The last time Arizona State was on this kind of stage, coach Todd Graham exited Sun Devil Stadium using words like “atrocious” and “pathetic.”
More than a month after the 62-27 loss to UCLA, Graham still calls that defeat a “disastrous game.”
Perhaps the game was disastrous on the field but not disastrous for Arizona State’s 2014 goals.
Arizona State moved to No. 9 in the selection committee’s rankings Tuesday evening, giving the Sun Devils a five-spot jump from last week. The leap puts more attention onto an already-critical game against No. 10 Notre Dame in Tempe on Saturday.
Of any team in the top 10, Arizona State may be the biggest question mark, but College Football Playoff’s mystery team won’t be a mystery much longer.
The Sun Devils are 7-1, riding a four-game winning streak since the loss to UCLA. They’ve held their last three Pac-12 opponents to one offensive touchdown apiece. They’ve won despite a three-game absence by veteran quarterback Taylor Kelly.
Yet the lingering question is how much faith should anyone have in Arizona State as a true playoff contender?
During its worst moment of the season, Arizona State allowed UCLA free reign in the end zone. The Sun Devils gave up 35 points in 8:46 of game time thanks to two passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown, a pick six and a kickoff return.
Since then, Arizona State has allowed 328 yards per game and 4.0 yards per play, both the best averages in the Pac-12 since Oct. 1.
Graham has good reason to see this as a trend. His defense replaced nine starters from last season, broke in a new defensive coordinator (Keith Patterson from West Virginia) and fielded four junior college or Division I transfers among the top six tacklers.
In other words, this should be a defense that gets better as the season goes along.
“Early on it was tough because what we do defensively is complex,” Graham said. “It wasn’t a whole bunch of errors it was just critical errors that were being made. Once they’ve got the system and got to where we can execute, we’re able to execute at a high level.”
The question here, though, is if the defensive numbers is as much a product of playing lackluster offense more than anything. Stanford, Washington and Utah combined for a total of 36 points against Arizona State in the last three weeks.
Those three teams are in the bottom five in the Pac-12 in yards per play. Two of them (Washington and Utah) rank 100th or worse nationally in that category.
Notre Dame isn’t Oregon, but the Irish rank 36th in yards per play for the most prolific offense Arizona State has faced since UCLA.
Arizona State has needed its defense to stifle opponents during the last three games because its offense has sputtered despite the return of Kelly, who is working himself into game shape after suffering a broken right foot Sept. 13.
Kelly is completing 57.7 percent of his passes for 7.4 yards per attempt in three games since his return, both figures are lower than his numbers from the first two games for 2014 and his season-long numbers from 2013 and 2012.
“When you think of a guy who broke his foot, had surgery, had a pin put in his foot, didn’t do anything for six weeks and then came back and then got put into the Washington game,” Graham said. “He played against two of the best defenses getting after you in attacking and blitzing in the Pac-12.”
Now, Arizona State will find out if its quarterback and defense are ready for what could be the defining moment of the season against Notre Dame.
Graham knows his team has received a reprieve from its loss to UCLA and still has an outside shot at the playoff.
“We talk about it differently than we had in the past,” Graham said. “Once we lost a game, we said it’s a single-elimination tournament from here on out. You can’t expect to lose another game and reach our goals.”