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Graham: Winning out is important for program’s future

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham yells during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State won 52-37. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. — In the wake of Arizona State’s Territorial Cup victory over Arizona, you could almost excuse Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici if he donned a movie star persona and asked: “What’s my motivation?”

The Duel in the Desert is supposed to put a bow or lump of coal on the end of the regular season, before bowl game preparations begin. This year, ASU has to prepare for one more week of conference play with a road game at Cal on Saturday.

“Obviously, it was an incredible win, just an incredible feeling,” Bercovici said of the win over the Wildcats. “Coach Graham talks about one of the best memories about senior night or Senior Day is that you won the game, and we accomplished that.

“But it is a new week, and there’s a lot riding on this game so we’re just going to rally up. It’s time to move on. We enjoyed the win, but it’s time to focus, and the focus is Cal.”

The truth is, there is very little riding on this game. Cal has lost five of its last six games to fall out of contention for any decent bowl games, but the Bears have already secured bowl eligibility. ASU will either finish 7-5 or 6-6. In practical terms, the only difference between those two marks might be the Las Vegas Bowl vs. an at-large bowl bid like the Poinsettia Bowl.

The Sun Devils can talk about pride and sending the seniors out on the right note and all those platitudes that hold some merit, but it would not be the least bit surprising to see the Sun Devils’ game faces a tad less focused than they were against the Cats.

“If I had my preference, I wouldn’t do that. I would love for our game with Arizona to be the last game of the year every year,” coach Todd Graham said. “We need to be focused. We’ve got to put (Arizona) behind us, which is a big deal. That game was a big deal to our program, to our seniors.”

If the Sun Devils win their final two games — Cal and a bowl game — they would nearly mimic Graham’s first season in Tempe (2012) when the Devils lost four straight games before finishing with four wins, including a blowout of Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.

That might create some positive vibes for the program, but the circumstances are clearly different. The Devils won’t have an experienced quarterback returning next season as they did in 2013 with Taylor Kelly, and this season wasn’t about establishing the identity of the program, it was supposed to be about taking it to the highest level.

That won’t happen, but Graham still sees value in building momentum for the players who will return next season.

“Inside these walls and inside our training facility, I think it gives you energy,” Graham said. “It does give you momentum in your training and in the mindset of your players.

“I believe winning breeds winning. I don’t learn a lot from losing other than I don’t want to do it anymore. I think that’s why it’s very, very important these next two games for this year’s team and for these seniors and for the future.”

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