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ASU amped for rivalry game vs. Arizona

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) - Fist in the air, Todd Graham charged out onto the field to celebrate with his players, tears filling his eyes after Arizona State held off UCLA to win the Pac-12 South Division.

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Two days later, the Sun Devils' coach was much more subdued.

The victory in the Rose Bowl, that was over. It was a monumental achievement, No. 13 Arizona State's biggest win in years, certainly in two seasons with Graham running the show.

But there was no time to keep the celebration going. Not with rival Arizona up next.

So, other than handing out doughnuts in the morning to students standing in line to buy tickets to Saturday's game, Graham was all business as he prepared for what he calls the biggest game on Arizona State's schedule.

''Very important game - The Game,'' Graham said Monday during his weekly news conference.

Arizona State set it up with what could be a program-defining victory.

Needing to beat UCLA to secure the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devils raced out to a 35-13 halftime lead and had to hold on as the Bruins mounted a furious rally. Arizona State dug in with two big defensive stands late in the game, keyed by a pair of sacks by Chris Young, and held on for the 38-33 victory - one that left Graham emotional afterward.

''I've been doing this for 28 years, and that's the most impressive display of heart by a football team I've ever seen,'' he said. ''To watch these kids on that field lay it on the line with that kind of heart was just overwhelming to me.''

Arizona State won the Territorial Cup last year 41-34 after scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter, a huge notch for Graham over Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez in their first seasons in the desert.

This year's game could be even bigger.

The Sun Devils know they'll face No. 8 Stanford in the championship game on Dec. 7 after the Cardinal clinched the North - with help from Arizona.

Where they play will be determined by what happens on Saturday.

Beat Arizona and the Sun Devils will host the game. Lose and the game will be in Northern California.

Throw in Arizona's surprising win over the fifth-ranked Ducks and the stakes will be raised a few notches in this bitter rivalry.

''This game, you can add things to it, but you need no motivation for this one,'' Graham said.

Graham had been preparing Arizona State for the big stage since he arrived in the desert, getting the players to buy into his discipline-first ways.

They fought it some early in the process, but have clearly latched onto it this season, putting together an impressive list of victories, including Wisconsin, Washington, on the road at Utah and Oregon State.

The latest was perhaps the most impressive, a hold-onto-your-seat victory on the road against UCLA that stretched the Sun Devils' win streak to five games and propelled them into the conference title game with a spot in the Rose Bowl on the line.

''This is a very mature team, they know exactly what they're playing for, exactly what's at stake in this game and very, very focused,'' he said. ''We have two steps left to accomplish our goal. Our goal is to be Pac-12 champions.''

The first step in that process will be to beat Arizona.

From the day he was hired, Graham pointed to the Territorial Cup as his top priority.

Clearly, a national championship is the ultimate goal, with the Rose Bowl and Pac-12 championship on the list as well.

But those are long-term, only possibilities. Arizona is a game that's on the Sun Devils' schedule every season.

And when he first took the job in Tempe, Graham quickly understood the significance of that one game as he spoke to former players, boosters, alumni and fans.

''One of the things that kind of took me back in my first year when I went out and talked to people, they talked about discipline and how they wanted to be represented,'' he said. ''But clearly, the only game they talked about was this game.''

Copyright 2016 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
Any commercial use or distribution without the express written
consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

  
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