CORVALLIS, Ore. – Three weeks ago, Arizona State Head Coach Todd Graham found himself in a situation he’d been in countless times before — facing a perennial conference power with a chance to vault to the top of the divisional standings after a great start to the season.
Three weeks later in western Oregon, Graham found himself fighting for something different, something he’d clung to for the majority of last season and well into his next.
With his job and the Sun Devils’ postseason hopes on the line, Graham orchestrated a dominant 40-24 victory over the hapless Oregon State Beavers, ensuring that his tenure in Tempe would last at least one more week and that ASU wouldn’t miss a bowl game in back to back years for the first time since 2008-09.
“(We) came in and dominated a team to get our sixth win,” Graham said on reaching postseason eligibility. “...fifth time in six years, I’m really proud of our guys. That’s a big accomplishment for our program.”
ASU running back Demario Richard, too, seemed to be fighting to extend the Sun Devils’ season and his collegiate career. He tallied his third straight game with over 100 yards, finally proving to be the key component of the Arizona State offense and one it would be on life support without.
“He’s having a great senior year,” Graham said of his senior playmaker. “I really think that he and DJ (Calhoun) have been two guys that have really emerged their senior years and really haven’t said much, just been leaders with their actions.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins joined the long list of ASU personnel that desperately wanted this victory, but not for himself.
“Guys like this, they come with a passion every game,” Wilkins said, pointing toward Richard during the post-game press conference. “Personally, I wanted to make sure that we got this win...they lay their heart, blood, sweat and their tears on the field every single time, I wanted to make sure they knew we were gonna go get a win.”
The Sun Devils dominated the Beavers for the majority of the game Saturday afternoon. ASU quickly jumped out to a 16-0 lead while out-gaining Oregon State 219 to 37 during the first quarter. They then out gained OSU during the second and the third quarters before falling a bit flat in the fourth due to a Beavers onside kick recovery and a turnover.
Richard says the yardage explosion had much to do with the Sun Devils’ emphasis on increasing their offensive pace, something Graham has been preaching all week.
“We knew our goal was to come out and play fast,” Richard said. “We’ve seen them on film, they’ve had a hard time getting lined up and with tempo. We came out and pushed the tempo, it showed up in the first quarter, and the second quarter, and the third quarter.”
Graham and offensive coordinator Billy Napier, after plenty of play-calling and (likely) communication errors last week in Los Angeles, pulled out all the stops to beat the Beavers. Redshirt freshman reciever Frank Darby made three grabs for 48 yards and freshman wideout Curtis Hodges caught his first touchdown of the season — an impressive diving effort that was reeled in by his outstretched right arm.
“I thought it was awesome,” Graham said of the youth involvement. “I thought they did a great job...I was really excited for Curtis to get his first collegiate touchdown, he was really excited.”
With everything to lose and haunting memories of seasons’ past hanging in the brisk November air in Corvallis, the Sun Devils managed to escape the northwest with a convincing victory.
Unfortunately for Arizona State, it won’t be enough to alleviate the immense pressure that will be felt by all within the program to avenge an embarrassing loss at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats last year in Tucson.
Next weekend’s Territorial Cup will be more than a chance for ASU to hit the seven-win mark, more than an opportunity to finish the season on a high note and more than a historic rivalry between two in-state programs eternally pitted against each other.
It will be the best indicator of the direction that Arizona State football will be headed toward in the future, and will likely determine whether or not Todd Graham will be a part of it.