As far as season openers go, things could not have gone any better for Arizona State as they began 2012 with a dominant performance against the Lumberjacks, silencing a few of critics while restoring some hope amongst Sun Devil fans. However, a much tougher test awaits them now as Illinois pays a visit this Saturday, looking for their second consecutive victory over ASU.
"Obviously going back to the game, I was really, really proud of our players," said Graham Monday afternoon at his weekly press conference. "I can't say enough about just how they prepared. I challenged them to prepare for this week as well as they did for week one. And that's a big challenge. Obviously the level of competition goes way up."
Illinois, who defeated Western Michigan in their season opener on Saturday, features a dominant defense that finished seventh in the country overall in 2011. They're anchored by a formidable front seven who forced six fumbles on Saturday while their secondary came away with three interceptions in the win.
"It's probably how you want to start and we started off with a game that really gave us a lot of confidence," said Graham. " We really played well. So this game is against a quality Big Ten opponent that's very, very physical and has the type of defense that can cause you a lot of problems. They caused six fumbles last week and had three interceptions, so obviously we'll find out where we're at. But I'm not really concerned about finding out where we're at as much as I'm concerned just being 2-0. And that's what I tell our guys; if we can just have a single focus, that's the key for us. Every week we're going to have to bring it.
"Illinois' defense, I think, is special. They've probably got four players that I think are really dynamic and all eleven players are really explosive. They've got a really good back end, really good linebacker core and a really, really good defensive line. Their inside defensive tackles, and obviously their defensive ends, are all special players."
For Graham, the biggest key for victory is an aspect that he has been harping on as it is all through fall camp.
"Don't turn the football over,” Graham said, “make sure we play disciplined football - we don't have stupid penalties, and that we don't have mental errors; so no negative plays is what we're trying to do. And it's okay to punt the football. Just make sure we don't do things to beat ourselves."
After having watched film of their first victory, a few things stood out to Graham, primarily the pace of the offense. Graham has preached about having a high-octane offense since landing in Tempe back in January and despite putting 63 points on the scoreboard, the head coach still feels the Sun Devils can do better.
"It was the worst thing about week one," said Graham of the tempo offensively. "Our tempo was really, really, really slow. Again, you cut your head off to spite your face. You've got to figure out where it is that we can operate at. But we're waiting on defense. It's like we're being courteous to them, waiting for them to line up; we need to go.
"A lot of that has to do with just being able to identify fronts, being able to identify the coverages. And then our quarterback needs to be comfortable that he can go through all the things he needs to do; it was just a lot. We want ten guys going as fast as they can go and the quarterback going at his pace. What I do when we're on offense is I watch the forty second clock and when we snap the ball it should be at 25-22 seconds. It was in the teens most of the night."
Taylor Kelly, making his first career start for the Sun Devils, did his job trying to push the tempo for the Sun Devils against NAU. The redshirt sophomore completed 15-19 passes for 247 yards and one touchdown. Graham though expects the Sun Devils to continue to split reps between Taylor and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank going forward, keeping the offense diverse and used to its fullest potential.
"The score was one of the reasons why Taylor didn't play as much, no questions about that," said Graham. "I think Mike was in there on the eighth or ninth play and really how it's divided up more than anything is by package. We feel like if we can become really efficient at that, then I think t makes it kind of difficult (for the opposition). The one thing that I like is that it's not like we've got some quarterback situation where the guy goes in there and all he does is run it. We have two guys who are really talented and I think one of Eubank's strengths is his vertical passing. It makes it a very diverse offense to prepare against.
"Obviously Taylor is the primary guy. I really liked his demeanor but it didn't surprise me. It's interesting, after the game, we talk about goals and we have fourteen steps and we talk about breaking through the rock. So we have a rock with the opponent and if we beat them we have somebody that breaks the rock and then we go onto the next game. When I got into the locker room I was going to pick who was going to do that and all of our players wanted Taylor to do it, so I thought that was a good sign."
