ASU, UCLA want same thing: Pac-12 South title
OCT 26, 2012 11:29a ET
But the reality is ASU lost to the No. 3 team in the nation, one few anticipated the Sun Devils would beat entering the season. This week against UCLA looks like the game that really matters.
"This is a big, important game," coach Todd Graham said. "Our guys have a lot to play for, and this is the time. This is the end of October and November, and this is when you decide your fate."
With both teams coming in 5-2, there's bowl eligibility at stake. More importantly, the game features major Pac-12 implications.
"I really feel like the winner of this game is going to have an opportunity to play for the (Pac-12) South," Graham said. "It's going to be a tough game. It's going to be two very evenly matched teams, two very motivated teams coming together."
A win for the Sun Devils would position them for a Nov. 10 showdown with USC at the Coliseum for the South and a chance to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The same applies for the Bruins, who play the Trojans at home on Nov. 17.
Furthermore, ASU seeks a rebound effort after the discouraging loss to Oregon. The Ducks won in every fashion and exposed the Sun Devils as a team not quite ready to compete with the elite. Graham, though, isn't worried about any kind of hangover effect from the loss.
"Anybody that says they have a hangover because they got beat the last week -- that is just an excuse," Graham said. "You have to come back and compete every week. Coming off a game that we didn't play well, we go to the next game.
"If one setback makes you play without confidence, then you didn't have any in the first place."
Sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly had one of the more noticeable setbacks, turning in his worst game as a starter, one that included two costly interceptions. Kelly said he learned a good deal from the experience, mainly to take what opposing defenses give him rather than trying to force plays.
Asked Thursday if the performance might damage Kelly's confidence, Graham responded definitively, expressing continued confidence in Kelly and lauding his play, which has been far from that of a typical first-year quarterback.
"If you’re around him five minutes, you wouldn't worry about his mindset," Graham said. "He's a winner."
The greater concern might be the team's collective mindset. Will the pressure of the stakes get to the Sun Devils? Will players have last season's debacle at the Rose Bowl in the back of their minds? Will the possible absence of star defensive tackle Will Sutton diminish the defense's confidence?
All those questions -- as well as Sutton's availability -- won’t truly be answered until Saturday. Sutton left the Oregon game early with what Graham called a bone bruise on his right knee. Graham said this week there is a chance Sutton will play, but the odds seem long considering Sutton's limitations in practice.
Sutton's absence would certainly make containing UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin, the Pac-12's leading rusher, much more difficult. Franklin, a senior, is averaging 125.4 yards per game, but ASU's defensive players are confident they can rise to the challenge if Sutton is unable to contribute.
"Will Sutton, that's a force to be reckoned with," senior linebacker Brandon Magee said. "To have him out of the game is going to be a big-time loss, but we have other (defensive) linemen that are going to step up and are anxious to play out there and prove they can fill his shoes.
"The whole front seven has to pick it up. We have to be more of playmakers, especially at linebacker."
Not only must the defense -- which leads the conference in yards allowed -- worry about Franklin, it also must key on freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, a dual threat who has been a big part of UCLA's strong season. But Hundley might also be the key to the defense's success if the Devils can force him into mistakes. In a blowout road loss to Cal on Oct. 6, Hundley threw four interceptions.
ASU should be more prepared for Hundley a Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, another mobile passer.
"We got to see it on film and see better ways we can play that, so coming into this week, I think we're going to play a lot better than we did last week," Magee said. "We have to make sure we contain (Hundley), and the linebackers always have to be spying him."
Offense has been the Bruins' calling card this season, with the unit currently ranking fourth in scoring offense (31.7 points per game) and third in total offense (505.3 yards per game) in the conference. However, numerous ASU players and coaches this week said UCLA's defense doesn't get enough credit.
The Bruins defense is average statistically, ranking sixth in the conference in scoring defense, pass defense and rushing defense and eighth in total defense. The unit is strong up front, however, and ASU is preparing for a tough test.
"They present a lot of different coverages, and they're very talented and big up front," Kelly said. "So we've got to have great protections, run the ball really well and attack their weaknesses."
After all the numbers are broken down and the matchups compared, ASU and UCLA look like similar teams in similar positions. That the two meet this weekend with a shot at playing for the South division seems more fate than coincidence.
Both teams could display what they are made of Saturday, but only one can emerge in control of its own destiny.
"Our guys know the significance of this game," Graham said. "Obviously, this is a must-win for us. Our guys are focused on being champions, and we want to win the South. To do that, we've got to beat a really good UCLA team that's coming in."