With its 62-26 manhandling of the Navy Midshipmen in last week’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Arizona State put the finishing touches on a season that was more successful than almost anyone dared to imagine. Under the firm hand of first-year head coach Todd Graham, the 2012 Sun Devils achieved an 8-5 record, won their first bowl game since 2005, and most importantly, set the stage for further achievements in the coming years.
ASU’s 62 points were not only the most scored in Kraft Bowl history, they’re the most scored by a Pac-12 team in any bowl ever. ASU also broke the Kraft Bowl records for most total yards (648) and largest margin of victory (34). In all, the Sun Devils set or tied 18 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Records.
Early Success Breeds Optimism
Arizona State began this year’s campaign with a 63-6 rout of Northern Arizona University. When Graham unveiled his “High Octane” philosophy for Sun Devil football, some pundits were skeptical. They termed the approach “gimmicky,” saying it would never be effective in the highly competitive Pac-12 Conference. But in his ASU coaching debut, Graham made good on promises of improved performance and discipline on both sides of the ball. The Devils racked up 305 yards on the ground and dominated the line of scrimmage versus the Lumberjacks.
In Week 2 of the season, Arizona State downed the Illinois Fighting Illini 45-14. Graham’s squad leveraged a two-quarterback rotation, which featured sophomore QB Taylor Kelly completing 18 of 24 for 249 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman QB Michael Eubank showed his talent, too, going 5 of 5 for 69 yards and two touchdowns. At this point, ASU fans were saddled with a good problem: selecting the most productive quarterback for the starting job.
Ups and Downs at Mid-season
Week 3 of the 2012 campaign saw Arizona State face its first key test, traveling to Columbia, Missouri, to take on the Missouri Tigers. Could a young ASU squad, led for a new coaching staff, find a way to upset the Tigers on their home field, or would the Maroon and Gold fold under adversity, like so many previous Sun Devil teams? In the end, ASU squandered several late opportunities to come home with the “W,” falling to Missouri 24-20.
In its next outing, Arizona State got back up to speed with a 37-7 home victory against Utah. The team finally responded to Graham’s edicts (“own the ball,” “eliminate penalties”). Even Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was impressed. “I give all the credit to Arizona State,” he said. “They have a bunch of athletes. They’re fast. The front four on defense is physical. The back seven can run. The scheme offensively was very, very difficult to defend. Coach Graham has done a great job with those guys and they are playing very well right now.”
In Week 5, ASU traveled to Northern California to grapple with the Cal Bears. The meeting had ominous overtones, since the Devils had not won in Berkeley since 1997. Cal won last season’s game 47-38 in Tempe, and over the last two meetings had put up 97 points. Ultimately, however, Graham and Co. posted an important 27-17 win that propelled them squarely into the Pac-12 South race.
After an open date in Week 6, Arizona State faced a possible “trap game” against the Colorado Buffaloes. Many Devils advocates were already looking ahead to a critical match-up with the Oregon Ducks. Fortunately, ASU’s talented pair of ball carriers, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice, along with quarterback Taylor Kelly, carried the load in spectacular fashion, guiding the Sun Devils to a 51-17 win in Boulder.
Losing Streak Raises Doubts
Week 8 of the season proved to be a low point for Arizona State. Playing at home in a highly anticipated game against the University of Oregon, the Sun Devils fell apart on the way to an embarrassing 43-21 defeat. The Ducks had their way against what had been the Pac-12′s best defense, racing to a 36-point halftime lead and rushing for 406 yards. To make matters worse, ASU lost talented DT Will Sutton early in the contest due to an injury. Graham’s post-game summary was succinct. “We do have a good football team, but we got beat by a really, really good football team tonight,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind, they’re one of the best, if not the best team in the country.”
Coming off the Oregon shellacking, it was time for ASU and its fans to move on. A major challenge awaited against UCLA. Beat the Bruins, and the outlook for the remainder of the 2012 season would brighten up once again. Lose to the guys from Westwood, California, and the question marks would only grow larger.
Against UCLA, Graham and his staff had to assemble a patchwork defensive line to counter one of the West Coast’s most dangerous offensive attacks. And they had to elevate an under-performing Sun Devil receiving corps, as well as a field goal unit that had struggled all season long. The result: a heartbreaking 53-45 defeat at the hands of a tough Bruins squad.
Following back-to-back home losses to Oregon and UCLA, Arizona State hoped to regroup against Oregon State and reignite its Pac-12 South title aspirations. ASU had not beaten a ranked team on the road since 2002, and Oregon State had won its last three games in Corvallis against the Sun Devils. These factors increased the pressure on the boys from the desert to shake off their woes and find a way to get back into the win column. Alas, it was not meant to be, as ASU fell 36-26.
In Week 11, Arizona State dropped its fourth game in a row — this time to a familiar adversary, the USC Trojans. For ASU followers, there was no use denying it: their team was repeating its painful season-ending slide of 2011. Just like the previous year, the 2012 Sun Devils had squandered a promising start, fallen out of the race for the Pac-12 South title, and were looking at the possibility of elimination from bowl contention.
Resurgence Leads to Winning Record
Arizona State now encountered an early, but unavoidable moment of truth in its rebuilding process. Beat Washington State and topple rival Arizona, and the Devils could end their season on a positive note. A loss in one or both games would test the perseverance of fans and cast doubts on Todd Graham’s long-term strategy for ASU.
Washington State proved to be just the tonic Arizona State needed to revive its 2012 hopes. Playing at home on Senior Day, the Sun Devils rebounded with a huge victory against the hopeless Cougars. The 46-7 win put ASU over .500 once again at 6-5, and more importantly, made the Sun Devils bowl eligible for the second straight year.
ASU’s season finale, like every year, involved a date with the UofA Wildcats for the coveted “Territorial Cup.” This matchup is one of the oldest trophy rivalry games in the NCAA, and the trophy itself has been certified as the oldest of its kind in college football. The 2012 ASU-Arizona game broke new ground on the 113 year-old rivalry. That’s because both teams had new coaching regimes, new outlooks, and for once, winning records.
Picking a winner in the “Dual in the Desert” is always a dicey proposition, since the game consistently defies logic and produces all sorts of strange and unexpected happenings. Going into the ’12 Dual, the Wildcats had won three of the last four after the Sun Devils won four of five in the middle of the decade.
In a bitter and hard-fought contest, Arizona State once again reclaimed the Territorial Cup by defeating Arizona 41-34 in Tucson. ASU intercepted UofA quarterback Matt Scott three times and forced a fumble. All four turnovers were converted into touchdowns as the visiting Sun Devils erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. RB Marion Grice rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns to lead an ASU attack that stalled at times — but used the momentum of the turnovers to outdistance the Wildcats.
Bright Prospects for the Future
After starting the year 5-1, ASU lost four in a row and their season looked to be spiraling out of control. However, Coach Graham rallied the troops and the Sun Devils were able to close the season with three straight wins, giving the program its first eight-win season since 2007, when it went 10-3. The three wins to end the season marked the first time since 1978 that ASU finished the year with three consecutive victories.
Arizona State has a young nucleus coming back in 2013 and there’s no reason the Sun Devils shouldn’t be able to compete in what should be a wide-open Pac-12 South Division.