It's a big week for the Arizona State Sun Devils. Not only do the Sun Devils host a prominent opponent in the Oregon Ducks Thursday, but it's ASU's annual "Salute to Service" Week.
As veterans have a huge presence on the University, particularly emphasizing on the values former football great Pat Tillman left on the program, Arizona State coach Todd Graham spent nearly four minutes in his opening statement of Monday's weekly press conference praising the military and revealed how he nearly gave up football to join the Marines after high school. Graham seemed more relaxed following the team's bye week while he showed his admiration for the armed forces.
Graham was brought back to reality, though, when the first question of the press conference brought up ASU's struggling offense that failed to score last week against the Utah Utes.
"That was a mood killer question right there after that," said Graham, half-jokingly. "I was feeling really good until that question there."
The offense has been the Sun Devils' main Achilles heel all season, and Graham knows that.
ASU led Utah by two points at the beginning of the fourth quarter but failed to preserve the lead as the offense never got going. He shared some frustrated conveyed by fans that week that the offense spoiled a great performance from the defense and special teams that night. Graham, a defensive-minded head coach, said he's been working closely with both sides of the ball and has even let defensive coordinator Keith Patterson call all of the plays on defense recently.
"We're playing better on special teams than we've ever played here," Graham said. "I think we're playing better in our run defense and setting a record pace in TFLs and sacks and all that...but nobody cares if you've got the best defense in the world — you lose, nobody cares."
Graham compared ASU's Oct. 3 win over the UCLA Bruins as the standard to how the offense should be playing, as the Sun Devils hung 465 yards of total offense. He still believes ASU can return to that same level played against the Bruins. As Graham mentioned when talking about what it takes to win the Pac-12, the Sun Devils are focusing on getting better every week.
"We want to operate with great speed, and if you have character and you're smart and you have the values that we stand for, then you can operate a lot faster than everybody else and a lot more efficient," he said.
Although the Sun Devils didn't commit a turnover until the fourth quarter against the Utes, Graham reiterated the main focuses of improvement is ball security and pushing the tempo.
"The one thing we've got to get better at is our tempo and owning the football," Graham said. "That's it. That's been the No. 1 focus for us...The second thing is the fact that we are operating too slow, right, and some of that is complexity of what we're doing, but we have gone back and really tried to come together with a plan that our guys can execute and execute it quickly."
Despite the emphasis to improve the offense, Graham said he doesn't want to see a shootout when the Sun Devils host the Ducks Thursday night. He remembers the blowout Arizona State suffered at home to Oregon two years ago and said stopping Ducks running back Royce Freeman will be a priority.
When asked about the gameplan against Oregon, Graham brought out one more half-joke.
"Everything we did last time, we're trying not to run," he said.