The questions swirling to start the season surrounding Todd Graham’s job security have dwindled down in the last three or so months — and just one remains.
Can he, and ASU, beat U of A Saturday?
That answer may very well decide the fate of Graham’s tenure in Tempe.
Throughout this season, before ASU took the field, many thought, “if the Sun Devils lose today, will Graham be coaching tomorrow?”
The success of the Sun Devils’ season and Graham’s job status seemingly coincide. And each time that the backs of the two have been pushed against the wall this season, Graham and ASU have orchestrated a performance thats makes many wonder how the doubts of each arose.
The September game against then No. 24 Oregon is the first and best example of Graham really coaching for his job and ASU playing for its season.
The Devils were 1-2 on the season playing in their first Pac-12 game while Graham’s coaching seat was listed as fourth hottest in the country by collegefootballnews.com.
Graham’s risky yet dauntless moves led of a team that acted like they had nothing to lose into the winner’s circle.
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The Devils ran — and executed — a first quarter onside kick that led to a field goal and got them off to a 17-7 start. They went for it on fourth down twice, moving the chains just once en route to a first-quarter touchdown. And after grabbing a two-point lead with just over two minutes left, ASU tried finish off Oregon on their next position — throwing the ball on 3rd-and-5 and leaving precious seconds still on the clock after an incompletion.
Graham’s decisions would have been picked and torn apart had they failed. But in the wise words of the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, “desperate times call for desperate measures.”
The desperate measures Graham displayed against Oregon showed his aggressive approach and response to doubts surrounding his team and job security.
That nonconservative approach has faded, however, when both implications regarding his team’s success and job status seem secure.
In its 44-37 loss two weeks ago at UCLA, ASU went 1-for-3 on fourth downs, but those three tries seem insignificant when noting that Graham and the Devils opted to go for three second half field goals while inside the 10.
A seven-point loss stings Graham even more when looking back and seeing that his team left 12 points on the field after sending kicker Brandon Ruiz out to the field on 4th-and-3, 4th-and-4 and 4th-and-4, respectively.
Now, points are points and the Devils need to get them anyway they can — especially against Arizona — but decisions to go for it on 4th down, try an onside kick or possibly even gamble for fake punt could quickly determine if Graham opts to be aggressive or conservative in his decision-making Saturday.
Resorting to those types of trick plays usually come in times of desperation — and while Graham and ASU may be in that position, their chances against U of A, at the moment, aren’t.
If the game starts getting out of hand in favor of U of A — as it did a season ago — Graham will no doubt get more aggressive. ASU went for it on 4th down six times last season against Arizona, but only converted on one attempt.
Graham is confident in his team, maybe to a fault. And in a game with so much at stake, its tough to believe that he would move away from that. He’s going to take shots downfield, blitz regularly and ultimately take chances if the Devils have the lead.
With all at stake for Graham, and ASU playing against their bitter in-state rival, a conservative game plan just won’t work.
The Sun Devils look at their best when they have an early lead. Getting out in front quickly against Oregon and then No. 5 Washington built up quick momentum that ASU was able to sustain. So if Graham is going to be conservative, it’ll most likely come later in the game — after ASU has tried to swing or keep their momentum from either deep shots, trick plays or 4th down attempts.
But in a season that has heard the declaration of “Graham’s biggest game since coming to ASU” be applied to several different games, Saturday may take the cake and if Graham and ASU fall, their going to go down swinging.