We know if you want to be the Pac-12 champions, this is a game we have to win. They’re very talented, have a great quarterback, great skill players, and we’ve got to be at our best to win. —Arizona State coach Todd Graham, on USC
SALT LAKE CITY — When USC and Arizona State square off in Tempe, Arizona, this weekend, it will be for control of the Pac-12 South.
USC is coming off a loss to Notre Dame, while Arizona State is on the rise after beating Utah 30-10.
“We know if you want to be the Pac-12 champions, this is a game we have to win,” said Sun Devils coach Todd Graham. “They’re very talented, have a great quarterback, great skill players, and we’ve got to be at our best to win.”
Luckily, the Sun Devils appear to be playing their best after a rough 2-3 start with losses to San Diego State, Texas Tech and Stanford. After the bye week, however, the Sun Devils upset then-No. 4 Washington and followed that up with a decisive win over the Utes.
Arizona State had five new coaches, including new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who replaced current linebackers coach Keith Patterson.
“I don’t like changes,” Graham said of the coaching moves. “Continuity is key. But the good news is our players didn’t change.”
He said the players are talented and high-character people, and that, coupled with the vision of the coaching staff, made this turnaround possible. He pointed out that he’s been part of three different turnarounds, twice when they were improbable or extreme.
“You can’t just sway with the wind,” he said. “You have to have a vision and a plan and stick to it. If you stick to the plan, the players will start to believe. The goal of our program is to win championships, and to do that we have to keep winning. That starts with this weekend.”
He said it took them a while to adapt to the coaching changes, but they have a comfort level on and off the field and it shows on the scoreboard.
“I think we’re playing our best football right now,” he said.
USC, on the other hand, started 4-0 before being upset by Washington State. The Trojans then beat Oregon State and Utah before losing 49-14 to Notre Dame.
USC coach Clay Helton said losing such a lopsided game to the Fighting Irish was “humbling” — and, while he didn’t like the loss, he liked the way his players have responded.
“They addressed it really well,” he said. “They’re in a good frame of mind. They’re not a bunch that pouts or feels sorry for themselves. They’re a bunch that gets right back on the horse.”
He said quarterback Sam Darnold is handling the ups and downs of the season “about as good as a man can do. I’m so proud of him and what he stands for. He’s the definition of what a Trojan should be.”
He agreed that ASU is playing some of “their best football” the last few weeks and sees the impact of Bennett on the defense, especially in the secondary.
Arizona State offered fans a sneak peek at a uniform that will honor Pat Tillman, an alumnus and Army Ranger who was killed in Afghanistan. The camouflage helmets have “Brotherhood” on the back listing all former players to serve in the U.S. military, the uniform style is retro, and the players gloves have Tillman’s initials and No. 42 on them when overlapping.
They will wear the special uniforms on Nov. 4 against Colorado.
Tillman played four seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals before joining the Army Rangers in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, at age 27.
At this season’s opener against New Mexico State, the Sun Devils unveiled a statue honoring Tillman.
UCLA ROAD WOES
The Bruins are coming off a victory over Oregon, and now they will try to win their first road game in 13 months against the Washington Huskies.
Ironically, UCLA had a stellar record on the road in Jim Mora’s first four years when they went 20-8. Their last road victory was at BYU on Sept. 17, 2016.
“We just have to play better,” Mora said. “I think what you have to do is eliminate all the noise and all the stuff that doesn’t matter and just focus on what happens on the field.”
The ability to win on the road could determine the kind of season the Bruins will end up having as they have three of their last five games on the road. After taking on No. 12 Washington, they will travel to Rice-Eccles to play the Utes on a Friday, Nov. 3rd.