PASADENA, Calif. — Following the biggest win under Todd Graham, the Arizona State coach on Saturday night recalled a moment from the beginning of the season when he sat his team down and asked them to visualize what it would be like to host the Pac-12 Championship Game at Sun Devil Stadium.
That vision is one big step closer to reality.
With a 38-33 win over No. 14 UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, ASU clinched the Pac-12 South title to earn a spot in the Pac-12 championship game and delivered the first championship Graham promised it would win under his direction.
“We’re not done,” Graham said. “This is step one. Obviously we’ve got two more steps to be where we want to be and that’s Pac-12 champions.”
The No. 17 Sun Devils (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) clearly have more to accomplish this season — they can host Stanford for the conference championship if they beat Arizona next week — but the latest gutsy win provided a watershed moment for the program. After being so close to a Pac-12 South title the past two seasons, ASU finally broke through.
“It just felt good that we worked so hard to get to this point and to finally come out on top is just great,” ASU linebacker Chris Young said. “There’s still much more to be done.”
Graham talked before the season of getting ASU to a point in two years that typically takes five. The next two weeks will shed further light on whether the Sun Devils are there. But Saturday’s win showed they are at least close.
The win, easily the biggest in Graham’s two seasons at ASU, did not come without the typical drama, only this time the result was different.
After taking a 35-13 halftime lead behind impressively efficient offensive play, ASU struggled to get much going in the second half and was outscored 20-3 over the final two quarters. With just less than five minutes left, UCLA (8-3, 5-3) drove to ASU’s 7-yard line, positioning itself to take its first lead of the game.
Young sacked Brett Hundley for a 13-yard loss, forcing the Bruins to settle for a field goal attempt that would have cut the Sun Devils’ lead to two points. The 37-yard try missed wide right.
“Huge,” Graham said of Young’s play.
Over the next 4:30, memories of last season’s last-second loss to UCLA crept back into ASU players’ minds. UCLA got the ball back with 3:21 left and quickly reached ASU’s 45-yard line.
It couldn’t happen again.
“It was almost like déjà vu,” Young said. “I was like ‘Oh no, it’s happening again.’ But this is a different team this year. We trained harder and tougher than last year. That showed up toward the end.”
Added quarterback Taylor Kelly: “That’s the different part of our team this year — once we hit adversity, guys come together and believe in each other. We keep our poise. Coaches do a great job of keeping adverse situations in practice to prepare us for these games.”
Graham admitted to doing things differently than in last season’s game against UCLA.
“We had some regrets last year that we defended instead of attacked,” Graham said. “So we sent (pressure) every play on that last drive. Even on the last play because we came to win.”
Past ASU teams crumbled in such high-pressure circumstances. That this time it held up even when it looked entirely out of gas is a testament to what Graham has accomplished in his 23-game tenure.
First, Graham got his players to buy in to a radically different approach to discipline and accountability. Next, he made them believe they could win big games. Now, they have done it.
“It’s just trusting and believing in what he’s preaching,” Young said. “Coach Graham has gotten us this far.”
Asked what so quickly has ASU on the brink of hosting a Pac-12 title game, though, Graham didn’t hesitate to point the finger right back at his players.
Graham has brought in talented players like Young, who had three sacks Saturday, but also inherited stocked cupboards from Dennis Erickson’s tenure, including Kelly, defensive tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford. However, it’s a credit to Graham that he is getting out of them what past coaches did not.
This ASU team is playing with passion, discipline and resilience unfamiliar to a fan base that became accustomed to losses in turning-point games. That was on full display at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
“I’ve been doing this for 28 years, and that’s the most impressive display of heart by a football team I’ve ever seen,” Graham said. “To watch these kids on that field lay it on the line with that kind of heart was just overwhelming to me.”
Graham admitted to tearing up a bit after Saturday’s game, but how could he not? After enduring severe criticism for leaving Pittsburgh after just one season, Graham has built ASU into a contender about to play for a Rose Bowl berth.
“To sit back and watch those kids go from where we were to where we are now, man, there’s nothing more gratifying,” Graham said. “I’m very luck to be here, and I can think back a year and a half ago when I came here and I got my head kicked in, and I’m pretty glad I came.”
As much as Saturday’s win meant, the celebration will be brief, as opportunity still knocks. With Arizona’s upset of No. 5 Oregon earlier Saturday, Stanford clinched the Pac-12 North title and the possibility arose that ASU could host the conference championship game.
As if beating rival Arizona did not mean enough already, next week’s game is now all the more important given the chance to bring the rematch with the Cardinal to Tempe.
“The most important game of the year is next week,” Graham said. “It don’t matter what we’ve done to this point. … Obviously winning it is a big deal because we’d host the conference championship game, and that’s a big deal.”