ASU Football: The wild ride to the Pac-12 South title

Harry How

Todd Graham guided the Sun Devils to one of the most remarkable victories in program history on Saturday in Pasadena.

For all of the times they came so close, all of the times they collapsed in the end, and all of the devastating heartbreaks they endured on the football field, the Arizona State community can finally rejoice with its Sun Devils again.

On Friday afternoon, the Sun Devils departed Arizona with a mission. Their goal was to invade Pasadena and strip the Pac-12 South title belt off of the UCLA Bruins. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the Sun Devils will return home to the finish line in Tempe as conquerors--and as champions.

***

In Dec. of 2011, the Arizona State athletic department was faced with a choice. The Sun Devils needed a replacement for Dennis Erickson-but not just any proven coach. Arizona State needed a man who could shock the culture, and revitalize the spirits of a program in need of a gut check.

So after a controversial and drawn-out process, the Sun Devils landed on Todd Graham. At first, many fans were reluctant to accept Graham. The Texas native has a reputation of jumping ship and leaving for better jobs, which is exactly why he landed at Arizona State.

Upon his hiring, Graham talked more about the personalities of his players than the skill sets of his players. Sure, he likes guys that can run for a lot of yards, but can they pass protect at practice too? A player can make tackles, but can he fill a gap in a complicated defensive scheme?

Throughout his first offseason as head coach, Graham made countless public appearances and displays of good will for the Sun Devil fan base. He didn't just want Sun Devil nation to understand what he was doing, he wanted people to know why he was doing it.

Most of all, Graham wanted to show Arizona State that he was going to turn out a product that the entire community could be proud of. Win, lose or draw, he was going to demand that his players gave their all, and that in doing so, losing and drawing stop becoming options.

Graham talked about character, and how he wanted his players to carry themselves. He talked about discipline, and how penalties and turnovers ruin football teams. He talked about toughness, and how responding to adverse situations defines people. He talked about defense, and how defense wins championships. And finally, he talked about Rose Bowls and championships, and how he was going to bring them to Arizona State.

During his first two seasons as head coach, Graham has encountered skepticism from doubters. Perhaps it was justified. How could fans trust someone who turned his back on other programs?

Even with the questions, Graham powered through because he knew he had one unifying source behind him. His players. When Graham arrived at Arizona State, the vast majority of the Sun Devils he inherited bought into what Graham was selling.

Part of the reason players responded so well to Graham's arrival could have been the foundation laid by Dennis Erickson. In Erickson's tenure, the Sun Devils stockpiled talent. Arizona State routinely found itself in the national rankings, only to tumble down to the depths of mediocrity by season's end. With a new leader who oozed passion, the Sun Devils didn't think about making it to the finish line anymore; they thought about beating everyone else to it.

***

On Saturday night, Arizona State encountered one of its first finish lines under Todd Graham. The Sun Devils controlled their own destiny heading into Pasadena, and with a win, they would emerge as Pac-12 South champions.

But to achieve their goal, the Sun Devils would have to fight one of their greatest demons. The reputation--the stigma of Arizona State falling short of expectations--has reared its ugly head on the road. The Bruins, owners of the only two existing Pac-12 South titles prior to Saturday night, would not go down easily.

In the first half of Saturday's game, the Sun Devils played their most inspired football of the season. Nearly two years of hearing their head coach talk about the opportunity they had in front of them became music to their ears.

Arizona State roared out to a 35-13 halftime lead behind a stellar collective effort. Whether it was Taylor Kelly's masterful read-option command or Carl Bradford's sensational play-making abilities from his Devil backer position, the Sun Devils shared an infectious energy.

With 11 seconds remaining in the first half, the Sun Devils decided to take a gamble. After all, on the biggest stage with their most important goals on the line, Todd Graham could not afford for his players to leave anything on the field.

Even though Arizona State was out of timeouts and sitting comfortably in field goal range, Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell sent Kelly and the offense out on the field. What transpired turned out to be the game-deciding touchdown, as Kelly found wide receiver Jaelen Strong for a 19-yard touchdown pass that put the Sun Devils up by 22 points heading into the break.

For an entire week, Graham and the coaching staff knew the Sun Devils were 60 minutes away from reaching their goal of winning the Pac-12 South crown. As Arizona State arrived in the locker room at half time, Graham could say with certainty that the Sun Devils were 30 minutes from watching their labor come to fruition.

Still, the Bruins have taken punches before, and they were not about to let an overachieving, scrappy group of players steal their hard-earned hardware without fighting back. The second half action was not for the faint of heart.

