Arizona State meets UCLA with postseason on line
PASADENA, Calif. (AP)
To be the Pac-12 South champions, Arizona State must beat the champions.
It's almost that simple when the 19th-ranked Sun Devils (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) face No. 14 UCLA (8-2, 5-2) on Saturday night.
A win over the defending division champs puts Arizona State into the conference title game with the chance to earn a second trip to Pasadena in January. Although the Sun Devils still could sneak in by other means, they would prefer to earn their berth on the Rose Bowl turf.
''It's hard for me not to point to the game here when we've been talking about winning a championship for two years,'' Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.
But both teams have had this date circled on their calendars since early in the season, when it became likely the South title could be decided in UCLA's final regular-season home game. The Bruins are unbeaten at the Rose Bowl this season, and their own division title hopes are still very much alive.
UCLA would get its third straight trip to the Pac-12 title game with consecutive wins over Arizona State and Southern California.
''We understand the implications of this game,'' UCLA coach Jim Mora said. ''We understand the type of team we're getting ready to play, and we're excited we're playing them at home this year.''
The game matches two of the nation's top young quarterbacks at the controls of two prolific offenses. Both teams average more than 36 points per game, with UCLA's Brett Hundley and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly excelling down the stretch.
The game also matches two coaches off to outstanding starts in their second seasons in their programs. Mora has never lost to a Pac-12 South opponent (8-0), while Graham is on the brink of a breakthrough win.
Five reasons to watch these schools' first meeting as two ranked teams since 1986:
JACK'S NEXT ACT: Myles Jack is still a UCLA linebacker, but the freshman is also one of the nation's most exciting running backs. The remarkable two-way star has 180 yards rushing and five touchdowns in the past two games. Jack scored four times last week against Washington, and Mora is working on ways to maximize his new offensive star's effectiveness without hampering his top young defensive player's work. ''Arizona State knows he's going to carry the ball for us a couple of times,'' Mora said. ''That package has been effective for us. The question is just how much. Carrying the ball on offense and playing a full load on defense, that's hard. I have to do a good job managing that, because it's not easy. It's a conundrum.''
ROLLING DEVILS: Arizona State has won five straight games for the first time since 2007, pushing up to 17th in the BCS standings. The Sun Devils might be ahead of schedule in Graham's tenure, but they're not satisfied with a mere eight-win season. They're just two victories away from their first New Year's Day trip to the Rose Bowl in 17 years. A win over UCLA would mean next week's Territorial Cup game against Arizona is only for pride - and the chance to prepare for Oregon or another Pac-12 North opponent in the league title game Dec. 7.
SENIORITIS: UCLA is celebrating senior day for linebacker Anthony Barr, receiver Shaq Evans, defensive lineman Cassius Marsh and 15 others, but the departing Bruins are still hoping to earn one more appearance at the Rose Bowl after this grand finale. Mora has made sure his seniors realize UCLA is still playing for the chance to return to Pasadena on New Year's Day, if they can win the division title and the conference championship game. ''It's our last opportunity for our seniors to run on that field in a regular-season game,'' Mora said. ''What we're doing is we're working to get them one more opportunity to run out there after this one.''
NAIL-BITERS: Don't be surprised if this crucial Pac-12 matchup comes down to the final seconds. That's how the Bruins and the Sun Devils usually end up. UCLA has won three of its last four meetings with Arizona State, but the last two victories were decided by a total of three points. Last year in Tempe, the Bruins won on Ka'imi Fairbairn's 33-yard field goal at the gun after the Sun Devils had erased a nine-point deficit in the final minutes. In 2011, UCLA edged Arizona State 29-28 after Derrick Coleman scored a last-minute touchdown and Alex Garoutte missed a 46-yard field goal at the gun.
SUTTON AND BARR: Although these schools attract attention for their offenses, two defensive players likely to be high first-round NFL picks also will be showcased. Barr's tackling statistics are down in recent games while playing closer to the line of scrimmage, but the disruptive linebacker is still a force. And Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton has the full attention of Mora and the Bruins' offensive line, which features three freshman starters. Mora compares Sutton, from nearby Corona, Calif., to NFL stars from his past, citing John Randle's explosiveness and Warren Sapp's pass-rushing abilities.