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September 9, 2012With ambiguous dreams of bowl eligibility and possibly more, Arizona State welcomed Illinois to Tempe uncertain how it would react under distress for the first time in the Todd Graham era.
As it turned out, however, the Sun Devils didn't get the fight they were promised.
Built up as the first true test for ASU in 2012, Saturday turned into a laugher more than a measuring stick.
From the opening kickoff the Sun Devils drove their high-tempo offense and opportunistic defense down the throats of the Illini as they cruised to a 45-14 win in front of 54,128 fans at Sun Devil Stadium.
"I feel like this was a big test for us, going up against a Big Ten team, and a very strong one at that," Graham said. "We went out and dominated them. We have to keep our head down and be able to handle success. It gets harder each week."
The victory marked the eighth consecutive win for the Sun Devils (2-0) over Big Ten teams at home and put Graham into the record books as the seventh ASU coach to begin his career in Tempe with two straight wins.
What pleased Graham most about his team's night was its continued discipline in the trenches. For the second straight week, ASU didn't commit a penalty on defense or special teams.
The only foul the Sun Devils took throughout Saturday happened intentionally on a fourth down play near midfield, trying to give more room for senior punter Josh Hubner to pin the Illini (1-1) back deep. It was a plan that worked as Hubner's punt was fair caught at Illinois' 9 yard line.
"Our goal was zero penalties, and the only person who got a penalty was me, and we took a delay so we could back the punt up a little bit," Graham said. "I'm really proud to go two games with no penalties on defense or special teams. It was a lot of work, and we have a good football team."
Defensively, ASU held Illinois to 332 total yards despite being without its emotional and physical leader, senior linebacker Brandon Magee, who missed the game due to a concussion he suffered in practice earlier this week.
"I thought Brandon was going to play up until Friday morning, so him not playing really threw a lot off," Graham said. "He's a guy that quarterbacks a lot of that stuff, but I'm trying to teach them and we're working hard. I think I lost about seven pounds tonight, because I had to work a little bit."
Taking Magee's place in the middle of the defense was junior linebacker Anthony Jones and freshman Carlos Mendoza. The duo more than filled in admirably, collecting a combined seven tackles while Mendoza intercepted two passes.
The freshman left the game right before halftime, however, with an apparent left shoulder injury, the same shoulder he had surgically repaired in the offseason.
"He's going to be okay, I don't think it's anything that is going to put him out for an extended period of time," Graham said. "I'm a pretty good doctor in diagnosing each player if they're going to be good for us. I'm really proud of him. What a player he is going to be. To be coming in there as a freshman and pick off two passes like that is phenomenal."
In all, the Sun Devil defense forced three turnovers against the Illini, totaling 12 tackles for loss including six sacks along the way.
Putting the lockdown night in perspective, however, was the fact that Illinois didn't have its starting quarterback, junior Nathan Scheelhaase, who missed the game with an ankle injury. Instead, the Illini turned to sophomore Reilly O'Toole and junior Miles Osei, who combined for just 101 yards in the air.
"It didn't matter what quarterback started, our whole preparation this week was focusing on their strengths and what we needed to take away," said ASU senior safety Keelan Johnson, who tallied a team-high 7.5 tackles. "Honestly, we didn't really focus on the quarterback during the week."
Coming off a dismantling victory over Northern Arizona in their season opener, the Sun Devils amassed over 500 offensive yards for the second consecutive week Saturday against the Illini, a team that finished second in the Big Ten in total defense last year.
But despite the "high-octane" outburst, Graham still believes he can get more of his offense.
"We played faster tonight, our tempo was better but we're not fast enough yet," he said. "We're going to take what the defense gives us though."
The Sun Devils received another quality outing from their quarterbacks Saturday as well with sophomore Taylor Kelly and freshman Michael Eubank combining for 318 yards on 23-for-29 passing.
"What our quarterbacks are doing right now is remarkable," Graham said. "They're checking and getting us into the right plays, the options, and the things they are doing are phenomenal. Those two are dynamic, and they're hard to stop."
While Kelly delivered a workmanlike night amassing 249 yards in the air and 26 yards on the ground, Eubank continued to make the most of his limited opportunities, completing all his passes for 69 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 36 yards and another score.
"I'm just happy to be able to play with my brothers, I'm blessed to have the ability to step on the field," Eubank said. "Every game I have a chance to get in the game. I have my own packages. I'm just very blessed. I'm counting my blessings since last year I wasn't able to play."
Helping out his quarterbacks all game, ASU junior tight end Chris Coyle came through with career-highs across the board, finishing with 10 receptions for 131 yards and two scores.
In all of the 2011 season, Coyle collected just six catches for 73 yards.
"It was a great night tonight, I just tried to catch everything they threw my way," Coyle said. "Last year was really a test of my patience. I prayed about it a lot. I know that everything happens for a reason and I had more than a couple people tell me to just have patience and wait it out. Looking back on it, I think it was a perfect situation because I was able to learn from some great athletes."
The only downside to an otherwise spotless night were two fumbles in the red zone, one from senior running back Cameron Marshall at the 1-yard line and another by senior wide receiver Jamal Miles at the 9-yard line.
"We can't do that, we should have scored 60 points in my opinion," Graham said. "It's the little things that matter. We're going to coach and teach, teach, teach every opportunity that we can, because maybe these little mistakes aren't costing us against Illinois, but it might cost us down the road."
The Sun Devils came out of the gates Saturday much like they did a week ago against NAU, marching down the field during their first possession and meeting little resistance along the way.
But with a first and goal on the three yard line, Marshall fumbled on his way into the endzone, handing the ball over to Illinois on the doorstep of the goal.
After the ASU defense came up with a stop, the Sun Devils bounced back from the turnover by taking their second possession 65 yards in eight plays capped off by a Kelly rollout five yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Kevin Ozier in the back of the endzone.
"We put numbers up in the spring and the summer," Kelly said. "We have an attack offense and it is very dangerous and hard to stop. As long as we kept getting our run game going our passing game would start opening up."
Just five minutes later ASU struck again, this time on a Marshall one yard score to put the Sun Devils on top 14-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Illinois answered with its first points of the night on a 17 yard sophomore tail back Donovonn Young touchdown run early in the second period but ASU quickly took back the momentum on its next drive when Eubank hit Coyle in the back of the endzone for a one yard score.
The Sun Devils capped off their explosive first half two minutes later on Coyle's second touchdown grab of the evening, again from Eubank but this time from three yards out to give ASU a commanding 28-7 advantage heading into the locker room.
"Being under Coach Graham has definitely taught us a lot about ourselves, being men, and being football players," Eubank said. "We're able to take what we learned and use it off the field."
The Illini received the ball first to start the third quarter but they didn't keep possession for very long. On the second play of the series, ASU junior defensive back Alden Darby picked off Osei and returned his second interception of the young season 34 yards to the Illinois 13 yard line.
Two plays later the Sun Devils cashed in on the turnover with a one yard touchdown run from Foster to extend their lead, 35-7.
After Illinois tacked on its second score, Alex Garoutte added a 35 yard field goal in the fourth quarter on his first attempt of the year.
With the game firmly in hand, Eubank scored the sixth and final touchdown of the Sun Devils' dominant performance with four minutes remaining on a seven yard scramble.
"There is a major sense of urgency about getting better," Graham said. "But tonight, hats off to my players and coaches. I'm really proud of them, and I'm really lucky to be doing what I'm doing. What a great group of kids. It's a joy to work with them."