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In what has become a topsy-turvy Pac-12 so far this season, Arizona State can go one of two ways on Thursday night. They can either establish themselves as an up-and-comer or relegate to the quagmire of middling, identity-free West Coast teams.
We’re now more than a week removed from Arizona State’s feel-good 27-17 win over the California Golden Bears, yet as time has passed, I still can’t get one endearing image out of my head.
It’s 3rd and 12 with 6:26 left to play in the 4th quarter. The Sun Devils are up 20-17 and sit at the Golden Bears 22 yard line. Taylor Kelly and the ASU offense have done next to nothing in the second half while Cal inexplicably clawed back into the game.
Kevin Ozier lines up in the slot to the right of Kelly. He gets a good jump off the line but hits two Cal defenders, so he breaks off his route at the 7. Kelly hits him in the numbers. He deftly runs out of the Cal tackle and tumbles forward into the end zone.
Over the Sun Devils’ first three wins, we saw the best of Todd Graham’s "left lane.". ASU was able to score early, score often and cruise to victories.
That Kelly-to-Ozier touchdown, at such a crucial moment in such a crucial game for the future of this season for Arizona State, was our first look at hammer down.
And it was beautiful.
With a chance to edge a win closer to bowl eligibility on Thursday night in the friendly confines of Folsom Field, Arizona State needs to both have confidence in their fast-paced offense and that same hammer down mentality as they look to move to 5-1 Thursday night against the Colorado Buffaloes.
"I think the key is the passion for which you take the field," Graham said Monday. "Every team is going to be their best at home, so when you go in there, as a team, there has to be a great focus, a great mental focus about what you are doing and I think we did that at Cal."
That passion and focus must come at both ends of the field; from Kelly and his renewed sense of confidence slinging the ball to the way Will Sutton and Junior Onyeali have teamed up to be one of the most imposing pass rush duos in college football this season. It trickles down to guys like Chris Brown and Marion Grice, who have acclimated themselves to this team so quickly and continue to contribute at a high level.
Despite the fact that it’s totally cliche, also, there has to be the same desire to pin an inferior opponent down and keep them there for 60 minutes. In wins over Illinois and Utah, the Sun Devils exploited weaknesses, swarmed early and finished strong.
Let’s be perfectly clear, here. Despite a nice showing and a stirring comeback win at Washington State on Sept. 22, the Buffaloes are far from a competent football team. Colorado has lost two if its last three games by a combined deficit of 83 points. To use the maligned transitive theory, the Buffaloes got steamrolled by UCLA, who steamrolled California, whom ASU defeated.
Will that change the way Arizona State prepares for Colorado then? Of course not.
"You’re going into someone else’s place," Graham correctly insists. "You have to be the most passionate and disciplined team on the field. No one is just going to lie down for you."
They might not lie down, but if you’re Arizona State and you want to make a statement heading into a nationally-televised game against the Oregon Ducks next Thursday, the goal should be to knock them down and keep them there.
"Never mention Oregon to them," Graham said about his players. "You have to be mature to be successful and to win and I know it sounds crazy but we are very single-mindedly focused."
Of that, there is no doubt. The level of focus the Sun Devils have had is eons beyond what we saw from any Sun Devil teams of the past half-decade. That focus must now be directed at not only winning Thursday’s game at Colorado, but also breaking away from a muddled middle of the Pac-12.
The South Division, specifically, is seemingly down to a three-horse race between USC (who is still the runaway favorite based on talent alone), Arizona State and UCLA. The Bruins have a chance to bodyslam Utah on Saturday, but based on what we saw from them at Cal, the outcome of that game could be anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, up north, Oregon State looks more and more as if they’re for real, but without Sean Mannion for at leas the next month, their performance over the next four weeks is a crap shoot. For Arizona State, tonight’s game could cast two very different perceptions from the national and regional media; a victory likely lumps them in with the Beavers as an up-and-comer, but a loss casts them as just another team that is still seeking an identity.
It feels like a hammer down type of night in Boulder, though. If Arizona State keeps that mentality, they’ll emerge with win #5.