Losers of three straight and out of the race for the conference title, ASU's focus for Tuesday's practice was squarely on the upcoming task at hand in the Washington Huskies. Sitting at 4-5 with three games left on the regular season slate, ASU still has its work cut out for it to earn two more wins and reach bowl eligibility, and while Washington remain one of the Pac-12's youngest teams, behind true freshmen quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, the Huskies present a dangerous threat for ASU.
Tuesday's practice saw added emphasis on ball protection, running the receivers through various ball security drills. While the Sun Devils didn't lose a fumble against Washington State, ASU did turn the ball over against the Cougars, continuing a streak of weeks with turnovers that started in Week 1 against Texas A&M and has spanned the entire season to date.
"I'd like for us to have 100% ball security for the first time. The things that we talk about all the time, we need to make happen," Todd Graham said. "They had a purpose today about practicing, and the team that we're playing, I think they're better than the team we played last week. I think they're better defensively, not better as far as coaching but just the schematics of what they do is a lot more difficult. I've got a lot of respect for (Washington coach Chris Petersen) and the job that they do."
Last year ASU, in the midst of its incredible run to the upper echelon of the College Football Playoff rankings, barely escaped out of Seattle with a win over the Huskies, prevailing 24-10 in a heavy rainstorm. The Huskies offense was anemic and while ASU's offense struggled in the weather, Washington didn't present any game-breaking talent.
That's not the case this year. The Huskies experienced growing pains behind their young quarterback early this season, but Jake Browning has come on recently and the former four-star recruit who broke national passing records in high school is shaping up to be a serious contender for the conference's top quarterback headed into 2016.
"I think they're different because their skills players are different, their quarterback's a different guy. Their tailback is the strength of the group, obviously they've got very skilled athletes as Washington always does at the skill positions," Graham said. "They've just got a freshman quarterback who was kind of feeling his way around early and is now hitting his stride. When I get done watching the film I go 'what's their record?' because they look pretty good. They just beat the dog out of USC, nothing tricky about it, just got after them."
Despite their recent success, the Huskies still sit at 4-5 and need a strong finish to make themselves bowl eligible. Also like the Sun Devils, many of those losses came in closely-contested games, losing by less than seven points to Boise State, California and Oregon.
"The things that have beat us have beaten them. They turned the ball over last week, that cost them, " Graham said. "They've done a good job in the games that they've won and the games that they've lost, they've lost very close games and they've lost because they turn the ball over. Two very similar teams, the strength of their team is defense, special teams, that's been a strength of ours at times. Their rush defense, especially. The key for us is going and putting a game together. Very good personnel, very well-coached team and a team that really I can see is progressing."
ASU is all too familar with those close finishes, although their defeats this season have been defined by ASU's struggles to get anything going when it counted most, a struggle that Graham continues to grapple with.
"You're gonna play close games in this league," coach Graham said. "It's not like we didn't play them last year, we just happened to win them last year and we did it was because we did the little things right. Those have been costly (this year), and we've had some pretty bad breaks."
Graham and Petersen only have one meeting between them since they both joined the Pac-12, but the two coaches have a lot of history stemming back to Petersen's days turning Boise State into a BCS buster while Graham coached at Tulsa.
"It's funny, Coach and I met back when I was at Tulsa. We spent a week together talking about special plays and all that stuff," Graham said. "It's interesting, we have a lot of the same special plays. You're gonna get a lot of volume with them and you have to be prepared for that."
- Antonio Longino stretched in a green jersey but didn't participate in Tuesday's practice. Graham said he's doubtful for Saturday, and will need to practice Wednesday to get that status changed.
- Armond Perry was back at practice in green. The sophomore defensive back has been out since early in the season, and the possibility of applying for a medical redshirt in order to save him a year of eligibility is being discussed.