Brad Denny of House of Sparky joined Desert Swarm to talk about the Duel in the Desert. Both the Sun Devils and Wildcats embarked on new eras in 2012, making this year's battle for the Territorial Cup particularly intriguing. We gained insight on ASU's thought about Todd Graham, building to the future, outstanding defensive lineman Will Sutton and much more.
Be sure to read our end of the Q&A over at House of Sparky.
Q: How do you gauge Todd Graham's first season? Piggybacking off that, how did perception of the hire change (or gain validation) from the hot start? Have the struggles since changed that?
House of Sparky: Despite the recent freakout that much of the fanbase went through during the four-game losing streak, this season has been quite a success. He inherited a program in utter disarray, and within a few months had secured an impressive recruiting class, appeased a fan and alumni base that was near revolt and infused optimism in the community. Since then, he's had the team show traits—mental toughness, discipline, giving 100% on every snap—that had long been lost. Those point to a bright future.
The Sun Devil fanbase is very fairweather by nature, so during the 5-1 start, people were ready to deify Graham and turn his "Speaking Victory" mantra into the new gospel. During the losing streak—which was to a very tough run of Oregon, UCLA, at Oregon State and at USC—there was a large segment that began the nonsensical talk of wondering if Graham was a mistake. A win over Arizona, regardless of the bowl performance, would put a major statement on what has been a great first year.
Q: How much has the injury against Oregon impacted Will Sutton?
HoS: His injury completely changed the face of the defense, as losing a legitimate All-American contender tends to do. Without his dominating presence in the middle, the Sun Devil attack was often neutralized, and with that pressure held at bay, teams were able to make plays downfield in the passing game and find running lanes that typically were closed down. Thankfully for ASU, Sutton now seems to be back to his former self, and the Sun Devils will need him at 100% in order to have a shot at slowing down the Wildcat offense.
Q: What factors have gone into the RB situation, with Cameron Marshall's workload cutting back from last season and DJ Foster getting opportunities? Who gives ASU the best chance to win?
HoS: Heading into the year, it was expected that Marshall would build upon his 1,000-yard, 18-touchdown junior year. However, nagging leg injuries and a battle with fumble slowed him down early, which allowed D.J. Foster and Marion Grice to thrive. That duo of newcomers—Foster a true freshman and Grice, a juco transfer—has emerged as the team's top offensive weapons. Foster is an explosive home run threat that is used out of the backfield and in the slot, and no running back in the nation has more receiving touchdowns than Grice's eight. Marshall has shown signs of getting back on track as a dynamic runner in recent weeks, and his final regular season game may be the long-awaited breakout.
Q: Before that monstrous game last week, how much push was there to give Mike Bercovici a look? When can we expect to see him - and in that same vein, do you feel Kelly's the best fit for the system, in general?
HoS: Bercovici was expected to win the job as the team entered fall camp, but he continually violated Graham's No. 1 rule of protecting the ball with too many interceptions. That opened the door for Kelly, and as a result, Bercovici has not seen the field this year and will redshirt. With Kelly, Michael Eubank and top recruit Josh Dobbs coming in next year, Bercovici may next see the field at another school.
As for Kelly, he's vastly surpassed expectations this year, going from an afterthought in the three-man quarterback derby to a legitimate threat to be the long-term answer. He has good, not great, physical tools, but his intangibles are incredible. He's shown great poise, command of the offense and a clutch playmaking ability. As with any first-year starter, he's had some major growing pains, but I think he's shown enough to go into spring ball as the clear starter.
Q: What has most impressed you about the new coaching staff?
HoS: The last few years of the Dennis Erickson era were plagued by a stark lack of discipline. Whether it was sloppy play, missed chances or penalties (ASU led the nation in penalties in two of the last three years), ASU was often their own worst enemy.
In less than a year, the entire culture of the program has changed completely. Major progress has been made in all areas, and as Graham becomes more entrenched in the program, it figures that those attributes will only be strengthened.
Q: With Graham and Rodriguez both seeking to establish his program as the premiere one in Arizona, how significant is winning the Territorial Cup?
HoS: It's huge and a critical necessity in any season, but with each school having new regimes, it's taken to new heights. Both coaches already have succeeded in surpassing the preseason expectations, re-energizing their fans and laying the foundation for future success. But that will be incomplete without the Territorial Cup in their possession. While this is not a "must win" in the traditional sense, it comes as close to one as a first-year head coach can face.