Bowl games can seem like a hurdle in the way. It’s supposed to be one regime in, one out, but for ASU football that was somewhere in the middle.
Transition periods are uncomfortable, they’re awkward.
After it was announced that Athletic Director Ray Anderson had fired head coach Todd Graham just a day after Graham and the Devils had convincingly beat rival Arizona 42-30 and locked up the second-best record in the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devil players had to churn on to the bowl game.
Unlike many transition periods, they kept going, preparing for their bowl game under the direction of the recently fired Graham, who said he would coach through the bowl game.
This situation isn’t all that new to new to ASU. In 2011, then recently hired head man Graham watched from a suite as Dennis Erickson, who was fired after the season, lost the Las Vegas Bowl to Boise State, 56-24.
Graham still manned the sidelines and coached his players through practices – keeping it business as usual as his possible replacements were rumored, and then confirmed with the hiring of Herm Edwards.
But, business as usual, didn’t exactly happen for the Sun Devil players. They dealt with internal coaching carousel while rumors fluttered about who could be and would be on their sidelines next season.
They of course knew Graham wouldn’t be returning, but then defensive coordinator Phil Bennett announced he wouldn’t be joining Herm Edwards’ staff on Dec. 12 and just three days later, offensive coordinator Billy Napier announced he had taken the head coaching job at Louisiana-Lafayette.
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Bennett, along with Graham, were still a part of those bowl practices as ASU prepared for N.C. State in the Sun Bowl, but it was a transition period that brought about more attention to the fluctuating coaching situation than the actual game.
And when the dust settled in El Paso, ASU running back Demario Richard sat in the postgame press conference after losing 52-31 and almost seemed baffled at someone asking if the Devils had the focus necessary to win the game.
Quarterback Manny Wilkins answered for Richard, “We were focused, but we just turned the ball over.”
But, in theory, it’s a valid question. Leading up to the game reporters asked tons of questions, everything ranging from the New Leadership Model, the new coaches and the unclear path that the Devils seem to be going on.
The mood and talk encompassing the ASU program from the moment the final horn sounded at the Territorial Cup was not about their next game, it was about their next hire.
It was treacherous cycle that saw players questioning loyalty and wondering if their coach today will be their coach tomorrow.
It’s a type of uncertainty that Graham said after the game he admired his players for dealing with.
“The kids did a good job deflecting it,” Graham said. “No excuses, we didn’t play well today. It’s been very challenging in preparing under this circumstance.”
But, as the Sun Bowl got underway and the distractions fell by the waist side, Graham and the Devils were aggressive.
On the first snap of the game, Arizona State ran a double-reverse and then threw a lateral back to quarterback Wilkins who was looking for receiver N’Keal Harry, but with Harry double-covered, Wilkins ran for just three yards.
Then, after coming off their best drive of the afternoon that saw Harry catch four passes for 65 yards and a touchdown, the Devils gambled again. Trying a surprise onside kick with just over two minutes left in the half.
“We actually didn’t execute the kick the right way,” Graham said. “My idea was we were going to have to kick the ball off to them at half and we felt like it was something we could get. That wound up being another turnover for us.”
In a common theme from the Sun Bowl, N.C. State capitalized off of ASU’s mistake.
Mistakes are something ASU prides themselves on not having. The Devils are tied for seventh in the country for fewest penalties this season (49), and seventh in the country for fewest turnovers lost (11).
On Friday, they only committed one penalty for four yards, but their turnovers spiked.
Wilkins threw three interceptions, wide receiver Ryan Newsome fumbled on the second play of the game, and the Wolfpack scored 10 points because of them. North Carolina State also scored 21 points after recovering three of ASU’s four on-side kicks.
Mistakes will hurt any team, but were deadly against N.C. State.
The Wolfpack exploited ASU’s tackling. Intermediate passes from Ryan Finley gave his receivers all sorts of space to make a play, and in the red zone, N.C. State’s running game took over. Led by Sun Bowl MVP Zyheim Hines’ three touchdowns, the Wolfpack rushed for 173 yards.
Some say that bowl games are all about who wants to be there more, who has something to play for.
ASU had something to play for. For the chance to give Graham his last hurrah, to give ASU fans that one lasting picture of the sixth-year head coach in the maroon and gold.
They weren’t able to do that, but the good news for ASU is the uncomfortable, awkward transition period is over.
The coaching slots are being filled, the questions are over and the Devils can finally turn the page to the next chapter.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.