(Eds: Adds details, quotes. With AP Photos.)By JOHN MARSHALLAP College Football Writer
The knock on Arizona State the past few years was that it couldn’t finish, whether it was in a tight game or at the end of a season after a strong start.
The perception has changed this season as the 11th-ranked Sun Devils have won the close games, the big games, on the road and at home.
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After a couple of dings during a difficult part of the schedule, Arizona State has become almost unstoppable, winning its last seven games to earn home-field advantage in Saturday’s Pac-12 Championship game against No. 7 Stanford, a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line.
”I think those close games in the heart (of the schedule) and the level of competition we played has really seasoned our guys,” Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said Monday. ”I’ve really sensed that the last two or three weeks. We’re a veteran group and mature, and I’m very proud of that.”
Arizona State looked as if it would follow the same pattern as previous seasons when it came out flat in the first half of a loss at Stanford and stumbled through a loss to Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas.
Since those two losses, the Sun Devils (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) have been one of the nation’s best teams, pulling out tight road victories over Utah and UCLA while reeling off a string of lopsided home wins.
Arizona State clinched the Pac-12 South Division by holding off UCLA’s late rally in the Rose Bowl two weeks ago and emphatically earned the right to host the Pac-12 championship by dismantling rival Arizona 58-21 on Saturday.
The Sun Devils’ run earned Graham Pac-12 coach of the year honors, defensive end Will Sutton a second defensive player of the year award and landed 16 players on the all-conference team, second-most in school history to the 17 by the 1996 team that went on to play in the Rose Bowl.
Arizona State hasn’t been back to the Rose Bowl since and is itching for another shot.
”We’re anxious, but we know we have got a lot of work still,” said Sun Devils running back D.J. Foster, who ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona. ”There is still a big game coming up, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves.”
The Sun Devils have been good at not looking too far ahead, which hasn’t always been the case.
In three of the previous four seasons, Arizona State followed strong starts with losing streaks of four or more.
The Sun Devils opened the 2009 season 4-2 and lost their final six. In 2011, a 6-2 start was marred by a five-game losing streak.
Last season, its first under Graham, Arizona State won five of its first six games before a four-game losing streak threatened to derail the season.
The Sun Devils bounced back to win their final three games, including a blowout in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and the confidence carried over this season, allowing them to shake off the tough loses to Stanford and Notre Dame with the program’s longest winning streak since opening the 2007 season with eight consecutive wins.
”I’ve never worried in our guys’ confidence and their belief in what we do,” Graham said. ”They’ve learned that talent is not enough, that discipline, fundamentals and how you play together as a unit is key.”
The run has earned the Sun Devils a rematch against Stanford, one they’ve been hoping for since that ugly day in September.
Arizona State came out flat and was awful on special teams, falling behind 29-0 at halftime and 39-7 after three quarters.
The Sun Devils finally started to click and scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but it came far too late, leading to a humbling 42-28 loss.
”The spark didn’t hit us until the fourth quarter,” Sutton said. ”You saw how we tried to fight back, but we felt like it was too late at that time, we didn’t have enough time. We still had a chance, which told us something: That we’re a really good team if we bring it from the beginning to the end and not give up opportunities.”
The Sun Devils have earned another shot at getting it right. The way they’ve been playing lately, they should have a better shot this time.