Todd Graham merged into the left lane again Thursday and metaphorically dropped his foot to the floorboard.
Following Arizona State’s final practice of the week in advance of Saturday’s game against Colorado at Sun Devil Stadium, Graham reminded everyone and perhaps especially himself that full throttle is the only way he knows how to drive a football program.
I kind of feel like our team has to have one personality and it needs to be aggressive.
“Sometimes we’re like, ‘heck we’re glad we got through that play without a fake punt,’” Graham said. “You can’t do that. We’ve got to do the same thing defensively, we’ve got to attack and be who we are. That’s the other thing I told (offensive coordinator Mike) Norvell, ‘I’m going to tell you something, we’re going to be aggressive.’ It’s fourth down and less than a foot, we’re going to go for it. We’re going to play for a win and play with confidence.”
In all facets, Graham thinks his team hasn’t been aggressive enough through five games. It’s a word he used no fewer than a half dozen times in his post-practice visit with reporters. He regretted not going for a fourth and 1 on offense in the first quarter against Notre Dame and lamented his senior punt returner Robert Nelson not attacking the football, even on fair catches.
“That’s who we are,” Graham said. “I kind of feel like our team has to have one personality and it needs to be aggressive. We need to be aggressive in punt return instead of just trying to survive. We need to get after it, we need to attack. That’s our style, that’s who we are.”
Late in the fourth quarter, Nelson let a punt drop the turf at AT&T Stadium for the second time and it proved costly. Instead of fielding it around the ASU 17 yard line, Notre Dame downed it at the 1 yard line and junior quarterback Taylor Kelly threw an interception returned for a touchdown from the end zone under duress on the following play.
Even on defense, where Graham is known for his pressure-heavy philosophy – Notre Dame color commentator Mike Mayock said the Sun Devils blitz more from the perimeter than any team he’s watched this season – he wants to double down. This, despite the fact that ASU had no sacks against the Irish and opponents have changed their gameplans to protect their quarterbacks with an extra blocker or two as well as get the ball out of their quarterbacks’ hands quicker
“That ain’t who we are, that ain’t what we do,” Graham said of any creeping conservative philosophy. “We’ve got to be more aggressive and I’m talking about from a coaching standpoint.”
With opponents acutely aware of ASU’s success last season as one of the nation’s best teams in sacks and tackles for loss, they’ve not only adjusted their protections and play-calling, they are making more pre-snap changes. In losses to Stanford and Notre Dame, and even in the win against USC, the Sun Devils saw opposing quarterbacks changing the play at the line of scrimmage very frequently after identifying where the blitz was likely to come from pre-snap.
These audibles led to defensive pre-snap audibles – usually with ASU changing the blitz from one player to another — and elevated the chess match, resulting in some delay of game penalties and timeouts
But still no sacks.
Through five games this season ASU has just seven sacks. It’s not much ahead of the pace set by senior All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton set last season on his own, when he finished with 13.5 sacks.
The inability to get to the quarterback on pressures has created more one-on-one opportunities for receivers in the ASU secondary and at times they’ve taken advantage. Graham doesn’t sound the least bit deterred, however, and he certainly isn’t going to change his approach.
“I’d like to see us come out and get four takeaways on defense and shut somebody out, shut somebody down,” Graham said. “I’d like to see us on special teams block a punt, return a kickoff for a touchdown. I’d like to see us be 5-for-5 on fourth downs and not even hesitate to attack like that.”
The proverbial hammer is certainly still down.