UCLA seized the momentum out of the locker room and scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives to begin the second half. The Bruins cut their deficit from 22 points to just five-and they had an opportunity for a two-point conversion to narrow Arizona State's lead to just three points. But alas, Sun Devil safety Alden Darby-a senior captain-made a timely defensive play and snatched Brett Hundley's pass out of the air to preserve the five-point cushion.

With Arizona State's offense sputtering, the Sun Devils would ask their defense to step up and preserve the victory. With a third and six opportunity from the Sun Devils' 7-yard line and time ticking away, Hundley and the Bruins found themselves poised to take the lead. As Hundley dropped back to pass, he faced pressure from the Arizona State front, and attempted to slither out of the pocket.

That's when linebacker Chris Young lunged for Hundley's ankles, and sacked the Ariz. native for the Sun Devils' seventh sack of the game. The loss of yardage hurt the Bruins, as kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn missed the ensuing 37-yard field goal.

After a 9-yard scamper on first down, running back Marion Grice left the game with an injury and Arizona State couldn't convert for a first down. That meant the Sun Devils would punt the ball back to the Bruins, and allow the promises that Graham made at Arizona State to face their toughest tests yet.

***

Character, discipline, defense and championships all on the line. All on the road.

The Bruins took possession of the ball on their own 35-yard line with 3:21 remaining in the game. On the first play of the drive, Hundley dropped back and was met by Young for his second consecutive sack.

Character? Check. Young has more than enough. Like many of Arizona State's top contributors, Young was a JUCO transfer who was one of Graham's first recruits as head coach. He battled through adversity to get to Arizona State, and against UCLA, his 13 tackles, three sacks and three tackles for loss led the way.

After a fourth down and five conversion for UCLA, the Bruins found themselves on the Sun Devils' 45-yard line. Four downs, 10 yards, the rest of the field. Except that's not how it worked out. UCLA committed two consecutive penalties that pushed the Bruins from a first and 10 to a first and 30 situation as Arizona State's defense gladly marched forward.

Discipline? Check. On the game's final drive, the Sun Devils outlasted the Bruins and proved they were the most disciplined team on the field. As UCLA committed penalties, Graham's defense stayed locked in on assignments and didn't go for the game-breaking hits so familiar in the Erickson era. The Sun Devils finished the game with three penalties for 20 yards, and turned the ball over just once.

As UCLA lost its hand on the comeback effort, the Sun Devil defense regained an edge. The secondary stayed disciplined over the top, and the pressure forced Hundley to throw the ball quicker than he anticipated.

Defense? Check. On third down and 30, Davon Coleman registered Arizona State's ninth sack of the evening, cementing the fate of Saturday's outcome. Arizona State's nine sacks and 10 tackles for loss were indicative of a relentless effort from a tough defensive front. Despite allowing 33 points, the Sun Devils locked up the Bruins on their final two drives and held UCLA 15 points below its season average at the Rose Bowl.

After a fourth and 35 completion fell short of the first down marker, the Sun Devil offense took to the field in victory formation. Arizona State took one final knee, and finished off a heart-stopping 38-33 victory in front of a raucous Bruin crowd.

Championship? Check. Graham knew it wasn't going to be easy, but he also knew it was possible. As the final horn sounded, Graham walked to midfield for the changing of the guard. When UCLA coach Jim Mora, Jr. shook Graham's hand, the proverbial passing of the torch occurred, and Graham left with a Pac-12 South title to his name.

***

Todd Graham has made a lot of promises during his career. This season, he proved he could keep them. On Saturday night in Pasadena, Arizona State was finally able to experience what being a champion feels like again. Those same Sun Devil fans that Graham tried to win over when he first arrived now know what he meant when he was talking about character, discipline and toughness.

The football tradition at Arizona State is proud. The Sun Devils just needed the right man to rediscover the roots of that tradition. For the Sun Devils, the win is a validation of their hard work, but it's just the beginning of where they want to go.

Arizona State has aspirations far greater than winning division titles. The Sun Devils want conference championships, and ultimately, national championships. While those goals may seem far-fetched, consider how most people felt about winning a division crown when Graham was hired two years ago. Hell, consider what most people thought when Graham said he could bring discipline back to Arizona State.

As for now, the Sun Devil community can revel in the excitement of winning a Pac-12 South championship. In fact, pour out a glass for Todd Graham, his coaching staff, and his players as well. Because on Sunday, the Sun Devils will be back to work, thinking about Arizona and dreaming of Roses. The Sun Devils still have more finish lines to cross.

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