Helping matters offensively going forward will surely be the use of the Sun Devils ground attack, as they boast one of the deeper sets of running backs in the country. With an inexperienced duo at quarterback in Kelly and Eubank, the Devils will look to lean on their stable of running backs to get them through the season's opening stretch of tough games.
"It's not a real complex deal; you get the ball to your best guys and this offense is designed to where a lot of different people touch the football and that's what makes it diverse and difficult to defend," said Graham. "But we did find some things that some guys do very, very well that we need to expand upon. DJ Foster's receiving abilities are really, really special. We can really expand on that. It's been hard because we've been teaching him how to protect, how to play tailback. It's a lot for him to take in. But we need to continue to expand those things.
"Obviously we've got Jamal coming back. We know what he can do and are anxious to see that. Marion Grice was a guy that really stood out and did some really good things. Deantre Lewis and his abilities. Deantre and D.J. are really versatile, as well as Jamal, so we've got a lot of guys and it makes it challenging for you. And then we've got Kyle Middlebrooks coming back and I for one am excited for him. I think he's a playmaker and a difference maker. The key is to be adaptive and continue to be adaptive to our personnel."
The Sun Devils entered the season with more questions than answers but put forth the kind of performance against Northern Arizona that Graham feels the team can build off. With a number of new players still learning their roles on the team, their victory over the Lumberjacks was the kind of confidence boost their head coach feels was needed before they begin to move towards the more difficult part of the schedule.
"I just want to re-emphasize how proud I am of our players and how well they prepared," Graham stated. "Again, as adversity is hard to handle, so is success. We've played one game. And I'm very, very proud of them. We need to prepare and now go win a big game. This is a big game for us. It's a very critical game.
"Like I told you guys, I think the first five games of this season are just so critical to us as a program. Obviously they get harder, harder and harder and it jumps up a whole lot harder this week."
Throughout the offseason Graham has stressed the importance of achieving immediate success at Arizona State. He has said he doesn't has a three or five year timeframe, but that it's his every intention to win in year one and then to build off that success. A win over Illinois, he believes, would go along ways towards finding the success both he and the program are searching for.
"I just really believe so strongly that just from every point mentally, as a team, to kind of have buy-in into what we're doing, such a drastic change, that success is needed," he said. "Obviously in recruiting and the way we're trying to recruit and who we're trying to compete with, success is very, very important. It's just hard. If you don't have success, it's very hard. The reason I think the first part of the year is so critical is each day that we practice we get a little bit better and they become a little bit more knowledgeable. We're going to be so much further along this next spring than we are right now. So as we play each game, we're going to get better.
"I think the key for us is to stay healthy and I think we have to experience success. That's all I emphasize is just how critical week one is. How critical week two is. And especially when we roll into Utah and we start playing Pac-12 games, obviously our goal is to win it."
- The Sun Devils experimented with moving senior linebacker to safety in yesterday's practice as they look to add depth to a position in great need of some, especially with freshman Laiu Moeakiola suffering a minor leg injury in Thursday's game and his availability for Saturday being unknown still.
"I really feel like Anthony is one of our best eleven (on defense)," said Graham. "I really think that his best position is probably Spur but Chris Young is playing so well there that it's hard to take him out. So we're trying to find the right spot, but I see him being in the starting lineup. I think Anthony is really maturing. He's doing some things that are helping him and where I see him doing that is probably at linebacker.
“We looked at him a little bit (at safety) and I think he could do that if we needed him to but they told me today that Laiu is getting better, he's our backup (safety) bandit. I told (Jones) today he's backup spur, backup bandit and competing for starting SAM."
- Just a reminder that another Big Ten opponent will be visiting Sun Devil Stadium soon as Wisconsin travels out to Tempe next year in the return game of the two team's home & home series. ASU will also play Notre Dame in Dallas' Cowboys Stadium in 2013 as well.