Kragthorpe: Arizona State hopes for strong finish, Pac-12 South title
Ute co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson paused to field questions and accept congratulations while walking out of Rice-Eccles Stadium after Utah's upset of Stanford last month. Erickson's parting sentiment emphasized briefly enjoying the victory then going back to work to prepare for another opponent.
Erickson's cautious approach was a product of his long career, including his last head coaching experience. In 2011, his Arizona State team stood 6-2 overall and seemingly was a lock to win the Pac-12 South championship (with USC ineligible), only to lose its last four regular-season games in a series of fourth-quarter fades that cost Erickson his job.
Two years later, despite his well-grounded response to beating Stanford, Erickson's new team is struggling after four straight losses. His old team is back in position to clinch the South title by beating UCLA this Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
ASU coach Todd Graham is not downplaying the opportunity to win the division.
"We talk about it all the time ... from the time we walked in the door here," Graham said Tuesday.
UCLA is the South's two-time defending champion, thanks partly to ASU's annual lapses. This game could be a classic, like last year's 45-43 win for the Sun Devils in a great duel between quarterbacks Taylor Kelly of ASU and Brett Hundley of UCLA.
That victory was part of ASU's 5-1 start in Graham's first season. But it was followed by four defeats before the Sun Devils regrouped with two conference victories and a bowl win.
ASU has avoided another collapse this month by overcoming some offensive struggles to beat Utah and Oregon State. The Sun Devils were rolling up huge numbers until being held to seven points through three quarters at Utah, although they salvaged a 20-19 win with two long touchdown drives. The offense produced only 339 yards and 23 points last weekend, but an interception return for a touchdown helped ASU beat Oregon State 30-17.
The Sun Devils will have to score more than 20 points and probably more than 30 to beat the Bruins.
UCLA regressed offensively in losses to Stanford and Oregon but has recovered with wins over Colorado, Arizona and Washington. The Bruins' improvement is partly attributable to coach Jim Mora's multiple uses of linebacker Myles Jack. The freshman has taken offensive shifts in the past two games, carrying the ball 13 times for 59 yards and three touchdowns against Washington. UCLA defensive end Cassius Marsh also caught a TD pass against the Huskies as a blocker in a goal-line formation.
If the Bruins win Saturday, they'll also have to beat USC to become the South's representative in the Pac-12 championship game. In turn, USC needs both UCLA and Arizona to defeat ASU, in addition to beating UCLA next week.