Fans who remained in Sun Devil Stadium after Arizona State's 38-14 loss to Stanford in Saturday's Pac-12 Championship serenaded the Sun Devils upperclassmen with chants of "thank you seniors," as they left the field for the final time.
“I want to say thank you to the fans,” said safety Alden Darby, one of the seniors who played his last college game in Tempe, Ariz., and one of seven seniors to start Saturday’s championship on the defensive side. “It’s been a long journey…in four years. We appreciate them sticking with us through the ups and downs.”
Seniors like Darby were central to Arizona State’s run to the Pac-12 South Championship and the program’s first appearance in the conference title game. A season in which Arizona State was among the conference’s most veteran teams is coming to an end, which means 2014 brings plenty of unknowns.
The Pac-12 has never been deeper than it is now, and coaching changes around the conference promise to up the ante on competition. Returning to this place, the Pac-12 Championship, next season is a lofty goal for this program.
Arizona State’s returning underclassmen have a solid foundation on which to build—players like sophomore running back D.J. Foster who, before he was injured in the second half Saturday, was a one-man wrecking crew. Foster scored both of the Sun Devils’ touchdowns, a 51-yard rush and a screen pass he took 65 yards to paydirt.
Foster more than capably filled in for injured senior Marion Grice, to such an extent head coach Todd Graham said in his postgame press conference that losing Foster hurt Arizona State’s efforts more than missing Grice.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly was also outstanding in stretches, running with reckless abandon to extend plays against the swarming Stanford defense.
The Sun Devils who take up the mantle from seniors like Darby, Grice, defensive tackle Will Sutton and offensive lineman Evan Finkenberg will lead from a much different place than this current crop.
Who is the team to beat in the Pac-12 South in 2014?
Many of the 2013 Sun Devils seniors were recruits of former head coach Dennis Erickson, who was dismissed after a disappointing five-year run in 2011. However, they immediately bought into the plan Graham and his staff introduced.
Graham said on Tuesday’s teleconference call getting that buy-in was “the easy part” when he took over a program that hadn’t broken over .500 in four years.
Tight end Chris Coyle channeled Charles Dickens when assessing his tenure in Tempe.
“I have seen the worst of teams here, and the best of teams here,” he said.
For the departing upperclassmen, following Graham’s vision was a needed breath of fresh air that restored life to the conference’s sleeping giant. The younger players who return to defend the Sun Devils’ divisional title and make another run at the Rose Bowl only know Graham’s way.
The challenge facing Graham is maintaining the positive direction. Erickson’s first team in 2007 won 10 games and appeared in the Holiday Bowl. It was one of only two postseasons Arizona State qualified for in the half-decade before Graham arrived.
Arizona State has historically gone through such ebbs and flows, hitting peaks wherein it challenges for the Rose Bowl before leveling out in the middle tier of the conference. But Graham’s mission since arriving was predicating on reversing expectations.
He accomplished it in leading a group of players who were once the nation’s standard-bearers for on-field misconduct, leading the nation in penalties, and turning it into one of the most disciplined teams in the nation.
With the change in philosophies comes an elevating of the standard at Arizona State—and Graham believes the Sun Devils are on course to meet that bar.
“We’re just getting started,” he said.
All quotes obtained firsthand.