TEMPE, Ariz. — For 12 weeks now, No. 19 Arizona State has been charging relentlessly toward its goal of earning a spot in the Pac-12 championship game. This week, the Sun Devils are knocking on the door.
Hosting Oregon State, ASU has a chance to match its win total from last season while setting up the opportunity to clinch the Pac-12 South next week and secure a spot in the conference title game.
“We’re sitting here with three games to go to play four,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “This is the home stretch. You’ve gone through three turns, and now this is the home stretch. You better be getting better every day, you better play your best ball games down this stretch.”
As much as Graham is emphasizing the importance of ASU’s final three-game stretch, he’s also working tirelessly to keep his players focused on the game at hand. It’s easy to look ahead to a huge game in Los Angeles next week or a potential Pac-12 championship game appearance for the chance to play in the Rose Bowl.
But the Sun Devils (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) have to beat the Beavers before any of that. It’s a setup game of sorts: Win this one and you get the shot you wanted in a week.
While greater challenges may lie ahead, last week’s narrow win in Salt Lake City reminded ASU that each game must be given its due.
“Last week was definitely a reminder,” Graham said. “I think we’re a lot better than we played last week. You’ve to bring it every single week, and we were fortunate enough and had enough heart and character to overcome that and win.”
Graham has discussed more than once in his two seasons the challenge getting a group of 18- to 22-year-olds to focus on one game at a time rather than big-picture goals, specifically a Pac-12 title, a Rose Bowl and a national championship. But with enough hammering, the point gets through.
“It’s definitely easy for teams to fall into looking ahead, looking at what we need to do to finish the year, but obviously priority No. 1 is this next game,” tight end Chris Coyle said. “The coaches might say, ‘This is what we need to do to get to where we want to be, but we have to get through this goal first.’ They tell us that every single day.”
Added defensive tackle Jaxon Hood: “It’s always hard, but the good thing is these last three games are all big games. None of them are going to be games you can overlook. Oregon State is a good football team.”
The Beavers’ current two-game losing streak belies that point. After a season-opening loss to FCS opponent Eastern Washington, Oregon State rattled off six straight wins, though the six teams the Beavers beat are now a combined 17-38.
Still, with conference losses to just Stanford and USC, Oregon State has done more than enough for ASU to be wary.
“This week, I’ve had to spend more hours (preparing) than any week up to this point since Stanford,” Graham said. “Obviously Stanford sets the bar as far as opponents we’ve played, but I love the way they (Oregon State) coach their guys. Their guys play extremely hard.”
Atop ASU’s to-do list this Saturday: Contain quarterback Sean Mannion and receiver Brandin Cooks. Mannion enters the game as the nation’s leading passer (393.3 passing yards per game) and Cooks as the nation’s leading receiver (149.3 receiving yards per game).
Cooks is the latest elite receiver the Sun Devils will have faced, and their hope is that they’ll be able to add him to the list of mostly contained wideouts.
“Cooks, man, he is really special,”Graham said. “In my opinion, he’s the best receiver I’ve seen on film in this conference, and that’s saying a lot when you’ve got guys like Marqise Lee and Jaelen Strong.”
As for Mannion, ASU’s defensive line studied what USC did two weeks ago to force the junior signal caller into doubling his season interception total by throwing three picks against the Trojans.
“They just got off on the ball, and they were penetrating the line of scrimmage,” Hood said. “They were always in the backfield, partying in the backfield. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
That sounds like just another week for ASU’s defensive front, which has posted 28 tackles for loss over ASU’s last three games.
Graham admits that he and his staff were outcoached when ASU lost to Oregon State in Corvallis last season. He says that’s the only time he felt that way in 2011. Of course, Oregon State coach Mike Riley has 13 seasons as a college head coach under his belt compared to Graham’s eight.
As Graham tries to return the favor, he gets to do so at Sun Devil Stadium, where ASU has been stellar this season. At home, the Sun Devils are averaging 58 points per game. Away from home, they’re averaging 34.3. ASU has not lost at home under Graham since last Oct. 27. Perhaps some of that has to do with the schedule, but ASU simply looks different at home.
“This team has been really special to watch at night and at home,” Graham said.
If the Sun Devils can find that home magic once more, they may want to bottle some to take on the road next week. Then again, that would be looking ahead, and there’s none of that allowed.
“These last three games are all big games,” Hood said. “None of them are going to be games you can overlook.
“We’ve got to win out to do what we set out to do. This is just another opportunity to get one step closer to our goal.”