ASU Football: Sun Devils turn focus, attention to UCLA with Pac-12 South title on the line

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport

The Arizona State football team has one mission and that's to defeat the UCLA Bruins on Saturday.

After Arizona State's 30-17 victory against Oregon State on Saturday night, the Sun Devils went through their typical postgame routine of singing the fight song with fans and retreating to their locker room to "break the rock."

But this week, something was different about the way the Arizona State players carried themselves off the field. As the Sun Devils entered Tillman Tunnel, the emotions of the players were strikingly different than they've been after the previous seven victories this season.

As the players trotted off the field, most looked dissatisfied and walked toward the locker room with their eyes straight ahead. The Sun Devils could have been frustrated with their effort against Oregon State, but quarterback Taylor Kelly said after the game that his teammates are simply ready to get down to business again.

When the Sun Devils arrived at the locker room, they were greeted by coach Todd Graham, who offered little more than an acknowledgement of Saturday night's victory. Graham proceeded to preach about the Sun Devils' upcoming contest in Pasadena, where the Sun Devils can clinch the Pac-12 South title with a victory over the UCLA Bruins.

"It's pretty quick," Kelly said of Graham's postgame speech. "He congratulated all the guys that played tonight and did a great job but as he told us, we have 60 minutes to achieve our goal next week. We put this one behind us and start with UCLA tomorrow."

Kelly echoed his head coach's sentiments and said the players are looking forward to getting back in the film room and studying up on their Pac-12 South nemesis.

"We have to prepare. It starts tomorrow," Kelly said. "Put this one behind us and have a great week of practice."

Kelly's right. The Sun Devils have plenty to work on prior to their matchup on Saturday. Arizona State scored a season-low at home with just 30 points, and the redshirt junior was held below 200 yards passing for the second week in a row.

Next week's game is more than just another conference tilt for Arizona State. It gives Kelly and his teammates the opportunity to prove that they're taking the Sun Devil program to the next level under Todd Graham. It also afford many players the chance to play in an area where they grew up, as the Sun Devil roster is peppered with Southern California natives.

"Guys are going to be playing in front of all of their family and friends," Kelly said. "It's the Rose Bowl, it's Pasadena, guys are from Southern California so we have to have a very high focus."

Todd Graham knows the significance of next Saturday's game, and he's not about to downplay the importance it has on the goals he's trying to accomplish. Graham was impressed with his team's effort against Oregon State, but he didn't take the job at Arizona State to win conference games. He came to win conference championships.

"It's a big game. I don't buy into all of that, I just tell it like it is," Graham said. "Everything we've worked for is in this 60 minutes this week so it ain't just any game."

The Bruins are formidable competition to say the least. After defeating Washington on Friday night, UCLA ran its record to 8-2 on the season and will see its stock rise in the national polls on Sunday. Jim Mora Jr.'s squad is the defending Pac-12 South champion, and the Bruins have suffered their only two losses against Oregon and Stanford this season.

That's why Graham is being particularly stringent about moving on from the Oregon State win. He knows he'll need every minute he can get to prepare his team to compete for a division title, and he's making sure his players are ready for this week.

"We cannot spend one minute celebrating anything," Graham said. "That's the first thing I did in the locker room, said congratulations and we're going to the next deal."

The look in the eyes of the Sun Devil players was different on Saturday night, but Graham and his players reiterated that this mentality has taken time to cultivate. Kelly said that the there's something unique about this year's team, and he points to the togetherness of the players as a reason behind the success.

"It's the belief in each other. It's the relationships we have for each other both offensively and defensively," Kelly said. "It's just different."

Cornerback Robert Nelson, a hero from Saturday night's win with two interceptions, brought up the family aspect on the Sun Devil team.

"We really feel like we're brothers. That's a mindset that we have," Nelson said. "These leaders right here, TK (Kelly) and Marion (Grice), I'd do anything for these guys and I'm pretty sure they would do that to. They come over there and pump us up and that's a mindset now."

Graham said the offense and defense are finally playing as one unit and the way the players are reaching out to each other on the sidelines has struck him.

"There's really a different synergy about what their doing," Graham said of this year's team.

The Sun Devils notched their eighth win of the season against Oregon State which matches last year's total. If the Sun Devils beat UCLA, they'll have nine wins with three games left on the schedule. The opportunities are endless for Graham's squad, but to find the success they're looking for, they'll need to give everything they have in the days ahead.

For this year's Sun Devils, the win against Oregon State is nothing more than business as usual. To beat UCLA, now that would be the start of something truly special. Saturday's night's victory is only a few hours in the books whereas next Saturday's showdown in Pasadena is six days away, but you can guarantee that every Sun Devil has their mind on the road ahead.

"These guys know. This is it," Graham said. "This is the big game for us to clinch our goal of being Pac-12 South champions and we've got a huge challenge."

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