“They gave us everything that they had and more on Saturday,” Graham said of his squad. “I am very proud of the character, the toughness and the perseverance that they showed. Obviously, we came up short and that was tough but I am very, very proud of our football team and especially just the toughness that they showed. The amount of adversity that we faced was a bunch.
“We hadn’t faced any adversity until this game. We faced an awful lot in one game. I think going on the road, their crowd and the cadence on third downs were difficult. We obviously had too many penalties. We had five procedure penalties. I thought we played a clean game other than the procedure penalties. We had a couple personal foul penalties. One of them was just an inadvertent facemask but the other one I won’t comment on.”
The aspect that Graham was most disappointed with in the loss to the Tigers was special teams, a group that fumbled a punt return, mishandled both a PAT snap and punt snap and allowed several yards of returns setting up Missouri for short scoring drives.
“We have to do a better job at taking care of the ball,” Graham remarked. “I mean the guy laid a big hit on Jamal (Miles). It was definitely a contact fumble but we just have to take care of the ball better. That was tough. We had two snaps, one fumbled extra-point snap that was right in our hands. You have to take the ball. We haven’t done anything like that.
“I think you can also contribute some of that to the atmosphere, the setting and maybe some nerves. One of the things that we did by not playing (Michael) Bercovici, he’s our best holder, so you have Ryan (Woods) in there and he’s doing a great job he just dropped the ball. Also, Josh (Hubner) on the punt just dropped the ball. It was a little bit of a high snap, not too high, but he just dropped the ball. He did a great job at getting it off. If you take the four turnovers, and that was pretty much a turnover as well, you hold the ball and kick it, we would have probably gone into overtime.”
Arizona State’s offensive play calling in the fourth quarter of the Missouri game came under scrutiny, especially during a goal line sequence where quarterbacks Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank were shuttling in and out through all four downs, lining up at times in shotgun formation and with senior running back Cameron Marshall watching from the sidelines.
“We get the ball and it’s first and goal, second and goal, and we have a script for what we’re going to run,” Graham explained. “Obviously in the game, I’m working extensively with the kicking game. Me and Coach Lorig run the special teams. I’m very, very involved defensively. When we’re on offense, I’m talking to him (Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell) about what the defense is doing. Coach calls the plays. That’s what his job is. I think when you have someone with total trust and belief, like I do with Coach Randolph and Coach Norvell, you let them do their job. The same thing goes for Coach Lorig and special teams.
“I can tell you that I’m involved in everything. Everything we’re doing is what I believe in. Obviously, you’re going to call plays and when they work, everybody thinks you’re a genius. Last week, everyone was talking about what a genius we are on offense. This week they wonder why you called what you called, or why you did what you did. We’re going to do the things that we believe in. The reason why we didn’t win is because we had too many mistakes. That’s coaching and leadership. We have to do a better job preparing on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“There are some things that we’ve talked about and looked at that we can do better. Out of everything in that game, the thing that gives me great confidence is that our players played well enough to win that game. We didn’t get it done as a coaching staff. That’s part of learning and getting better. Every decision that’s made, I promise you, I’m responsible for.”
Graham said that he plans to stick with the two-quarterback system, as his confidence in both of the Sun Devils’ signal callers is unwavering.
“We go down and score and nothing is said about it but we didn’t, so we evaluate everything we do,” Graham stated. “I have tremendous confidence in our guys so we are not looking and starting to question what we are doing. Taylor Kelly is our quarterback. We have a great deal of confidence in him, I have a great deal of confidence in Michael Eubank and if we continue to play him it will pay off for us big time because he is going to be a big-time player.
“We have gone back and discussed that. We have discussed it quite a bit and that is what you do every time you lose a close game. Like I said, that is on us and we just have to get better as coaches. Games like this you go back and look and I really believe it goes back to coaching. You win games with great players and you lose close games because we didn’t get it done as a coaching staff.”
Another area of concern was that Cameron Marshall, despite starting the Missouri contest had just four carries on Saturday night after posting nine and 12 carries respectively in the two prior games. Graham admitted that he would like to give the senior more touches, but there are some factors that are hindering Marshall.
“He missed a lot of practice in preseason camp,” Graham commented. “He had a hamstring that was bothering him and it slowed the development a little bit. He is a guy that we want to get the ball to. We have other guys that we want to get the ball to, too. We want to get the ball to Jamal (Miles), we want to get the ball to D.J. Foster, we want to get the ball to Marion Grice and we want to get the ball to Chris Coyle.
“We want to get the ball to whoever we need to, to win games but we want to get him more involved in what we are doing and get him going.”
The overall defensive effort from ASU allowed the Sun Devils to be at arm’s length from Missouri and have a viable chance at the end of the game to complete the comeback. One player who stood out in Graham’s mind was defensive lineman Mike Pennel who served a one-game suspension last week as he failed to meet team standards.
“I was very proud of Mike coming back off of a game that he was suspended,” Graham noted, “and not just how he played but the attitude from which he practiced and the attitude he competed in. Mike was a guy that really exceeded my expectations and I am very proud, again it’s just one game, of the attitude he approached practice with and I sure hope we are getting a buy-in there because he can be a special player for us.
“I think at the end of the day it is that there is one way we are going to do things and for some people it comes easier than others. In a very short period of time, we have had a lot of newness. I am new. We brought in a lot of new players. It’s been quicker for some and not as quick for others. The reason why he hasn’t played as much is that I am not going to change one single thing. We are going to have one vision as a program for what we are doing and I think that kids need that. They need that structure. They need that kind of vision and that kind of accountability. That is what is going to pay off for us down the road.”
What was even a more pleasant surprise was the play of converted running back Deantre Lewis who lined up on game day as a defender for the very first time in his ASU career, after practicing for just one week on this side of the ball.
“He did a really good job,” Graham said. “I was really proud of him. He obviously didn’t have much time to learn what he was doing. There are some complexities that he was playing in two different packages. I asked him before the game if he had any idea what he was doing and he said, ‘Yeah.’ He did a really good job. He’s a great athlete and he wants to play.
“As he learns, his role will continue to increase. I see him being a guy that plays for us. I think he did a good job. We’re so thin in the safety position and in our nickel positions up around the ball on third down. I really feel like it will be a good position for him. I’m not saying that he won’t play some plays on offense but he’s going to practice defense. I think he’s excited about it. There are very few running backs that I’ve known throughout the years that would be willing to do that and I admire that. I’m very proud of him being so unselfish and being a team guy. I do think that he’s going to get better and better.”
Graham also singled out Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Jaxon Hood, Alden Darby and Keelan Johnson for their performance against the Tigers.
Graham called ASU’s next opponent Utah, as one of the best-coached teams in the Pac-12, and feels that they will pose quite a challenge to his squad despite losing their starting quarterback, Jordan Wynn, who retired.
“He was a really special quarterback but they have a pretty much returning starter there who played all last year,” Graham said of current starting signal caller Jon Hays. “Offensively, their receivers and running backs are very good. I think their receiving core is very good and very comparable to Missouri’s play. So they have big play capabilities. Where they have struggled a little bit is on the offensive line. They have had some injures and had to shuffle a couple people around but I don’t think it changes their offense as much.
“It is said that you prepare for one guy or another guy but people don’t change their entire offensive for one person. I thought it did hurt them because I really thought Jordan Wynn was very special. But we are not going against an inexperienced quarterback or freshman quarterback, we have a guy who is very knowledgeable and has very good understanding of what they are doing offensively. This is the strength of their football team.
“We have to correct the mistakes we made last week but our guys know that they have to start counting this week. Our goal and our focus is conference play and winning championships and it starts this week.”