Arizona State’s Todd Graham stresses keys for defeating UCLA

Sep 23, 2014, 1:00 AM | Updated: 1:00 am
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TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s a game that Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has put a star next to on the schedule each and every year.

Describing it as a “marquee” game for his team each season, the third-year coach knows a lot is at stake this Thursday night when his Sun Devils host 11th-ranked UCLA in front of a national television audience.

“The winner of this game has been the Pac-12 South champion the last two years,” Graham said.

He’s right, with both teams winning “nail-biters” on the road in their previous two meetings.

With both teams on bye last weekend and having extra time to prepare, Graham admitted he didn’t spend the additional days creating trick plays or going off the grid. He’s more focused on priming his defense to be more physical than ever as well as winning the turnover battle.

That defense features four true freshmen in the starting lineup who have shown a lot of upside and have already been big contributors in making big plays.

“I think they’ve done phenomenal. The challenge is making them understand how important it is to improve each and every day…I think their development is the key to our success moving forward,” Graham said.

Throughout Monday’s press conference, Graham stressed the plan to beating the Bruins clearly fell upon three keys to beating UCLA.

“The year they beat us, they didn’t trick us, nor we did we trick them last year. It’s the team that physically dominates, is more explosive and controls the ball better than the other.”

In 2012, ASU did win the turnover battle, but UCLA’s offense featured explosive, high-yardage scoring plays early that narrowly set them apart in a 45-43 win that was capped by a last-second field goal.

Their 2013 meeting saw both teams turn the ball over once — each turned into an opponent’s touchdown. ASU sacked Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley nine times, ran the ball far more effectively and didn’t hurt themselves with penalties to the same extent UCLA did.

Hundley is the catalyst to UCLA’s explosive offense, and the Sun Devils defense knows he must be stopped to have success.

“He is very, very difficult to sack. He makes you tackle him,” Graham said. “And he is most dangerous when he extends plays. I can guarantee that when he extends plays, he is going down field with it.”

Hundley left UCLA’s win over Texas Sept. 13 due to an injury to his non-throwing arm, but he will play according to reports.

The 15th-ranked Sun Devils’ high-powered offense will be without its starting dual-threat quarterback Taylor Kelly due to a broken bone in his foot. That puts a lot more pressure on playmaker D.J. Foster to continue to perform at the high level he has already been at all year long. Foster has six touchdowns after three games, and is averaging an astounding 9.4 yards per rushing attempt. The junior from Scottsdale has a combined 649 yards from scrimmage.

The winner of Thursday’s game at Sun Devil Stadium will improve to 4-0 and have an early advantage over the rest of the Pac-12 South.

Kickoff for Thursday’s “Blackout” game is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. and can be heard live on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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Arizona State’s Todd Graham stresses keys for defeating UCLA