ASU seniors prepare for final home game, Territorial Cup

Senior offensive linemen Vi Teofilo, Christian Westerman and Nick Kelly warm up during practice in preparation for Saturday's Territorial Cup game vs. Arizona.

Bill Slane/Cronkite News

TEMPE, Ariz. — As Arizona State prepares to host its biggest rival Saturday, the Arizona Wildcats, the Sun Devil seniors are also preparing for their final game inside Sun Devil Stadium. While every group of departing seniors has its own unique quirks and traits, this one is special, especially to head coach Todd Graham.

This year’s fifth-year seniors, which includes quarterback Mike Bercovici, is the final group of players not recruited by Graham and his staff. These players, for the most part, were recruited by the former regime led by Dennis Erickson. They are the last of the players that were in Tempe on the day Graham arrived in 2011.

"Those guys are every bit as much my guys as the guys I’ve recruited, I can tell you that," Graham said. "Because I can remember sitting here and talking to them and what we were going to do and how we were going to change the culture."

Graham says those players both "conformed" to the culture he wanted to build and were "transformed" into his own players.

The senior group also includes some the first recruiting class — those who did not redshirt — signed by Graham when he arrived in Tempe. One of those players, Foster, became one of Graham’s most consistent leaders.

"The first thing he said to me wasn’t even about football. It was about family and faith," Foster said. "And those are the two most important things to me in my life."

Graham arrived talking about winning championships, including those of the national variety. Bercovici said Graham knew at least half of the players did not believe him at the time.

Bercovici said it took about year for everyone to buy what Graham was selling them.

"He’s just resilient in how he talks about character, passion, discipline, toughness," Bercovici said. "And still four years later to this day he’s still talking about the same things and still talking about competing for championships."

Offensive lineman Christian Westerman, a Hamilton High School product who began his collegiate career at Auburn, was not in the room when Graham arrived in Arizona. That won’t make his last run out of Tillman Tunnel any easier.

"I mean it’s my last time running out of Sun Devil Stadium, it’s going to be a lot of excitement but also a little sadness," Westerman said. "But we’re excited to get out there and play some football."

Westerman will be playing his final home game alongside two fellow seniors on the offensive line, Vi Teofilo and Nick Kelly. He said it’s going to be emotional to play next to them after becoming so close to them in the past three years.

Defensive back Lloyd Carrington arrived in 2012 along with Graham as a transfer from Pittsburgh. Carrington reflected on how close this group of seniors has become since he transferred to ASU.

"It’s been a great time for me to just be able to witness that," he said. "Witness guys (coming) together and truly form a brotherhood."

For four years players have praised Graham as a "man of character," and this senior class has done the same as they prepare to play their last game for him in Tempe. Graham has made bold promises during that time and was one win away in 2013 from taking his team to a Rose Bowl. Even in a year in which the team has fallen short of the lofty expectations fans and media member put on them, his players have bought into his tactics.

In their final year, the Sun Devil seniors won’t be competing for a championship. But in their last game in Tempe, they still have something to fight for.

For one, a win against the Wildcats would give ASU the all-important sixth win that would make them bowl eligible. Of course, there is another reason to fight this weekend against the Wildcats.

"It’s the Territorial Cup," Graham said. "That’s it. Enough said. That’s how important it is."

Foster, who is 2-1 against Arizona, said Graham has told the team that it doesn’t matter if the Sun Devils went 11-1, if the one loss was against the Wildcats the season would not be a success.

"You gotta win this game," Foster said. "It’s a really important game. It’s important to our community, it’s important to our team and tradition. We gotta go out and get this win."