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November 17, 2013

ASU on familiar ground with UCLA game significance

The third time is a charm. Or at least, that's what Arizona State fans, coaches and players are hoping.

Following its 30-17 win over Oregon State on Saturday, ASU finds itself in a familiar situation as each of its previous two seasons: a crucial late-season matchup against UCLA in what could determine the Pac-12 South champion. In both prior attempts, the Sun Devils have come up as just short and UCLA represented the division in the title game.

Standing at 8-2 overall and 6-1 in the Pac-12 thus far this year, the Sun Devils are on the final home stretch of their schedule and hope to have the Pac-12 South clinched even before the regular season concludes, and can do so with a win at the Rose Bowl Saturday.

"I'm really proud of our guys," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "We have worked a really long time, some of these guys five years, for the opportunity to go to UCLA and compete for the Pac-12 South Championship. We are 60 minutes away, one win away, from clinching the South. That is a big, big deal."

This year, the Sun Devils have a much different mindset and playing style heading into the game than they did two seasons ago. They don't commit very many penalties, play sound defensively with more consistency and don't turn the ball over, all things that Graham harps on consistently.

After the game against OSU Saturday, ASU has committed just 92 penalties in 23 games under Graham, an average of just four per game. ASU has also now forced a turnover in 24 straight games (23 in the Graham era), a streak that is third in the nation behind only Missouri and Stanford.

While Graham still believes that continuing to not turn the ball over will be a big key to come away with a victory next week, he and the rest of team realize what has to go their way, something that hasn't necessarily favored the Sun Devils throughout the season.

"For us to be Pac-12 South champions, next week we have to win on special teams," Graham said. "That is the number one thing."

Last time the Sun Devils traveled to Pasadena, Dennis Erickson was the head coach, they were efficient offensively yet also were undisciplined and continuously shot themselves in the foot with penalties and/or late game collapses. They ranked No. 120 in the nation with 8.4 penalties per game and an average of 79.8 penalty yards per game.

All that aside, they were 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12 entering that day and it seemed like for most of the game they would pull through. Midway through the fourth quarter, ASU was leading 28-23 and recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and had a chance to ice the game. After the drive stalled, then-freshman Alex Garoutte missed a 36 yard field goal, giving the ball back to UCLA.

The next Bruin drive went 79 yards on 10 plays which included a huge third-and-29 conversion against current senior safety Alden Darby en route to a score that put UCLA up 29-28 with 0:49 left on the clock.

On the last ASU drive, quarterback Brock Osweiler moved the offense down the field but due to some clock management from Erickson, ASU lost a huge opportunity to clinch the Pac-12 South in its inaugural year.

Additionally, ASU did not see another win for the rest of the season and finished 6-7 overall which resulted in ASU firing Erickson at the end of the year.

The Sun Devils found themselves in a very similar position the very next year. On homecoming night at Sun Devil Stadium against UCLA they found themselves sitting at 5-3 overall and 3-1 in the Pac-12 with a shot at substantially bolstering their chances of winning the Pac-12 title.

It was the fourth quarter, and ASU found itself up 43-42 with 1:33 left to play after quarterback Taylor Kelly hit running back D.J. Foster for a seven yard touchdown.

On the ensuing Bruin drive, freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, playing a few miles from where he grew up in Chandler, Ariz., drove the Bruins into field-goal range. As time expired, Ka'imi Fairbairn kicked a 33-yard field goal and UCLA escaped with a 45-43 shootout victory over ASU.

Just as it did in 2011, UCLA then went on to represent the South in the Pac-12 Championship game instead of what could've been ASU in 2011 and would've been in 2012.

This season, the Sun Devils hope the old saying is true and they end up on the opposite side of the spectrum they've landed on the previous two times.

"We've worked a lot as a staff," Graham said. "This team, our strength staff, a lot of people have put a lot into this thing. We have got this team where they are at right now. We have got a heck of a football team and we are looking forward to going and competing for the Pac-12 South next week."


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