(Photo: Allyson Cummings/WCSN)
It’s the biggest game of the season, and the Arizona State Sun Devils aren’t avoiding the topic. Todd Graham and company have been preaching all week about the impact Saturday night’s contest with UCLA can have on the program.
It’s simple: win and you’re in. If the Sun Devils beat the Bruins, they can rest easy against Arizona – as unlikely as that may be – knowing that either way, the Pac-12 Championship game awaits them.
UCLA must win, and even then they aren’t guaranteed a spot in the championship. The Bruins would still have to beat USC – no easy task given the Trojans level of play over the last month – and a loss would put the Sun Devils back in the title game with a win over UofA.
But Arizona State doesn’t want it to come down to UCLA winning or losing, making Saturday night the most important night of Graham’s coaching career.
Arizona State wins if: Taylor Kelly outplays Brett Hundley. That’s no small task, either. Hundley is about as dynamic as they come. He’s easily the best quarterback the Sun Devils will face on their regular season schedule, and he’s a sure-fire future first-round pick. Hundley is the best quarterback to roll through Westwood since Cade McNown. Laugh all you want about McNown’s NFL career, but in college, he was as good as they came.
Kelly has struggled the last two weeks. He threw two bad interceptions against Oregon State and has seemingly forgotten about Chris Coyle. He doesn’t have to put up better numbers than Hundley, but Kelly must control the pace and secure the football. And yes, he needs to make a dynamic play at some point.
The Sun Devils are in trouble if: the best player in college football, Myles Jack, goes off. Okay, Okay, I’m being a bit sarcastic…actually, a lot sarcastic, but UCLA fans are convinced that Jack should be a Heisman contender, all because he broke one big run against Arizona and had four relatively easy touchdowns against Washington. Jack’s real value is on defense, but the Sun Devils run a much faster tempo than either Washington or Arizona. Can Jack handle playing both ways at this speed?
If the answer is yes, and he starts making plays, Arizona State is going to need Marion Grice to answer. Grice hasn’t hit a home run yet, but he’s still leading the Sun Devils in scoring. If Jack gets going, Grice needs to answer.
Arizona State loses if: the moment becomes too big for them. I know we’ve all assumed Graham and the Sun Devils have moved past that stigma of collapsing when it counts, but Notre Dame was the last major test and Arizona State choked. Utah was a big game in terms of winning on the road against an inferior opponent, but UCLA is another animal, and the pressure is unlike any game anyone on this team has ever faced. If the Sun Devils start turning the ball over, missing tackles or committing penalties, UCLA will win.
Prediction: UCLA wins, 44-41. I still think the Sun Devils back their way into the Pac-12 Championship game, but something tells me UCLA is going to win this game. Maybe it’s the spat between Graham and Carl Bradford last week. Maybe it’s Kelly’s struggles of late. Maybe it’s the fact that Arizona State hasn’t won a game this big in a decade. But until they prove, just once, that they can take their game to the next level, I can’t pick the Sun Devils in a game like this.