Even the most-cynical fans of the Arizona State Sun Devils couldn’t have seen this coming.
It’s one thing to lose a stretch of conference games when injuries have zapped the team of many of its better athletes. Especially in the Pac-12, where there’s only one or two teams a year that qualify as cupcakes.
But it’s a completely new beast to end the season as listless as ASU did in Friday night’s 56-35 loss in Tucson. Against a team whose most recent victories came in September against Grambling State and Hawaii, the Sun Devils laid a multitude of eggs in Arizona Stadium and gift-wrapped the Wildcats their only conference win of the season and the Territorial Cup.
In a stretch of six weeks, we’ve gone from drawing up scenarios for ASU to climb its way back into the Pac-12 South title race to enjoying bowl season without the Sun Devils for the first time since 2010. ASU’s 2016 season is easily the worst of the Todd Graham era, and the days of competing for a Pac-12 Championship that we never knew would be so fleeting are well in the rearview mirror.
It’s time for re-evaluation, of both the people who lead the program as well as the type of players the program recruits. Since Taylor Kelly took ASU to the Pac-12 title game in 2013, the only constant that the program has had has been its consistent regression. Losses like this hurt more because they’re both shocking when considering the circumstances and disturbing when considering the opponent.
Throughout the course of this season we’ve tried to resist becoming prisoners of the moment, but this moment says more about the state of the program than we knew we could get out of a Friday night in Tucson. We mustn’t allow ourselves to write off regression as anything but, and whether or not Ray Anderson makes the decision that many fans have been clamoring for, the time has come for the program to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
1. Manny wasn’t the problem, but he isn’t the answer either:
Todd made his bed with Manny Wilkins to start this season, and continued to sleep in it even when Wilkins’ production dipped over the second half of the season. Graham kept his redshirt-sophomore quarterback in against the Wildcats, and the limitations in his game that were exposed earlier in the year manifested themselves again against Arizona.
Despite receiving pretty good protection all night, Wilkins was only able to effectively-operate the offense when he was making quick throws on high-percentage routes. That resulted in 42 completions, but failed to put together chunk yardage, only averaging 6.4 yards per pass. Wilkins struggled to create when he escaped the pocket, and having to rely on 10-12 play drives wasn’t repeatable enough to climb back in contention with the Wildcats.
What we’ve seen out of Manny over the last few weeks is a far cry from the Wilkins who was hurdling defenders and making them look foolish early in the year. He hasn’t developed like a young quarterback needs to, he’s simply gotten the most out of what his athleticism allows him and hasn’t made the necessary progressions as a pocket passer to make up for when his athleticism can’t win games. When the rushing attack isn’t working—which it wasn’t Friday—ASU needed Wilkins to be able to carry the offense on his back. He can’t do that. This offense is too turn-key to allow its weakest link to be at the quarterback position.
2. Somebody has to go on the defensive side:
In retrospect, it’s surprising we didn’t see a preemptively-made move to let go one of the defensive assistant coaches or defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. Placing the blame on someone else for one of the worst units to ever call itself a Pac-12 defense might have taken some of the pressure off Graham.
But that wasn’t what happened, and now Graham might end up sinking with his ship. ASU spent most of the year giving up home run passing plays, but decided to shift its atrociousness over to the rushing side of things on Friday, allowing 511 yards to the Wildcats to account for roughly 20 percent of Arizona’s entire rushing total for the 2016 season.
There’s always going to be the argument that better recruits will elicit better results, but the problem is that we’re seeing Graham’s best recruits getting their tails handed to them right now. This goes back to the idea that regression can’t be accepted, and the continued decline of the defense’s ability to even keep ASU within competitive range of its opponents is inexcusable. If Graham doesn’t go, it’ll be because he already sent a good amount of his defensive assistants packing.
3. A ‘Thank You’ to Frederick Gammage, Jr.:
Everything may be gloom right now, but it’s still the holiday season so let’s say our thank you to the former walk-on receiver who won’t be suiting up for the Sun Devils in 2017. Okay, there’s a few players that deserve some recognition as they ride off into the copper sunset. Tim White’s one of them, the drastically-underused weapon. He’ll hopefully get a chance to earn his way onto an NFL roster next year. Same goes for Villami Latu and Matt Haack. And while we don’t want to think about it, Kalen Ballage has some thinking to do regarding his NFL future. So let’s be thankful for him, too.
But I want to give special attention to Gammage, who worked his way from a walk on playing with the scout team to a scholarship player and ended his collegiate career with 12 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown against the Wildcats. This program has had plenty of players walk through its doors that either leave an impact with their play on the field or their work off of it. Gammage falls into that latter category for being an example of where hard work and patience can take you, but on his final night of college football, his impact was felt on the gridiron too.
4. So... do we really want change?
I’m writing this while watching SportsCenter, and the news that Tom Herman is officially taking the job at Texas just ran across the ticker at the bottom of the screen. Ed Orgeron was also named as LSU’s head coach moving forward this morning.
Neither of those have anything to do with ASU, except that they do.
You all saw the emotion on the faces of Texas players over the last couple of weeks as they’ve seen the writing on the wall for Charlie Strong, and the same strength of emotion shown by the LSU players for Coach O. Those players loved their coaches, but the bottom line won out in both situations regardless. Strong didn’t win with his talent, and so Texas brought in the hottest coach on the market. Orgeron won with his bunch, and the Tigers rewarded him by removing the interim tag from his title.
But the over-arching theme from these, and how it connects to ASU, is that recruiting is always the priority when considering the removal of a head coach. Herman’s known as one of the country’s top recruiters, making him extremely valuable for a blue-chip program looking to climb back to the level of the elites. And LSU recruits who were either committed to the Tigers or interested in the program when Les Miles was leading it have been vocal in their stance that they liked what Orgeron’s done since Miles was let go.
What ASU needs to avoid is making change for the sake of change. Todd Graham hasn’t built ASU into a perennial title contender, but he has improved the program’s recruiting reach and is at least getting in the door of elite recruits with fair consistency. If Ray Anderson moves to let Graham go, he better have an option in mind that can take recruiting to the next level and can bring the excitement back to the program. We’ve all been waiting for Graham to wake up the sleeping giant that is Sun Devil football, and the delay in tangible results is justifiably frustrating. But there’s no telling if there is a coach available that can, and that’s the toughest thing to come to terms with.