TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State will get the shot it has worked for all season.
In beating Oregon State 30-17 on Saturday night, No. 19 ASU set up a showdown with UCLA in Los Angeles next week for the chance to clinch Pac-12 South title and a spot in the conference championship game.
“Everything we’ve worked for is in this 60 minutes (next week),” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “This is it.”
In other words: Game on.
The matchup with UCLA represents the Sun Devils’ chance to complete what they have worked for all season. A win over the Bruins and they’ll earn not just another game but a game that brings with it an opportunity for a Rose Bowl berth. That message was clear in the ASU locker room Saturday night
“I just told them, ‘Hey, you’ve worked your whole life. Some of you guys have been here five years for the opportunity, and you’ve got three practices and 60 minutes,'” Graham said. “One more win and we’ve won the Pac-12 South and we’re going to the Pac-12 championship game.
“Obviously that’s been our goal the whole time, so for it to be so close, we reminded them about their character and continuing to get better.”
ASU could still win the South without beating UCLA. The Sun Devils would need to beat Arizona and hope USC beats UCLA in the final weekend of the regular season. But beating UCLA would obviously be the easier way to win it, and then they wouldn’t have to count on another team’s help.
UCLA, on the other hand, would still have to beat USC the following week to win the South, as the Trojans reinserted themselves into the Pac-12 South conversation by upsetting No. 4 Stanford on Saturday.
The focus on next week was not limited to the locker room Saturday; it dominated the postgame conversation. You would hardly have known ASU just beat Oregon State for its fifth straight win and matched its win total from 2012 with at least three more games to play.
To even create the opportunity to clinch the South in Los Angeles, the Sun Devils had to take care of business against the Beavers, and they did. It wasn’t a dominant win and it wasn’t a flashy win, but it didn’t need to be.
“We didn’t play our best game,” Graham admitted.
Oregon State actually outgained ASU 390-339. Beavers tight end Connor Hamlett caught nine passes for 119 yards. The defense gave up a touchdown on a 75-yard drive in the game’s final minutes. Quarterback Taylor Kelly was 22 of 37 passing with two interceptions.
“We just couldn’t execute,” Kelly said. “They kind of got us on the third-down conversions. We just couldn’t keep going, whether it was a little misread or a sack or a fourth-and-short. They did a great job defensively.”
Regardless, Oregon State never really seemed to be in the game, and that was largely due to ASU’s defense. The unit intercepted national passing leader Sean Mannion four times and held the Beavers to 5 of 14 on third-down conversions.
Two of the interceptions belonged to senior safety Robert Nelson, who returned the second pick 22 yards for a touchdown to seal the win with 5:08 left on the clock.
It was the second straight week the defense carried the Sun Devils, though running back Marion Grice’s 119 rushing yards and two touchdowns had plenty to do with the win. Grice now has 20 touchdowns on the season, two shy of the ASU single-season record.
That ASU can win games in back-to-back weeks without playing its best football bodes well the rest of the way. It will likely need its best against UCLA next week, but rarely is a championship won without resilience.
“We had some big-time players making big-time plays tonight,” Graham said. “We beat a very good football team.”
When Graham talked before the season of taking ASU to the Rose Bowl this year for the first time since the 1996 season, there were skeptics aplenty. But Graham pushed the message to his team and made believers out of players who last season may have doubted the program’s potential.
“We believed we could be a great team,” Kelly said. “Coach did a great job instilling that mindset.”
It was hard not to notice the small Rose Bowl pin to the left of the pitchfork on Graham’s shirt as he answered questions after Saturday’s win.
The Sun Devils obviously aren’t there yet. They have but a chance to win their division, and doing so would give them a chance to play for the Rose Bowl. But they’re only chances, and those have to be taken advantage of for anything to truly be accomplished.
“Ultimately we have not done anything to this point,” Graham said. “We’ve had very definitive goals from the day I walked in the door here, so we cannot spend one minute celebrating anything. The first thing I did in the locker room was (say), ‘Congratulations, we’re going to the next deal.'”
Added Kelly: “We’re going to put this win behind us and move on to UCLA tomorrow. It starts tomorrow. We put this one behind us and have a great week of practice.”
It will be the third straight season ASU will have played UCLA with the Pac-12 South title in play. In 2011, the Sun Devils collapsed and blew a lead and the chance to clinch the South at the Rose Bowl to start a five-game losing streak. Last season, they allowed the Bruins to drive and kick a game-winning field goal in the final 90 seconds of a loss that Graham believes cost ASU the division.
Now comes ASU’s chance at redemption and the school’s first Pac-12 South title.
“We’ve got a huge challenge, obviously, at UCLA,” Graham said. “It’s the defending champion. We’ve got a tremendous respect for them and everything they do.