against Arizona. Remarkably, each pick-six came from a different player.
It's no wonder then that in his postgame press conference last Saturday, Graham sang the praises of a secondary he said doesn't get enough credit. Randall joined Robert Nelson, Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor with interceptions taken back for scores.
And it's only fitting Bradford's been in on the fun.
While Stanford's offense relies primarily on grinding senior running back Tyler Gaffney, who scored two touchdowns against Arizona State, the Cardinal are most effectively slowed down when sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan is rattled.
Though his 55.6 percent completions against Utah and 56 percent against USC were not Hogan's worst passing performances, they had profound impact on the Cardinal's losses because he was also limited in the run game. That's promising for Arizona State, because the Utes and Trojans featured similarly aggressive pursuits from the front seven.
Likewise, however, Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly has faced his own struggles against tenacious pass rushes in Utah, Notre Dame and Stanford.
The Pac-12 has no defensive unit more celebrated than Stanford's and for good reason. The Cardinal have limited virtually every offense they've faced, including uptempo spread offenses like Oregon and Arizona State.
Stanford doesn't create turnovers as prolifically as Arizona State, but it flourished early against the Sun Devils by forcing uncharacteristic mistakes, including two interceptions of Kelly. The Sun Devils junior has three multiple interception games this season, and two were each of their losses.
Graham said in a teleconference call last month that Kelly's improved confidence as a ball-carrier has been central to Arizona State's 43.3 point per game offense. Indeed, the Sun Devils are undefeated when Kelly scores a rushing touchdown or rushes for at least 10 yards.
Spreading the Stanford defense enough for Kelly to have open lanes is a challenge without senior running back Marion Grice, who Graham said after last Saturday's win would remain unavailable. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell tinkered with his playbook, adding in tight end De'Marieya Nelson as a power-rushing running back with sophomore lightning bug D.J. Foster working the perimeter.
Graham's staff is constantly tweaking in some fashion, and the changes were enough to turn a team that lost its conference opener into one hosting the conference championship game. And it could be enough for the Sun Devils to hoist the conference's title.