TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State coach Todd Graham rarely holds anything back. He seems to take pride in simply telling it like it is. And as the Sun Devils begin preparing for their biggest game of the season, that’s exactly what he plans to do.
With No. 17 ASU set to meet No. 14 UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday with the chance to clinch the Pac-12 South, Graham says there’s no downplaying the significance of the game.
“It’s hard for me not to point to the game, because we’ve been talking about winning a championship for two years,” Graham said at his weekly press conference Monday. “This is a big game. I can’t say that it’s not a big game. This is a big game that we’ve pointed to all year long.”
Some coaches might try telling their teams that such a contest is just another game, but Graham knows his players won’t buy that. They know what this game means, and they have known all year what kind of significance it would likely carry.
In fact, Graham has stressed the significance of this game since before the season even began.
“If you walk in there in the defensive meeting room, you can look on the wall and you’re going to see a schedule and it has four helmets by four games,” Graham said. “This is one of those games.
“Those are the games we know are must win to reach our goals.”
The others: Stanford, USC and Arizona. ASU lost to Stanford but beat USC. Beating UCLA this week would lock up the Pac-12 South, but Arizona would remain must-win regardless.
“Arizona has a big (helmet) by it,” Graham said. “That’s every year.”
Still, Saturday’s contest in Los Angeles likely will be the make-or-break game for ASU’s season. Win and the Sun Devils are Pac-12 South champions. Lose and they must beat Arizona and hope USC beats UCLA on the season’s final weekend in order to win the South.
Graham obviously would prefer for ASU to capture its first South crown the easy way by getting a win this week. He admitted Monday to anticipating this week’s game even before ASU beat Oregon State to put itself in position to clinch at the Rose Bowl.
“I’ll be real honest with you: If you asked me my feelings last week, I just wanted to get that game won so we could play this one,” Graham said. “And I was really concerned and really focused on Oregon State. That didn’t mean I was looking ahead.”
Graham likely had company in his anticipation. Players have done well focusing on each week’s game, but it has seemed for a while that the landscape of the South would depend on this game.
Even with so much riding on it, Graham says he won’t act any different this week. He’ll emphasize the same level of hard work in practice and the same need to be better than the previous week. He’s already conveyed the importance of this game, and he’s not going to send a different message in the days leading up to it.
“I don’t really think how I act in a week is going to change a whole lot,” Graham said. “I think it’s what you do the whole year.”
A reporter at Monday’s press conference started to ask Graham about UCLA freshman Myles Jack, a linebacker who has emerged as a dominant running back the last two weeks, and Graham couldn’t help but react before the question was even finished.
“Wow,” Graham said. “Phenomenal.”
Jack’s emergence truly has been phenomenal. With UCLA’s running back corps depleted by injuries, the Bruins began using him as a running back against Arizona two weeks ago, and they did so again in a win over Washington on Friday night. Jack, who played running back in high school, has 179 yards and five touchdowns on just 19 carries.
“I haven’t in a while seen a freshman be able to come in and play like he’s played,” Graham said. “Tremendous athleticism on both sides of the football. Very impressive runner as a tailback.
“I haven’t seen a freshman come in and be able to play both ways like that. I don’t know if I remember one.”
A native of Bellevue, Wash., Jack had offers from a number of schools as a running back, including Washington and more than one in the SEC. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker actually visited ASU in January of this year but ultimately committed to UCLA.
— ASU’s Nov. 30 game against rival Arizona will kick off at 7:30 p.m. MT and air on Pac-12 Networks, the conference announced Monday. It will be ASU’s sixth night game at Sun Devil Stadium this season.
— Senior cornerback Robert Nelson was named the Pac-12’s defensive player of the week on Monday after collecting five tackles, a fumble recovery and two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) in the win over Oregon State. He is the fourth ASU player this season to earn weekly Pac-12 honors.