Published November 05, 2012
TEMPE, Ariz. – After Arizona State lost to UCLA two weeks ago, coach Todd Graham was adamant that this year's team was nothing like the one that went into a tailspin last season.
Even after the Sun Devils' losing streak reached three with a road loss to Oregon State on Saturday, Graham still believes a repeat of 2011 isn't on the way.
Confident as the coach might be, the first-year coach also understands the reality of the Sun Devils' situation: with just three games left and one of the nation's most prolific offenses up next, they're running out of time.
"We've just got to win a game," Graham said on Monday.
The Graham era in the desert certainly got off to a flying start, the wins coming quickly and easily.
But after opening 5-1, the Sun Devils were blown out by No. 2 Oregon and followed with a 45-43 home loss to UCLA.
Hoping to get back on track against Oregon State, Arizona State instead got in its own way, plagued by too many mental mistakes, a rare so-so game by quarterback Taylor Kelly and a difficult day on special teams to lose 36-26 to the 13th-ranked Beavers.
So far, this season is looking — at least on paper — an awful lot like last year, when Arizona State opened 5-1, was blown out by Oregon and closed with five straight losses.
The Sun Devils (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12) have only lost three straight at this point and seem to have a much better demeanor, not to mention confidence, than a season ago, so it's not exactly the same situation.
Still, the season is winding down and Arizona State has just three more chances to win a sixth game: at No. 21 Southern California, at home against Washington State and a season finale against rival Arizona.
Challenging? Certainly, but more opportunity than burden in Graham's mind.
"They've had plenty of opportunities the past three weeks to implode or take a step backward and they haven't done that," Graham said. "The season's still not over. We've got three games left to play."
The past three games were not easy.
Oregon, like it has almost every opponent this season, stomped the Sun Devils from the start on its way to a 43-21 win on Oct. 18.
The last two games, Arizona State had its chances.
Against UCLA, the Sun Devils had their best offensive game of the season, rolling up 486 yards as Kelly threw for four touchdowns. Problem was, Arizona State's defense couldn't stop the Bruins, allowing them to score 45 points and drive for the winning score in the final 93 seconds.
Arizona State followed its best offensive game with one of its worst, unable to get anything going against Oregon State's defense in the second half while Kelly labored all day, hitting 22 of 41 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown with an interception.
"You have to give the opponent some credit," Graham said. "We played three really good football teams the last three weeks."
Tough as the opponents may have been, the Sun Devils lost all three and that's all that really matters to a fickle fan base.
Arizona State has struggled at times to gain a foothold in the crowded Phoenix sports market, in part because there are so many competitors for fans' dollars, but also because there are so many other activities available, from year-round golf to hiking and biking.
Now that the blistering heat of the summer has been replaced by mild temperatures, the draw to go outside is even stronger.
Graham did a superb job of attracting attention to the football program, both when he first arrived and through the early-and-successful part of the season.
That support could wane quickly if the Sun Devils keep losing.
"This a great place and we're obviously just getting started here," Graham said. "We've obviously had three tough weeks, but let's get to the end of the season and evaluate where we're at. Just don't give up on us."