Graham, ASU ready to battle UCLA for Pac-12 South championshipPosted: Updated:
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Just minutes after his team scored a huge victory over the Oregon State Beavers, Todd Graham had put it behind him.
He immediately began focusing on the game that many had felt since the release of the season schedules would decide the Pac-12 South.
"We are 60 minutes away—one win away—from clinching the South," the Arizona State head coach said following Saturday's 30-17 win.
With the win over Oregon State, their fifth consecutive victory, ASU improved to 8-2 on the year and remained one game ahead in the division standings over UCLA and USC. Most importantly, the Sun Devils continue control their own destiny in the race.
While the path to the Pac-12 Championship Game and a shot at the school's first Rose Bowl appearance since 1997 is clear, it still runs the difficult road through Pasadena and the UCLA Bruins.
“If you want to win the South, you have to beat the team that won it, and they’ve won it the last two years in a row," Graham said at Monday's press conference. "We have tremendous respect for that.”
Due to ASU's earlier win over USC, the Sun Devils can break the Bruin stranglehold on the South division and clinch the title with a win on Saturday.
Doing so, ASU's players realize, will be anything but easy.
“They know that they have to play you’re very, very best game to go into the Rose Bowl and to get a win against the defending Pac-12 South champions," said Graham.
UCLA, with an identical 8-2 overall record but one game back in conference play, also controls their own destiny as they look for a three-peat as South champions. The 14th ranked Bruins features one of the nation's better and most dangerous offenses. It's a familiar scheme to ASU fans, as it's a system built by former ASU offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
“This is one of the best offenses in the league as far as explosiveness that can score one-play touchdowns. The key for us is to not give up cheap ones."
At the center of the Bruin offense is All-American candidate Brett Hundley. A local product from Chandler, Ariz., Hundley has solidified himself as one of the nation's premier dual-threat quarterbacks over the past two seasons.
On the year, Hundley has thrown for 2,384 yards and 20 touchdowns with just eight interceptions, while running for 502 yards and another seven scores.
“He’s got a big arm, can throw a very accurate deep ball," said Graham. "Extending plays is the major deal with him. He’s just so hard to get a hold of and bring down in the pocket. He does a good job throwing the ball away, and doesn’t take a lot of sacks. He is the key to their whole offense. Obviously, we have to not let him get comfortable.”
Pressuring Hundley will be the primary focus for the Sun Devils this week, but he is far from the only threat.
“Your whole gameplan is designed around their best players and stopping them," Graham said. "They have a very solid receiving corps that can stretch the field vertically.”
UCLA also has the nation's most talked about player in two-way star Myles Jack. The freshman had made nine starts at linebacker for the Bruins, and has been one of their defense's steadiest contributors.
However, two weeks ago, he was inserted in at running back and a legend began. Against Arizona, he ran for 120 yards and a touchdown on just six carries, and followed that up this past week with four rushing scores last week against Washington.
“I haven’t in while seen a freshman who has come in and played like he’s played," said Graham. "Tremendous athleticism on both sides of the football. Impressive as a tailback, very impressive as a runner. I haven’t see a freshman come in and play both ways like that.”
While the Bruins' defensive numbers are not outstanding, they feature one of the elite players in the country in outside linebacker Anthony Barr, who already has seven sacks and four forced fumbles on the year.
To be able to put up points on the road, the Sun Devil offense will have to match the feverish effort that the Bruins bring on every play
“Their players play extremely hard. That means that they are doing an inspiring job of coaching them," Graham said.
While their talent, schemes and execution will be formidable obstacles for the Sun Devils to overcome on Saturday, ASU will also have to clear a mental hurdle.
But it won't be catching Graham's Sun Devils by surprise. They've been waiting for this.
“This is a game that we’ve pointed to all year long.”
Kickoff from Pasadena is at 4 p.m. PST, 5 p.m. MST, with TV coverage on the Pac-12 Network.