The Sun Devils are back in the Associated Press rankings this week, coming in at 25. While this seems like a move in the right direction, let's not forget that both times Arizona State has been ranked this year its proceeded to lose the next game.
Being ranked is also the least of Arizona State's problems when it looks at this week's opponent. The Sun Devils travel to Pullman, Wash., on Thursday to face the Washington State Cougars, a team going nowhere fast. Todd Graham is still looking for a signature road victory with ASU (sorry, beating the Wildcats in Tucson hardly counts--more on this later) and this is a chance to do so.
While beating a Pac-12 bottom feeder hardly seems like a huge road victory, getting a win in hostile territory will go a long way toward establishing the Sun Devils as the Pac-12 South favorite.
Matchup of the Week: The Sun Devils vs. The Road
Sadly, the best win in a true road contest since Graham arrived in Tempe was last season, a 27-17 win at Cal. Sure, Arizona State went into Tucson and beat Arizona last season, but the stadium was split closer to 50-50 in fans and traveling 90 minutes to play a rival doesn't exactly scream road game.
The Sun Devils are nearly unstoppable at home. In Graham's 11 games at Sun Devil Stadium, the team is 9-2. The losses came to Oregon, which was expected, and UCLA, because the defense couldn't make a late stop and Alex Garoutte was afraid to make field goals.
The offense averages over 40 points per game while playing at home, but in Graham's tenure, the Sun Devils scores fall into the 30's on the road. The defense is a different beast at home as well - just ask Washington. The team seems to feed off of playing at home, regardless of how empty Sun Devil Stadium has been at times this season.
The Cougars are going to be ready to go on Thursday. The university canceled afternoon classes because of the game, it's Halloween and to compound everything, Pullman isn't exactly rich with things to do. The crowd is going to be raucous and this game might as well be the Super Bowl for Wazzu. The Cougars, in all likelihood, need to get to seven wins to be invited to a bowl game, and they still have to travel to Arizona and Washington, and play host to the always well-coached Utah.
In other words, this is a must-win for the Cougars.
Arizona State has to find a way to come out fired up away from Tempe. So far, they've failed to do so this year. In fact, outside of two dominant wins over a pair of bad opponents in Colorado and Navy, the Todd Graham Sun Devils have never come out clicking while away from home.
Last season, a slow start at Missouri cost the Sun Devils the game. They started poorly against Arizona and needed an almost miraculous 4th quarter comeback to win.
This season, Stanford was celebrating a victory at halftime, and Notre Dame kept the offense quiet in the first half. When the Sun Devils finally got Taylor Kelly going, the defense fell apart, and Kelly couldn't handle the pressure while the offensive line crumbled.
Recapping: nine games away from Sun Devil Stadium, two quick starts. Neither of those quick starts came against good opponents, but more importantly, neither came in important games for the opponent. There are high school games in Texas that are better attended than a Colorado game right now, and Navy was never going to travel well to San Francisco for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. The Midshipmen also aren't built to play from behind.
Washington State is, and could mount a comeback on the Sun Devils at any point. Mike Leach refuses to let his team run the football - it's like running is a disease - and as a result, quarterback Connor Halliday has thrown an FBS leading 17 interceptions. But he's also thrown for 2,798 yards and 18 touchdowns.
With the crowd on his side and the Sun Devils on the road, I'd expect Halliday to come out and take some shots early. Arizona State is going to have to continue getting to the quarterback the way it has the last two weeks. And the offense can't let the defense down if it does.
Taylor Kelly, Marion Grice, Jaelen Strong and the offensive line need to show that they are the better team. There is no reason, on paper, that the Sun Devils shouldn't win this game by 30. They should score in the 50's and be able to hold Wazzu to two or three scores. But again, it's a road game, and the Sun Devils have done nothing to garner the benefit of the doubt.
Graham has spent all year talking about winning championships. He talks about discipline, no critical errors and every play. This is the game where we find out if it's all been a big ploy, or if the team has really bought in and learned from the mistakes made in both games outside of Tempe this year.
The biggest matchup this week has nothing to do with scheme, keys or play calling. The matchup of the week is Arizona State versus an uncomfortable locker room, a long plane flight, cold weather and a bunch of crazy kids in Pullman.
It's going to be loud. It's going to be hostile. And if the Sun Devils can't find a way to win on the road, it's going to end their season.