ASU Football: Turnovers have been key to the Sun Devils' success in the Todd Graham era

Ralph Freso

Perhaps things would have swayed differently for the Sun Devils if just a few games wouldn't have been picked off

One of the most under-appreciated reasons why the Sun Devils were successful during the 2013 season was their ability to force turnovers.

During the 2013 campaign the Sun Devils forced opposing teams to throw 21 interceptions and forced 14 fumbles while recovering 12 of those loose balls. This adds up to 33 total takeaways for the Sun Devils who led the Pac-12 during the 2013 season and tied for fifth nationally behind Houston (43), Tulane (35), Florida State (35) and North Texas (34). Add in the 2012 season to these numbers and Arizona State has 63 interceptions in the past two years which ranks only second behind Houston (74) in the entire country.

The 12 fumble recoveries tied for 15th best in the nation last year. The only place where the Sun Devils somewhat faltered was on fourth down where opponents converted 13 of 22 fourth down attempts. However Arizona State more than made up for that with a turnover margin of only 1.1, good for seventh in the country.

Even more impressive is that the maroon and gold have forced a turnover in 29 straight games, that's every game so far in the Todd Graham era (plus a few on the end of Dennis Erickson's time in Tempe) and is the second longest streak in the country behind Missouri (44 games).

All of this being said, let's take a look back at some of the more memorable and impactful turnovers (both good and bad) for the Sun Devils last season (In no specific order of importance):

Sept. 14, 2013 vs. No. 20 Wisconsin:

Did Joel Stave kneel the football or was it a fumble? Here is a portion of the statement that the Pac-12 Conference released about those now infamous last 18 seconds:

With 18 seconds remaining in the game, Wisconsin's quarterback ran the ball toward the center of the field, touched his knee to the ground and then placed the ball on the ground.

There was initial uncertainty over whether the quarterback had taken a knee, given himself up or fumbled the ball. As a result several Arizona State players considered the ball live and a fumble, and attempted to recover the ball.

Neither the referee nor anyone on his crew moved with appropriate urgency to clearly communicate that the ball was to be spotted so play could resume promptly.

We won't rehash every detail of the debacle but if you want a full explanation and lengthy discussion about the play, we did our best to explain everything right after the game.

Sept. 28, 2013 vs. USC:

Hear that? It's USC athletic director Pat Haden and president Max Nikias starting to whisper on the Sun Devil Stadium sidelines about Lane Kiffin's job security. Alden Darby intercepted a Cody Kessler pass and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown to put the Sun Devils up 34-21 with 13:06 to play in the third quarter. It deflated the Trojans moral and under six hours later Kiffin would be fired on the tarmac at LAX.

Oct. 5, 2013 at AT&T Stadium vs. Notre Dame:

Kyle Brindza kicked a field goal for Notre Dame to give the Fighting Irish a 30-27 lead. Taylor Kelly then had the chance to lead the Sun Devils the length of the field with under two minutes remaining in the game but quickly threw an interception to Dan Fox who returned it 14 yards for a touchdown to give the Fighting Irish a 37-27 lead and put the game out of reach for Arizona State.

Nov. 9, 2013 at Utah:

It was one of the few games last season where the Arizona State offense struggled. For as much criticism as Will Sutton took last season for his weight and inability to live up to his 2012 numbers, he certainly proved his worth against the Utes. Arizona State was up 20-19 late in the fourth quarter after Richard Smith caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Kelly to give the Sun Devils the lead with 2:37 to play. After exchanging punts, Arizona State still couldn't get a first down in order to run out the clock and the Utes had one last chance to go roughly sixty yards in one minute and 20 seconds to put them in range for a game winning field goal but Will Sutton had other plans picking off a Travis Wilson pass with just over a minute left on the clock to seal the win for Arizona State.

Nov. 16, 2013 vs. Oregon State:

The Beavers were hanging around down 23-10 late in the fourth quarter and the team from Corvallis had dominated most of the second half. After a Zane Gonzalez field goal put the Sun Devils up by the afore mentioned score, Sean Mannion started a drive to try and put Oregon State back within striking distance of the Sun Devils. However Robert Nelson intercepted Mannion's pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown to give Arizona State the 30-10 lead that would prove to be a critical cushion as Oregon State scored on their next drive but could not recover the ensuing onside kick.

Nov. 23, 2013 at UCLA:

Early in the second quarter with the Sun Devils in the midst of a dominating first half against the Bruins, Carl Bradford stepped in front of a Brett Hundley pass and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. It may have seemed somewhat insignificant at the time but when UCLA came roaring back in the second half, Bradford's pick-six made a difference in the 38-35 Arizona State victory.

A look at next season's potential for turnovers:

It's no secret that Arizona State is losing a lot on defense. Damarious Randall, who came out of spring practice as the starting field safety, showed promise especially in the game against Arizona with an interception and had a total of three interceptions and forced two fumbles last season.

Lloyd Carrington and Rashad Wadood got the nod at field corner and boundary corner respectively this spring. Carrington forced one fumble last season while Wadood only played in 10 games with no interceptions or forced fumbles to his credit.

Defensively, the Sun Devils only return players responsible for five of the 33 turnovers created last year. If their is any bright side for the defense when it comes to turnovers, it's that each year under Todd Graham, Arizona State has improved. In Todd Graham's first two seasons as head coach, the Sun Devils had eight interceptions which they returned for touchdowns. In the three seasons before Graham came to Tempe, the team had a grand total of four.

The experience and maturity of D.J. Foster and Taylor Kelly on the offensive side of the ball means most likely even less turnovers for the Sun Devils next season. Graham approaches turnovers the same way he approaches penalties in expects nothing less than perfection and absolute discipline from his players. This was evidenced last season by the fact that the first time an Arizona State running back lost a fumble was on Oct. 31 at Washington State which was the eighth game of the season.

Graham, and Deputy Head Coach Mike Norvell even more so, have a vested interest that not only are the running backs keeping the ball secure but that Kelly keeps the ball out of the hands of opposing defensive backs as well.If you keep an eye on one thing next season it should be Kelly's ability to sustain drives and make sure he doesn't get picked off because the Sun Devils are 6-8 when Kelly trows an interception and 12-1 when he doesn't.

In the past two seasons their has been a direct correlation between the success of Arizona State on the football field and its ability not only to create turnovers but limit their own mistakes as well. If the Sun Devils can continue this type of success in 2014, the maroon and gold should be looking at another solid season.

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