TEMPE — After a season filled with the highs of beating No. 5 Washington and the lows of being blown out by No. 21 USC, the “most important game to our fanbase … to our coaches … to everyone,” said Arizona State football coach Todd Graham, has finally arrived.
The Territorial Cup.
“That is the most important game. We emphasize it …” Graham said. “Anything else is about winning the Pac-12 championship. Obviously for us to win this game and get the Territorial Cup back is the No. 1 priority for us and for our players. Our guys are measured by this.
“I’ve had a privilege to meet a lot of the former players going way back, and the ones that get it done in this game talk about it. The ones that don’t, don’t like talking about it. It’s something that I can tell you, I’ve been on both sides of it and there’s only one option.”
Saturday’s game against Arizona at Sun Devil Stadium raises many questions but perhaps the loudest one Graham heard during his weekly press conference related to how ASU played last year.
“There is nothing more miserable than losing this game,” Graham said about the 56-35 defeat in Tucson. “I don’t spend much time thinking about that. You spend a lot of time over the offseason with a bad taste in your mouth about it, but there is so much to do to prepare and there are so many, you don’t spend much time thinking about that. This is all about the 2017 football team and getting it done.”
Many differences exist between last season’s game and this one, including the location. Being home makes the game “pretty special,” Graham said, and he “loves the fact our seniors are getting to have their last game, Senior Day, on this field and in this game.”
Another difference is how the players feel about themselves.
“I think we’re a very confident team coming in and a team that is very close,” Graham said. “Not that we weren’t last year. It was just … you have so many different lineups, so many different people and things like that which disrupt your continuity is how I would describe the difference. This year we’ve got continuity and solid direction.”
With a rivalry game of this magnitude, alumni and former players have made their voices heard. One particular message has stayed with Graham.
“(Former coach Frank) Kush … always showed up this week and made sure to let me know how important (it is),” Graham said. “He made sure I knew the history of it, he made sure I knew the struggles of the referendum and all the things that went on back in the ’50s when that was going on and how important it is to win this game.”
With a matchup against speedy Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, “the key is just to use our fundamentals that we teach and our systems and adapt,” Graham said.
“You can’t just invent something every week. You’ve got to do what you do, and do it well. … That’s a big part of formulating a game plan, to stop their best player just like you’re on offense trying to get our best guys the ball on their less guys. That’s the chess match and all that, and the intangible is what’s in the hearts and minds of the players. He’s definitely a special player.”
This game also could help decide Graham’s future. When asked about it, he responded simply, “I don’t have anything to say about that.”
With all that is on the line, Graham hopes ASU fans can help make the final home game special. He also wants his seniors to enjoy the moment.
“Just maximize every snap,” he said. “Even though I’m an old man, I can remember looking at the clock. I turned around and looked at the clock my senior year and (saw) it tick down from 13 seconds all the way down. Until it’s over you don’t realize how precious it is to you.
“I just tell them to maximize every moment.”