Graham welcomes challenge of Wisconsin game
ASU’s head coach senses urgency in the team’s preparations
The next four games on deck are undoubtedly a daunting schedule for any team to take on. Todd Graham and his mantra of ‘Any Challenge’ will definitely be put to the test as ASU faces a few of the Top 25 teams. Coming off an impressive 55-0 win against Sacramento State, Todd Graham and the Arizona State football team have shifted their focus to the Big Ten champions, No. 20 Wisconsin.
The Badgers are 2-0 and have dominated their previous two opponents, not allowing a point in eight quarters of play. According to the Arizona State head coach playing a team the caliber of Wisconsin captures the essence of what this year’s Sun Devils are trying to accomplish.
“Obviously we have a scheduling philosophy for what we are about,” Graham said. “I think that when I first got here I was concerned that we’d be ready to play that schedule, and we are fixing to find out. I think we have progressed ahead of schedule so far and I’m excited to coach. I was a lot more nervous last week, I think nine 1 AA teams won the first week, those are the ones that make you nervous as heck.
“But, I got into this because I’m a competitor and I’m excited and focused on Wisconsin. We play the Big 10 champion, a Pac-12 champion and Norte Dame who played for the National Championship, so that’s a great opportunity and great exposure for our program and a great opportunity to take our program to the next level.”
For Arizona State, addressing the run defense over the offseason was a must, knowing what laid ahead with strong rushing attacks such as Wisconsin and Stanford on the schedule. Wisconsin has stayed true to form and is ranked third in the country in rush offense, averaging an astronomical 390 yards over their first two games.
“There was a great sense of urgency throughout camp,” Graham said of his run defense. “We knew exactly what we’d be facing in week two. This is as good a running football team and as good of a big play team that we are going to play. I think people correlate that with Wisconsin, they were fourth in the country last year in plus 40 (yard) plays, that’s a lot of big plays. We will find out exactly where we are at when it comes to our run defense and I’ve got confidence in them.”
Wisconsin has pretty much always been known for two things, running the football well and playing stout defense. As mentioned above, the Badgers haven’t allowed a single point in their first two games. Graham said that nothing is going to change from the Devils’ offensive standpoint; they are going to focus on taking care of the football, establishing the run and taking what the opponent gives them.
Graham has been talking about how impressed he has been with his team’s maturity level this year, and how he thinks his team is much more prepared for opponents like Wisconsin because of their dedication.
“Much of their film study is voluntary,” Graham said. “I see iPads everywhere, I see guys are looking at their corrections every night and looking at opponent film, and that was not the case last year, it was a learning process. I like how they are working, I like their maturity, it’s a much more mature and calm sideline during the game. I’m really pleased, Taylor (Kelly) and (Alden) Darby were almost the unanimous captains and I think that really shows clear direction and clear leadership. It’s just a different feel from this group. It’s just the little things and how they approach meetings and the classroom, and they are eager to learn.
“We have made more strides in our character development, our relationship development and our leadership development than we have from a scheme standpoint. I think that’s what has helped us be a little bit ahead of schedule and prepare us. No matter what in the next four weeks, we are going to face adversity one way or another. I felt like since I’ve got here, there hasn’t been a week in which we haven’t gotten better. Do I think we are there yet? No, we have a lot of work to do and a long way to go. But I do think we are in the process of the players taking over their team. There’s a lot less negativity because there’s a lot less lack of focus.”
Junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong showed flashes of what he is capable of against Sacramento State, with six catches and a touchdown. Graham said that Strong is a player with unlimited potential and what makes him even better is his attitude.
“I thought he had a very solid first game, but not even close to what he can be,” Graham said. “I like Jaelen’s attitude, he’s very grateful, very gracious. Somewhere around the middle of the fourth quarter, he stopped me on the sideline and said, ‘coach I just want to thank you for bringing me here and giving me this opportunity.’
“I have got a lot of respect for the character and the type of work ethic he has. He’s a guy that we are expecting great things from and it’s only going to get better every week.”
When senior Chris Young went down in the first half against Sacramento State, the Sun Devils filled that hole with a linebacker-by-committee approach for the rest of the game and didn’t miss a beat. Obviously with Young on the field, the team is a better unit, but knowing that guys like Salamo Fiso and Grandville Taylor are fully able to step in and contribute makes it easier on Graham.
“Salamo is probably the guy that catches my eye more than any linebacker,” Graham said. “He is a very good player; he is going to be a great linebacker for us. I consider him a starter. We’ve got more depth at that linebacker position, I think Chris is a dynamic player and Grandville (Taylor) is a guy that every time he gets in there he impresses me.”
Graham went on to mention that he thinks Fiso, Taylor and Carlos Mendoza will all get significant playing time this year in the linebacker rotation.
Both Carl Bradford and Will Sutton had fairly quiet performances from a statistical standpoint against Sacramento State last week. The Hornets’ play calling was the main reason behind that, according to Graham.
“From a sack standpoint, (Sacramento State) they were not going to put themselves into a position where they were going to be sacked, and I think that was smart,” Graham said. “It was all three-step quick game, getting the ball out. Carl played really solid and so did Will. I liked how unselfish both of those guys played. We like what we are doing with the ODD stuff and Carl was very disruptive with the ODD package.
“They both played very solid, I just don’t think there were a whole lot of opportunities in the game because it got out of hand fast for them to do a whole lot. They are going to make their plays. Carl is much improved from where he was last year. He’s probably matured more than anybody else on defense.”
The game kicks off at 7:30 on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium and will be televised on ESPN.