By JOHN MARSHALL
AP College Football Writer
TEMPE, Ariz. — Shortly after his team knocked off Oregon State, Arizona State coach Todd Graham congratulated his Sun Devils for beating a quality opponent and quickly turned their attention to the next game.
Instead of treating Saturday’s game against No. 14 UCLA as just another stop on the schedule, Graham emphasized just how important it is to the program.
The goal since Graham arrived in the desert was to win a Pac-12 championship and now that the 19th-ranked Sun Devils were on the cusp of securing a spot in the game, he saw no reason to change the message.
“It’s hard for me not to point to the game here when we’ve been talking about winning a championship for two years,” Graham said Monday. “I don’t believe how I act in the week is going to change a whole lot. It’s what you do the whole year.”
What Arizona State has done this year is accelerate the winning curve.
When Graham was hired before the 2012 season, he said it usually takes five years for a coach to fully get a program headed in the right direction. He wanted to win sooner, of course, but a five-year plan was more realistic.
Graham and the Sun Devils have bumped up the timeline much quicker than anyone expected.
It started last season, when Graham remodeled the program in his image with enthusiasm and discipline. The Sun Devils responded well to what was a drastic change from previous years, winning eight games, including over rival Arizona in the season finale and a blowout over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Arizona State (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) has taken another step this season, shaking off tough losses to Stanford and Notre Dame by playing its best football over the past month. With their 30-17 win over Oregon State at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday night, Arizona State has won five straight for the first time since 2007 and moved up to 17th in the BCS standings.
Next comes the biggest game Arizona State has faced in years, certainly in two seasons under Graham.
Beat the Bruins and the Sun Devils will pretty much have the Pac-12 South Division wrapped up, earning a chance to play in the Pac-12 championship game and possibly go on to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997. Lose and Arizona State still has a shot, but will need to beat Arizona and have Southern California knock off UCLA.
The Sun Devils would rather take care of it this week and not have to worry about getting help.
“We believed we could be a great team,” Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly said. “Coach did a great job instilling that mindset.”
Part of Graham’s mind setting is laying out specific goals for his team.
Inside Arizona State’s defensive meeting room is a schedule. To emphasize the most important games on it, Graham and the coaches put helmets next to the teams they wanted to beat most: Stanford, USC, UCLA and Arizona.
The Sun Devils split the first two and can achieve the next of their goals by winning the next two.
“If we want to win the South, not to diminish anyone else in the South, that is really where we put the focus,” Graham said. “Those are the games we know are must-win to reach our goals.”
It is a fine line for a coach to walk, putting extra emphasis on certain games.
Put too much on one game and players might start to feel extra pressure and tense up when the moment comes. It also might cause them to overlook opponents and lose a game that perhaps they should have won.
The Sun Devils have been good at maintaining focus on the opponent right in front of them, the win over Oregon State being a perfect example.
The big-game pressure has been a mixed bag; Arizona State was stunned early against Stanford before trying to rally, but also turned a matchup against a ranked Washington team into a blowout.
Regardless of what’s happened so far, Graham is not about to change the approach, even as the stakes have reached a level unprecedented in his two years in Tempe.
“I’m not going to act any different than any other week,” Graham said. “But is this a big game? Yeah, it’s a big game.”
It’s also a huge opportunity, the biggest the Sun Devils have had under Graham so far.