Consider the UCLA Bruins on Jan. 1, 2012. One day earlier, they had lost to Illinois, 20-14, in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Before that, they had been blown out by Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game 49-31. That was on the heels of a 50-0 shellacking by USC. Rick Neuheisel was relieved of his job, and there was already blowback for bringing in a career NFL coach. The scuttlebutt was that Jim Mora probably couldn’t recruit a surfer to the beach.
Consider Arizona State on Jan. 1, 2012. Losers of five straight, including a 56-24 loss to Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. They lost the Territorial Cup. They lost to Washington State. They lost to UCLA. Dennis Erickson had been relieved of his job and there was already blowback for bringing in a perceived job-hopper from Pittsburgh. The scuttlebutt was that Todd Graham would probably use this as the next stepping stone.
Consider the Bruins and Sun Devils today. Both are in the top 20 of the BCS standings -- UCLA at No. 14 and ASU at No. 17 -- and are preparing to square off in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday in a game that could decide the Pac-12 South champion.
In two years, Jim Mora and Todd Graham have won over their respective fanbases, altered the way the rest of the country thinks about their programs and elevated them to top 20 status.
“It’s talented guys that are really serious about being a good football team,” Mora said. “It sounds really simple, but I think it is really simple. You get good players and they work hard, and they trust in what you’re telling them, and they try to do the best they can every day, and I think you have a chance to be a good football team. It’s not really as complicated as you might think. It’s an attitude.”
The hiring of Mike Leach at Washington State was considered a coup for the Cougars. The hiring of Rich Rodriguez at Arizona was a windfall for the Wildcats. Both still might be -- with the Wildcats bowl eligible for the second straight year and the Cougars on the verge of a postseason berth for the first time since 2003. But today, it’s the Bruins and Sun Devils who are the frontrunners in their division.
“Obviously, we’re both having some success,” Mora said. “We’ve put ourselves in position to play each other in a very important game. Both Coach Graham and I are in our second years in our program and I think it’s showing up in the way they play. They are physical and disciplined and tough and they play fast. They really look like they know what they are doing. They have a veteran group. They are a much older team than us and they play like it. They are impressive.”
The divisional scenarios for both teams are pretty clear. If the Sun Devils win Saturday, they will represent the South Division in the Pac-12 title game. If UCLA wins, the Bruins still would need to win next week at USC to claim their third straight division title. Graham reminds his players of the goal daily.
“We talk about it all the time,” Graham said. “It’s something we’ve been talking about all year long and since we walked in the door we’ve been talking about winning championships. Ain’t a day gone by this season we haven’t talked about Pac-12 South championship, Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl championship.”
Last year’s showdown in Tempe, Ariz., served as a critical moment for both teams. Not only did it propel the Bruins into first place in the South Division, which they went on to win, it was a coming-of-age moment for both team’s quarterbacks. Taylor Kelly drove the Sun Devils 56 yards and threw a 7-yard touchdown pass with 1:33 left to give ASU a 43-42 lead. Brett Hundley returned the favor by moving his team 60 yards in the final 93 seconds to set up Ka'imi Fairbairn's 33-yard field goal as time expired.
Since that game, Hundley and Kelly have gone on to be two of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the conference -- maybe the country. Hundley has thrown 35 touchdowns to 12 interceptions with 11 rushing touchdowns. Kelly has thrown 38 scores to 15 picks with eight rushing touchdowns. They’ve thrown for almost identical yards (4,213 for Hundley, 4,184 for Kelly) and Hundley has completed 67.3 percent of his throws to Kelly’s 63.9 percent.
Graham said it’s what Hundley is capable of doing when plays break down that keeps him up at nights. Per ESPN Stats and Information, since the start of last season, Hundley has 687 scramble yards -- second most of any AQ quarterback behind Johnny Manziel.
“I don’t think there is another guy in the league who can extend plays the way he does,” Graham said. “The key is to make sure we don’t give up big plays. We have to minimize his impact.”
Likewise, UCLA’s touted linebacking corps has to find a way keep ASU’s Marion Grice out of the end zone. Grice has scored 20 times this season -- 10 of which have come on the ground running outside the tackles, which is tied with Washington’s Bishop Sankey and Boston College’s Andre Williams for the most among AQ running backs.
Also key will be ASU’s veteran front seven against a UCLA offensive line that is starting three true freshmen. Since the start of last season, ASU has more sacks (40) than any other AQ team when it sends five or more pass rushers. It also forces offenses to go three-and-out 47.2 percent of the time, tops in FBS.
“It’s a huge test,” Mora said. “This is a very, very, very good defensive front. I think we all recognize what a talent Will Sutton is. But the other players along that line and really their whole defense, I think they start eight seniors, they are a veteran group, they know how to play. They play hard. They have a good scheme. Their head coach is a defensive-minded guy. It’s going to be a heck of a test for us. This is certainly an enormous challenge.”