Emotional finale ends on sour note for Graham and ASU as they fall to NC State in the Sun Bowl
By Michael Baron // Football Beat Writer for Blaze Sports
EL PASO, TX — With Todd Graham in his final game at the helm of the Sun Devil program, ASU fell to North Carolina State, 52-31, in the 84th edition of the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Graham wraps up his ASU career with a 46-32 record, the wins third-most in program history, trailing only Frank Kush and Bruce Snyder.
“It’s been a great honor for me to have been the head football coach at Arizona State,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “These kids mean a lot to me. That was pretty tough, about the toughest thing I’ve done in that locker room.”
ASU started slow right out of the gates as just two plays into the game, sophomore wide receiver Kyle Williams fumbled after catching the ball and NC State’s defense recovered.
“We came out too slow, and you can’t come out slow against a team like that,” senior running back Demario Richard said. “They have a lot of veterans on defense and we made a lot of mistakes.”
ASU fell behind 21-3, but a touchdown strike as redshirt-junior quarterback Manny Wilkins found sophomore wide receiver N’Keal Harry from six yards out pulled ASU within 11 points.
A major turning point in NC State’s favor, though, occurred as the Devils were down 21-10 with 2:08 remaining in the second quarter.
ASU made a head-scratching decision to attempt an onside kick, trying to catch the Wolfpack’s special teams unit off guard. Instead, the Wolfpack recovered the football at the ASU 49-yard line and, five plays later, NC State quarterback Ryan Finley found wide receiver Jakobi Meyers from 25 yards out for a score.
“We actually didn’t execute the kick the right way,” Graham said. “When we would kick it, we run it with motion, so there was confusion. My idea was we were going to have to kick the ball off to them at half and we felt like there was something we could get.”
ASU trailed NC State 28-10 at the half and the third quarter did not give any indications of a comeback. Wilkins would be picked off twice and a three-and-out later, the Sun Devils trailed NC State 31-10 after 45 minutes.
“We had the focus,” Wilkins said. “[Just] can’t throw three interceptions and win a football game.”
The Sun Devils would turn the ball over four times on the day.
“I don’t think we turned the ball over four times all year in one game,” Graham said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Despite being down 21, the Sun Devils did not give in and scored 21 points in the fourth quarter. The main issue was NC State’s offense against ASU’s defense, as the Wolfpack piled on 491 total yards of offense, including 318 yards through the air.
“Give [NC State] a lot of credit. They are a very good football team,” Graham said. “You have to play better defense than that to have a chance. We just couldn’t get off the field in the first half on third down.”
For ASU, Wilkins improved on his numbers from last year, moving from 12 throwing touchdowns and nine interceptions to 20 and eight, respectively. He also threw for over 3,000 yards this season.
In their final game wearing the Maroon & Gold, senior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage finished with 50 and 12 net rushing yards, respectively.
“I know a lot of these senior guys are going to be very successful at the next level, but whatever they do I know they’re going to be champions,” Graham said. “They’ve always given me everything they have and I’m very grateful for that.”
“It’s been very challenging preparing in this circumstance, but I’ll tell you this, I am very thankful that the administration gave me the opportunity,” Graham said. “This last month has meant the world to me.”
What’s next for Graham?
“I’m going to coach ‘till they throw dirt on my head,” Graham said. “I’m going to be a football coach.”
Brief Season Recap
ASU’s season has come to an end with the Devils finishing 2017 at 7-6, including 6-3 in Pac-12 Conference play, enough for second place in the South Division.
It was a season filled with numerous ups and downs, from the upset win over then-No. 5 Washington to the crushing defeat at the hands of USC, both at Sun Devil Stadium.
It should be noted, while this season and Todd Graham’s run at ASU ended on a sour note, it’s hard to deny Graham’s tenure in Tempe will certainly leave Sun Devil fans with plenty of memories.
“I’ve poured my heart and soul in this thing, I ain’t got one regret,” Graham said. “The only regret I have: I wish we had a little more time.”
When finished speaking at the podium after the Sun Bowl, Graham left the media with two words, two words that perhaps echo the attitude and mentality he brought to Tempe for the previous six years.
Transition on the Horizon
The end to one era has arrived and another will begin. Herm Edwards will be the head coach moving forward. Come next September, ASU will once again take the field. A new class will be welcomed into the football program. And the Sun Devils will continue to create memories.
Michael Baron is a football reporter for Blaze Sports. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow Michael on Twitter @Michael_Baron96