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Todd Graham: ‘Hard not to point to UCLA game’ as a big one given Pac-12 Championship aspirations

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State head coach Todd Graham is not bothered by the microphone. In fact, more often than not, he’s a man of many words.

But leading up to the much-anticipated matchup with the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl Saturday night, he understands that less might actually be more.

The message really is a simple one for the Sun Devils: win and you’re in.

Aided by a five-game win streak — the program’s longest since 2007 — ASU controls its own destiny when it comes to representing the Pac-12 South in the conference title game on Dec. 7.

With a victory over UCLA this week, the Sun Devils would clinch the division and find themselves one step closer to earning a berth in the Granddaddy of Them All for the first time since the 1996 season.

It’s the main reason why Graham and his team circled this week’s appearance in Pasadena on the calendar even before the season began, with the hopes that a win over the Bruins would put them in a position to make a return trip to Southern California on New Year’s Day.

So how does Graham feel now that things have more or less gone according to plan heading into Saturday’s game?

“It’s hard not to point to this game, because we’ve talked about winning a championship for two years,” Graham said. “I don’t really think how I act in a week is going to change a whole lot. I think it’s what you do the whole year. Your team just can’t be mature one week. I think we’ve matured a great deal [this season].”

Part of that maturation Graham noted has been seen through his team’s ability to not let the schedule or the stage dictate their energy, enthusiasm and focus.

“If you come around our practice, we are intense and passionate every day. It ain’t high and it ain’t low. It’s stay right there,” Graham said pointing to a middle ground. “That’s why our practices are 20 periods. I used to practice for 35 periods. I believe you can’t be that intense for that long a period of time.

“I know our guys, we just need to be focused with our game plan and everything that we’re doing. Obviously, it’s a body of work at this point. There’s not a lot of surprises between one team and another team at this point. It’s just about going out and playing. But I mean this is a big game. I can’t say it’s not a big game.”

While postseason implications inherently make the Pac-12 South showdown ‘a big game,’ the two teams’ recent history certainly adds a level of intrigue, as well.

UCLA is the reigning two-time division champion and haven’t lost to ASU at home since Nov. 2007. And although it might be hard to surprise a familiar foe this time of year, Jim Mora has found quite a secret weapon in freshman Myles Jack, a linebacker who has recently been converted into a touchdown-scoring machine out of the backfield.

“I haven’t in awhile seen a freshman be able to come in and play like he’s been able to,” Graham said of Jack, who has five touchdowns in his last two games. “He has tremendous athleticism on both sides of the football, and I mean he’s impressive as a tailback.”

But for as impressive as Jack has been of late, Graham said his defense’s number priority Saturday will be limiting UCLA junior quarterback and Chandler native Brett Hundley’s big-play capability.

Hundrey threw for 274 yards and four touchdowns in the Bruins’ 45-43 victory over the Sun Devils in Oct. 2012.

“Number one, he has a big arm,” said Graham on Hundley. “He throws a very accurate deep ball, does a great job of throwing the ball down the field. Extending plays is the major deal with him. He’s just so hard to get a hold of and bring down in the pocket. He does a great job of throwing the ball away and getting rid of the ball. He doesn’t take many sacks.

“He is the key, obviously, to their whole offense working. The key is this week, much like every team you play in the Pac-12 pretty much, but if you look at the offenses in the league this is one of the best offenses in the league as far as explosiveness. The receiving corps, the running backs can score one-play touchdowns. So that’s the key for us is not giving up cheap ones and not letting [Hundley] get comfortable.”