Cougars face ASU team that has ‘a lot to play for’

Todd Graham’s seemingly eternal optimism remains unblinking, even in the midst of Arizona State’s four-game losing streak, something that became an annual tradition under former Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson.

But here’s where those slides differ: Erickson’s teams started each year with reasonably high expectations before ultimately falling apart down the stretch.

And while Graham certainly holds the Sun Devils to a higher standard than simply finishing 6-6 and making a bowl game — even in his first season as coach — he didn’t bother diminishing the value of a possible win when they host Washington State on Saturday.

“It’s always going to be about championships,” Graham said. “(But) going and winning this game and getting bowl eligible is paramount right now.”

It’s something he admits he talks about with his team. This week isn’t just about beating the Cougars. It’s about getting a sixth win and assuring bowl eligibility for the second consecutive season.

This one might feel a little different than the last, which resulted in a 6-6 regular-season finish and a loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. ASU ended the year on a five-game losing streak that ultimately cost Erickson his job.

In fact, the Sun Devils haven’t won a November game since 2010. But their four consecutive losses this season — to No. 1 Oregon, No. 17 UCLA, No. 15 Oregon State and No. 21 USC — have come against considerably better competition.

“I think their level of competition changed a little bit,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “I think part of it, they played better people. I don’t know how deep they are so I think they’re probably getting thin like a lot of teams are this time of year, but I think they’re still explosive and I think they’re a very good team.”

It’s no wonder ASU’s offensive numbers have dipped in recent weeks. And why quarterback Taylor Kelly, who guided the Sun Devils to a 5-1 start while leading Graham’s high-tempo, spread offense, has been beat up. The Sun Devils have allowed 33 sacks this season, more than all but nine teams.

“Injuries have hurt us a little bit up front,” Graham said, while noting that he still thought ASU’s 45-43 loss to UCLA was also its best offensive performance of the season.

Last week’s 38-17 loss to USC was the Sun Devils’ lowest scoring output this season, though they’ve still scored 37 or more points in five different games.

Kelly also leads ASU in carries with 113, and is third on the team in rushing with 374 yards. Cameron Marshall (428 yards) and D.J. Foster (393) lead the way there.

“Our first concern is the run game,” WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “We’ve got to do that. They’re going to run the ball.”

A win wouldn’t just mean a lot to Graham. That signature optimism is most apparent when he’s discussing his senior class, players who didn’t have to trust him or his staff, Graham said, but did anyway.

“This is a special group to me,” Graham said. “They bought into a completely different way of doing things, and I’m really grateful for them. … We’ve got a lot to play for the last two weeks.”

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