ASU faces perhaps highest stakes yet vs. Washington

TEMPE, Ariz. — There’s a familiar significance to Arizona State’s game against No. 20 Washington on Saturday. The Sun Devils have been here before, except this one is even bigger than Wisconsin, Stanford, USC or Notre Dame.

It’s the latest in a string of high-stakes game for ASU, but with both teams trying to turn a corner on the 2013 season, the matchup with the Huskies is the Sun Devils’ most important yet.

“I think this game is the pivotal point of the season,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “This is the game. We’ve got to win this game, man. These guys are very talented, but our guys are going to come to play.”

ASU has made no secret of the fact it needs this game badly. It’s a conference home game against a ranked opponent and perhaps the Sun Devils’ last chance to make a statement this season. A win could convince doubters they are true contenders for the Pac-12 South title. A loss might get them written off by much of the fan base and, more importantly, poll voters the day before the first BCS standings are released.

Moreover, a loss for ASU (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) could mean losing the coveted control of its own destiny within the Pac-12 South race.

“If we want to get to where we want to be at the end of the year, we have to win out with the Pac-12 games,” quarterback Taylor Kelly said. “It started last week with Colorado, and it continues with Washington.”

Washington (4-2, 1-2) needs the game just as badly. Beyond their recent struggles in conference road games, the Huskies are trying to avoid having at least a three-game losing streak for a fifth straight season. Further, Washington is trying to better the 7-6 mark posted in each of the last three seasons, and a win this week would certainly help.

To quantify the significance of Saturday’s game, Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian likened the game to a drive coming out of halftime.

“We place a huge emphasis on that first drive and setting the momentum there in that third quarter,” Sarkisian said. “This is the third quarter of the season, and here’s our first drive. What are we going to do with it? And I think it’s important for us to come out and make a statement with this drive and the way we play this Saturday.”

It would indeed be a statement game for Washington after losses to Stanford and Oregon. Both are obviously elite opponents, but the Huskies need a win over a good conference opponent to prove justified the acclaim they have garnered thus far.

ASU, meanwhile, has wins over Wisconsin and USC but losses to Stanford and Notre Dame. Adding a win over Washington would do much to clear up just how good or average a team ASU is.

“This is the best team left on our schedule,” ASU defensive tackle Jaxon Hood said. “That’s the significance. Washington is one of the best team’s in the conference. They’ve dropped two games, but they could have beat Oregon and definitely could have beat Stanford. So that’s the significance of this game. It’s a huge test.”

The motivation on each side should only make better a contest that, separate of stakes, features a ton of talent on what appear to be two pretty evenly matched teams.
Washington’s offensive weapons may present the greatest challenge thus far for ASU, whose defense has not yet been able to match quite what it was last season. Chief among those weapons is national rushing leader Bishop Sankey, who is averaging 149.8 yards per game and has topped 100 rushing yards in nine of his last 11 contests.

“He is the No. 1 person we have to stop,” Graham said. “There is no question about it.”

ASU has struggled thus far to contain top running backs; Sankey provides another test to see if the Sun Devils have made strides with their run defense. Additionally, they must deal with Huskies quarterback Keith Price, who is playing like he did in a breakout 2011 season and has plenty of targets.

“They’ve got some really good wideouts,” Hood said. “They’ve got three wideouts that could probably be No. 1 receivers at other schools in our conference.”

Hood was presumably referring to Jaydon Mickens, Kevin Smith and Kasen Williams, all of whom have over 300 receiving yards on the season and average 13.2 yards per catch combined. Then there’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins, one of the best tight ends in the nation despite low first-half numbers.

The key for ASU might be turnovers. Three weeks ago against USC, a team Graham said has talent comparable to Washington’s, ASU had four takeaways and won easily. Similar defensive success could do the trick this weekend.

“Every week you hear me say the same thing over and over and over, but it’s going to be big this week,” Graham said. “We’ve got to get turnovers, especially playing a team that averages 90 plays a game or something like that. So every time you get a turnover, they’ll play five less plays that game.”

This is obviously not the first big game ASU has played in this season. The Wisconsin, Stanford, USC, and Notre Dame contests all came with their own unique spoils. But Graham has been straightforward with his team this week: This game trumps them all.

“Being quite honest with you, I walked into our meeting today and said, ‘The significance of this game is you win this one and we’ve got a good chance to be a double-digit win team and a team that could play for the Pac-12 championship,'” Graham said. “This is it. You worked all week, all year, all your career for this game. That’s how important I think it is.”