The job of preparing for Washington State’s unique offensive style this week has provided as subtext some interesting insight into how Arizona State coach Todd Graham developed his football philosophy.
It’s no secret Graham, a defensive coach by trade, has demanded his offenses be predicated on running the football effectively in order to set up play action passes. He’s repeated that identity ad nauseam in the nearly two-years since he arrived in Tempe.
“I can’t stand to be in a game where we’re having to throw the ball,” Graham said. “We want to throw the ball because we want to.”
But why is that his preferred approach?
In discussing Washington State coach Mike Leach’s so-called Air Raid Offense — which earned its name because it’s extraordinarily pass dominant – Graham provided the answer Monday and it unsurprisingly stems from his roots in Texas, where he began his career as a high school coach.
“I can figure out ways to stop things if you’re getting the ball thrown on you,” Graham said. “If you’re just getting the ball ran over you, in 28 years (as a coach) I don’t have an answer for that. It’s kind of like Darrell Royal, when you throw the ball three things can happen to you and two of them are bad.”
For those unfamiliar – and many in Arizona understandably will be – Royal was the legendary former coach at the University of Texas whose program pioneered the wishbone and used it to win two of his three national championships at the school.
One of the bad things that tends to happen the more teams throw the ball is interceptions, and the Cougars have witnessed that first hand. They’ve averaged 58.7 pass attempts per game this season and one interception every 24.7 attempts, which is more than two turnovers per game just in their passing game.
To further contextualize that, Washington State’s 19 interceptions are not only more than any other team it the Pac-12, it is more turnovers in total than ASU (10) and every other team in the conference save Cal. It ranks 10th in turnover margin.
“The thing that’s hurt them this year and it’s real simple, it ain’t hard to find, is turning the football over,” Graham said. “And that’s what we’ve got to have happen. We’ve got to create turnovers and take care of the ball on offense.”
Even more than he talks about his desire to be a run first offense, Graham wears out terms like “discipline” – ASU is the least penalized team in the Pac-12 – and “ball security” – the Sun Devils have two more turnovers than league leader Arizona – on a near daily basis.
The Sun Devils rank third in turnover margin in the conference and have only lost three fumbles on the season, while Washington State is 10th in the category, and the pass dominant style also makes it tougher to finish drives in the red zone, when the field gets tighter. Unsurprisingly, the Cougars are 11th in red zone offense.
“I can’t stand to be in a game where we’re having to throw the ball,” Graham said. “We want to throw the ball because we want to.
“I want to be one of the best rushing teams in the country because that’s what makes it work.”
In the games ASU has lost this season its run game didn’t work, and Graham was the first to point that out Monday.
It’s not that Graham doesn’t respect Washington State. He’s made reference to how improved the Cougars are in Leach’s second year a handful of times in the last season. It’s just that he’d rather play them than a lot of other teams.
“This is a challenge this week, I don’t mean it’s not a challenge,” he said. “If I had my choice to play a passing team or run team, I’d rather play a passing team because it’s easier to fix than when you’re just getting the ball run over you.”
That’s something Royal did a lot of at Texas and Graham wants to do at ASU, as defensive minded as he may be.