Duel in the Desert, Year One: Rodriguez and Graham Face Similar Challenges

TEMPE, AZ - DECEMBER 14: (L-R) Vice President for Athletics Lisa Love, head coach Todd Graham and President Michael Crow of the Arizona State Sun Devils pose together as they introduce their new head coach during a press conference at Sun Devil Stadium on December 14, 2011 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

A new season, a couple new head coaches. Arizonans know this dance well.

For all their differences, rivals Arizona and Arizona State have had an oddly intertwining existence as it pertains to head coaches. The programs have never made a coaching hire any more than five years apart since joining the Pacific Conference as a package deal in 1978.

Here's how it breaks down:

1980: Daryl Rogers, Larry Smith

1985: John Cooper

1987: Dick Tomey

1988: Larry Marmie

1992: Bruce Snyder

2001: Dirk Koetter, John Mackovic

2004: Mike Stoops

2007: Dennis Erickson

2012: Todd Graham, Rich Rodriguez

Todd Graham is ASU's seventh head coach since joining the conference. Rich Rodriguez is UA's fifth. Each program has had to replenish its coaching ranks for a variety of reasons. Some tenures have fallen shy of expectations (Stoops, Koetter, Erickson). Some left for more prominent opportunities (Smith, Cooper). Some...well (Mackovic).

Whatever the reason, there have been revolving doors in both Tucson and Tempe. And those revolving doors are primary contributors to each program's inconsistency. Facing Greg Byrne and Lisa Love when hiring new coaches was finding someone who could win consistently and challenge for conference titles. Byrne and now Steve Patterson are tasked with convincing their new-found leaders these are programs worth the long haul should that consistency come.

But that's a bridge to be crossed later. The present is about building that bridge.



For all UA's fault in 2011, scoring was not among them. The Wildcats ranked No. 30.8 points per game in scoring offense, running an offense with elements similar to Rodriguez's spread option.

Further, Rodriguez has a quarterback tailored to the scheme in Matt Scott.

The running back cupboard is fully stocked. Ka'Deem Carey emerged throughout his true freshman campaign, becoming a viable No. 1 option by season's end. There are a pair of power options in Taimi Tutogi and Greg Nwoko. The former proved a valuable short yardage receiving option. The latter returns from a torn ACL that kept him out of action for all of 2011, but in 2010 Nwoko scored three touchdowns in spot duty.


Cameron Marshall is a supremely talented tailback -- among the Pac-12's best, in fact. He set a Sun Devil record for rushing scores in a single season (18), and returns to give ASU offensive stability. Graham's offense at Pitt made effective use of Ray Graham before his injury; Marshall should be have a similar impact.

Dennis Erickson recruited well in his time at ASU, so while there are holes to plug the cupboard's far from bare. The defense returns safety Alden Darby (three interceptions, 51 tackles and six pass deflections) and ever-improving tackle Will Sutton. Also back is dangerous returner Jamal Miles. ASU should be able to win some field position battles.



The chief criticism of Rodriguez's final season at Michigan was that its defense ranked at the bottom of the FBS. In Arizona, he inherits a program that finished near the basement floor of FBS. Now, that can be viewed as a negative or a positive. When Jeff Casteel installs his 3-3-5 stack, there isn't room to go down so now is as good a time as any to start from scratch.

Still, with a unit lacking depth adjusting to a new scheme, the Wildcats are prone to giving up some big point totals.


Heart of the Sun Devils' No. 28 scoring offense, quarterback Brock Osweiler bolted early for the NFL, leaving a void behind center still unfilled. Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank are jockeying in the lead, with Taylor Kelly behind per Ted Miller. Whichever of the three candidates for the starting job gets the nod will be throwing to a receiving corps much different than last season's, as well. Gone are Aaron Pflugrad and Gerell Robinson.

Graham and his staff also face the challenge of refocusing attitudes. While the most notable example of Erickson's tenure is the departed Vontaze Burfict, the Sun Devils' problems manifested with a staggering 1037 yards of penalties, most in the FBS. UA had a similar problem, racking up over 65 penalty yards a contest, but the Sun Devils were the only program in the nation to exceed 70 -- and they were a hair shy of 80 (79.8). Penalties and a perceived lax attitude dampened what should have been an outstanding season for a very talented ASU roster. The Sun Devils were outscored heavily in fourth quarters, 109-84. It was the sole period ASU did not have the edge, but the difference between a sub-.500 campaign and the South championship. Included in the late meltdowns was its Territorial Cup defeat to UA.

Underachievement is a common theme for both programs, and the most crucial, underlying issue separating them from bigger, better things. Rodriguez and Graham come in at a fortuitous time with much change underway, so establishing the tone immediately by exceeding expectations is a very real possibility.

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