Arizona State's pursuit of the program's first Rose Bowl berth since the 1996 season is predicated on reversing trends.
"When you're experiencing success, everybody's kind of patting you on the back and think you've done it. We've not done anything," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said in his press conference Monday, per TheSunDevils.com. "Win the next four games [three in the regular season and the Pac-12 championship game], then we've done something."
Living up to the program's current mantra of "Conquer November" began in Week 11.
The Sun Devils remain atop the Pac-12 South and in control of their destiny after Saturday's win at Utah. The 20-19 decision wasn't the prettiest, but bucked two dubious trends lingering over the program recently: losing away from Sun Devil Stadium and struggling in November.
"I knew going into that game, Stanford got beat there. UCLA, [Utah] gave them everything they wanted," Graham said. "That's a very, very tough place to play."
Each of the next three weeks brings more of the same challenges Arizona State faced at Utah. Beyond the effort to undo late-season failings of years past, the Sun Devils have other skids to snap in the home stretch.
Two of their final three opponents—Oregon State and UCLA—beat the Sun Devils last season. The third is rival Arizona, and those initiated with the Duel in the Desert know that it rarely goes according to script. The road team has won every game since 2009, and hosting duties fall to Arizona State this season.
Oregon State suffered consecutive losses to Stanford and USC, but come to Tempe, Ariz. with an extra week of preparation after a bye week. The 15 days between games means more game-planning for head coach Mike Riley.
Graham credited Riley with out-coaching the Sun Devils staff in last year's 36-26 game. The Beavers also got a huge contribution from big-play wide receiver threat Brandin Cooks, who went off for 116 yards on six receptions and a touchdown.
Asserting their defensive dominance on the line early is crucial to the Sun Devils containing Oregon State's potent passing attack. Both Stanford and USC succeeded in pressuring quarterback Sean Mannion, rattling the Oregon State junior and disrupting his rhythm.
Conversely, Arizona State is finding its stride up front defensively. The Sun Devils are coming off a nine tackle-for-loss, four-sack performance at Utah. The renewed vigor of the touted front seven and the all-around play of quarterback Taylor Kelly are the two cornerstones to a Pac-12 championship.
"You want to win this league, you're going to have to play championship-level defense," Graham said. "You're going to have to [have] championship-level quarterback play. That's it. Those are non-negotiable if you're going to win this league."
Earning a spot in the Rose Bowl means winning at the Rose Bowl in Week 13, and both defense and quarterback play are crucial in that matchup against UCLA.
Nov. 23 looms as the presumptive Pac-12 South championship game. Because it holds the tiebreaker over USC, Arizona State can afford a loss to either Oregon State or Arizona, but only if it defeats the Bruins.
Knocking off No. 13-ranked UCLA means winning on the road, in late November, with disciplined football. The latter was a problem plaguing past Arizona State teams, which Graham emphasized eliminating upon his arrival in the program.
The Sun Devils have responded. They average the fourth-fewest penalty yards per game, a vast departure from 2011 when they led the nation. At Utah, they were on the opposite end of the profound impact a costly flag can have when running back Kelvin York committed a personal foul in the second half that pushed the Utes out of field goal range.
"That's not us. We don't get penalties," said Graham. "That discipline helped us there, and I think our guys see that, too."
Fittingly given Arizona State's determination to reverse past trends, penalties could be a deciding factor in upending UCLA, the nation's second-most penalized team.
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