ASU hit road-rock bottom against Washington State last November (Photo: ASU)
From the Not Breaking News Desk: Arizona State had a serious issue with discipline under Dennis Erickson.
The most glaring (and cursed by fans) manifestation of this problem was with penalties. Over Coach Erickson's final four seasons--from 2008 through last season--the Sun Devils ranked, among the 120 FBS teams: 108th, 120th, 114th and 120th in penalty yards per game.
Yes, ASU has ranked dead last in two of the last three seasons. Just about every fan can recount several instances over the last few seasons of how a dumb penalty by ASU undid a great play or gave the opponent another chance to do damage (which they often did).
With costly numbers like those, it's no surprise that new head coach Todd Graham has made instilling discipline, accountability and intelligence as a top priority. When you see teams like Wisconsin, Alabama and Iowa routinely near the top of those same lists, it's not hard to draw the conclusion that successful teams don't shoot themselves in the foot.
Yet as awful as the penalty issue has been, it is not the only area that the lack of discipline has ultimately damned the program.
That's ASU's record away from Sun Devil Stadium over that same four-year stretch from 2008 to 2011. That translates into a winning percentage of just .227, and it's numbers like .227 that get coaches fired.
Looking at the road losses over the last two years makes it clear that, while ASU played some really good teams, it was never a lack of talent that did them in on the road. It was the lack of mental toughness.
Wisconsin, USC and Oregon State in 2010. Illinois, UCLA and Washington State last season. To say that the Sun Devils should have been 6-0 instead of 0-6 in those games is not a stretch at all. Imagine how differently everything would have turned out had ASU not had extra points blocked, field goals missed or bad turnovers committed.
A disciplined approach and mindset makes up a large part of the road success formula. Teams of 19, 20 and 21-year olds need to be able to execute the gameplan, avoid penalties, put the hostile environment aside and ignore all the associated distractions of traveling. That's much easier said than done, but in order to be a winner, it's a necessity, and it all starts at the top.
That's one of the reasons that there has been so much hope surrounding the new approach and culture being promoted by Graham. What was accepted, tolerated and ignored by the former regime is being eliminated with extreme prejudice now. The might have and should have beens of ASU football have driven many a fan, booster and alum to madness, drink or more likely a combination of the two. For the Sun Devils t's time to start beating the opposition instead of themselves.
Reversing that trend in 2012 will be difficult. ASU's road schedule includes trips to Missouri, Cal, Colorado, Oregon State, USC and--the most important of all--Arizona. That slate could very well result in one or two wins, and a .500 mark in that stretch has to be considered a success.
But like most things surrounding ASU football and Todd Graham, the proof won't come in 2012. This is a time to tear down all that was, and rebuild it from the ground starting with a foundation cemented in the Sun Devil way.
The upcoming season will be tough, but the first and most important victory must come over the Devils' own demons. While it surely will not happen overnight, the hope is building. That's a true start, unlike the other kind that has cost the Devils a lot of five-yard chunks lately.