UCLA, Arizona State look to change perceptions and forge new reality
These were the perceptions:
UCLA was a weak crosstown underling to USC. Arizona State was undisciplined and would fade like a cheap paint job in the Tempe, Ariz., sun.
These were things you could set your Rose Bowl watch by.
Recognizing change can take time.
As Arizona State and UCLA meet at the Rose Bowl on Saturday in a crucial Pac-12 Conference game, they are two highly regarded football programs getting image makeovers under second-year coaches.
Todd Graham’s No. 19 Sun Devils, 8-2 overall, 6-1 in Pac-12 play, can clinch the South Division with a victory. Jim Mora’s No. 14 Bruins, 8-2 overall, 5-2 in conference, would take a giant step toward a spot in the Pac-12 championship game with a win.
“It is something we talked about when we walked in the door here — win the championship,” Graham said. “There hasn’t been a day go by this season that we haven’t talked about the Pac-12 South championship and the Rose Bowl championship.”
In Westwood, there is mostly one-game-at-a-time coach-speak. But there is also an undertone that getting to the conference title game for a third consecutive season would leave unfinished business.
“We need to move another step forward,” Mora said. “Our goal is to win the Pac-12 championship, but the first step is you’ve got to win the Pac-12 South championship.”
That step could be a doozy.
This does not look like a traditional Arizona State team, which folded on cue last season, losing four consecutive games, including two in November. The heartbreaker was a 45-43 loss to UCLA on Ka’imi Fairbairn’s last-second, 33-yard field goal. The Sun Devils finished a game behind the Bruins in the division.
The season before, UCLA reached the title game by beating Arizona State, 29-28, when Sun Devils kicker Alex Garoutte missed a 46-yard field goal on the last play.
“It has been a little tiring being on the opposite end the past couple years,” Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly said.
The Sun Devils lost their last four regular-season games in 2011 and finished a game behind UCLA, which went to the title game because division winner USC was on NCAA probation and ineligible to play for the championship.
Arizona State has not spun in every season, but did it enough to give legs to the fade theory.
The Sun Devils started 4-2 in 2009 but lost their last six games. Arizona State was 7-2 — and 4-0 in conference play — with four games left in 2002, and lost the next three. A year earlier, a 4-2 start was tarnished by an 0-5 finish. In 2000, it was a 5-2 start, then a 1-3 finish, followed by a bowl loss.
“We heard things in the past few years that we weren’t a November team,” Kelly said. “Some things are perception, how people take it.” But he acknowledged, “Some teams do let the grind get to them in November.”
Not this team, Kelly said. Arizona State toughed out wins at Utah and at home against Oregon State the last two weeks.
“There is a different feeling from last year,” Kelly said. “The relationships are better. I know that sounds corny, but we hang out with each other. There’s a crazy belief in one another.”
UCLA is trying to keep one championship-game streak alive and end another. The Bruins played in the first two Pac-12 title games, but lost both.
Their first appearance was tainted by a 6-6 record, which included a 50-0 loss to USC to end the regular season, the Trojans making it clear that the best team in Pac-12 South was not going to the title game.
It was UCLA’s 12th loss in 13 games against the Trojans. But the Bruins exorcised some demons with a convincing 38-28 victory over USC last season on their way to the championship game. Now UCLA is two wins away from a return trip — again earned.
“It would be phenomenal to go again,” senior linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said. “Shoot, we not only have to get there, we’ve got to win it.”
A conference championship might prompt some skeptics to accept that this is a new and improved UCLA football program.
“Coach Mora is trying to bring talent into this place, and funding and everything else this school needs in order to compete with the [Southeastern Conference] teams and others playing for the national title,” Zumwalt said. “To do that, we’ve got to win games and go to the Pac-12 title game.”
There would be personal vindication as well. The Bruins have 12 seniors on scholarship who remember less pleasant seasons.
“To go to a third title game in a row, and finally get one, bring it back home, that would be amazing for us,” senior defensive end Cassius Marsh said. “It would be especially satisfying for the seniors, who have been here for all the ups and downs.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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