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ASU Football: Graham emphasizes ball security, containing Booker

Coach Graham spoke on his keys to Saturday's primetime tilt at Utah, including containing Utah's lethal rushing attack and winning the ball possession battle.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Todd Graham opened up his media availability on Thursday by saying he wishes he didn't have to talk because he hasn't shaved in a couple of days. Clearly he's had other things on his mind.

Graham's always emphasized the importance of ball protection, and he continued to harp on that sentiment Thursday. The Utes own one of the top turnover ratios in the country, and forced six turnovers against Cal last week, including five interceptions of elite NFL prospect Jared Goff in their victory over the Golden Bears. ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici's thrown an interception in four of ASU's six games so far this season, a trend Graham intends to stop.

"Our mission in this game, special teams, offense, defense, is to own the football. That is our number one mission," Graham said. "Mike and the offense need to come to this game and have 100% ball security, that we did not turn the ball over in any fashion, on special teams and on offense. And then we've got to get takeaways on defense, I really think it's that simple. It's going to be a physical battle."

Utah's Devontae Booker has made a national name out of himself with his performances over the Utes' first five games, averaging 133 yards on the ground per game and accounting for six touchdowns on the season. While their six turnovers were critical in their downfall in Salt Lake City last week, Booker's pair of touchdowns and 222 yards on the ground to go with four catches for 45 yards did the Golden Bears in.

"Just like every week. You don't ever get to anything else if you don't stop the run. He's as good as there is," Graham said of Booker. "I said Paul Perkins, the time we were playing him, was playing better than anybody in the league and I'd say Booker would be the next best guy. There's a lot of good backs, but Booker's different. He's their leading receiver, very versatile out of the backfield, very explosive.

"There are those few running backs that make you tackle. Most people, you hit them and they go down, This guy, he makes you tackle. You've gotta overwhelm him with physicality and fundamentals and gang tackling."

Senior quarterback Travis Wilson has also found a groove this season, completing more than 66 percent of his passes so far this season and leading an efficient Utah offense to a 5-0 record. Wilson's also a dangerous rusher when the pocket collapses, and the 6-foot-7, 233-pound quarterback has rumbled his way to 249 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground in 2015. But he only runs when he needs to, and Utah's deep receiving corps usually allows him to be a pocket passer.

"They've got three or four receivers that can take it to the house. Very fast, very explosive," Graham said. "They're gonna stretch the field. Lotta climb routes, lot of post-climbs, double-cuts, things like that so we've been working on being sound vertically. There's a reason they're the fourth-ranked team in the country, they're pretty darn good.

"(Wilson) scrambling out of the backfield is a challenge, we've got to do a great job with our lane integrity."

While the team has remained focused on the task at hand, the outside world's been building this game up to one of the biggest the Pac-12 will have this season, with key positioning in the South division riding on Saturday night. Graham knows the importance of the game, but made sure to point out that it's nothing they're not used to.

"I don't have to tell the kids this game's important. We're playing the fourth-ranked team in the country, you don't gotta do that. It's not up and down like that," Graham said. "Right now, the Pac-12, this time of year you're sitting here with six games left. It's a single-elimination tournament, you lose a game and you put yourself in jeopardy."