Seniors instrumental in season's success

The Sun Devils will play their last regular season home game of 2013 on Saturday against the Arizona Wildcats, which means it's senior day in Tempe. Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has praised the seniors throughout the year for their leadership on and off the field.

Needless to say, this is going to be a special day for Graham. Most of these seniors were recruited by former head coach Dennis Erickson, so to be where they are now, knocking on the door of the Rose Bowl, is a testament to their dedication and willingness to accept Graham as their leader.

"These guys, they have grown into men that I'm really proud of," Graham said in his weekly press conference. "I sat down yesterday and looked at each person on our team and I couldn't find a person that I didn't think had gotten better, especially the guys that are seniors in this bunch. I've been really proud of them, not just for what they have done on the field but also as a complete person. It's a special group.

"(The seniors) have had everything to do with (our success). I know there were times where maybe they scratched their heads on things that I've asked them to do. Good, bad or different, it's just be a drastic change. I'm very grateful to them that they gave it an opportunity and they bought in to it. They've worked harder than any group that I've ever had and it's been as fun of a group to coach that I've ever had. Our one focus is getting this group to a Rose Bowl and winning it.

"I told people, you're going to want to hire them. These are young men that know what it takes to win in life and they understand that nobody is going to give you anything in this world. You reap what you sew, you get what you work for and your values that you stand for are what are vital to you.

"Some of these guys will be tough to let go."

One senior in particular has stood out to Graham over the past couple of weeks for his leadership and poise in tough spots: Will Sutton.

"Where he is as a player, he was a great player a year ago," Graham mentioned, "but where he is as a leader, he has grown leaps and bounds. That was one of the most impressive performances that I've been around from a leadership standpoint. He's the best defensive lineman that I've ever coached, hands down and in the last three weeks he's developed into one of the best leaders that I've ever coached and has surprised me by that."

There was a brief celebration in the Arizona State locker room after the UCLA win last Saturday. Winning the Pac-12 South is a big deal for the Sun Devils, but Todd Graham and the players remain focused and have preached the same line repetitively since that night: "We still have two more steps to be where we want to be."

Up next is the battle for the Territorial Cup as Arizona travels to Tempe to play in Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday.

In just his second season as head coach of the Devils, Graham doesn't need a reminder of how big this game is, and what it means to the state. Sure, the fact that if the Sun Devils win they will host the conference championship adds a bit more incentive to the game, but they will prepare exactly how they would in another other year.

"When I first came here, one of the things that was important was really researching and knowing the history of the program and knowing the things that are important to the program," Graham said. "The former players is one of the first groups that I talked to, then got out to meet the boosters, alumni, students and fans. No question about it, the most important thing to our fan base every year is winning this game. This game, you can add things to it, but you need to motivation to get ready for this one."

Both teams are riding high confidence levels heading into this game: with Arizona State clinching a spot in the conference championship, and Arizona beating the then No. 5 Oregon at home a week ago.

In the last four meetings between the Devils and the ‘Cats, the road team has won. While Graham admits that it is an interesting stat, he doesn't read too much into it.

"I don't worry about all of that stuff. I really don't think what happened last year has anything to do with this year. People have too much time on their hands to analyze this stuff, but we don't over analyze it. I know this; we are playing a very good football team that is going to be highly motivated. If you asked either coach, they'd rather play at home. I sure like playing right here."

The Devils have gone unbeaten at home this year, a perfect 6-0 so far. But in order to keep it that way, they'll need to fix one glaring hole on the squad: special teams.

The Sun Devils gave up over 240 yards on just seven returns against UCLA on Saturday, and had a botched long snap along the way to give the Bruins needed life in the third quarter.

Graham mentioned that three weeks ago he and the rest of the coaching staff had sat down and discussed where they were at as a team. They were comfortable with the offense, extremely comfortable with the defense, but the one area that still needed major improvements was the special teams unit. Graham said that since that point, there has been a dedicated effort every week to getting better in that facet of the game.

"Obviously last week wasn't a very good indicator of that, it put us in jeopardy," Graham said. "Without that, it would have been a pretty dominating performance.

"Special teams is going to be the number one (priority), you can't lose possessions on special teams. Last year, we blocked a punt on them and that was the difference. It's a rivalry game, so it's going to come down to one series, or one play. And so special teams, you have got to check that off to win."

While the Sun Devil rushing defense has been the least of their worries in the last six weeks or so, they might not face a better rusher all year than the one they'll face on Saturday in Ka'Deem Carey.

Carey leads the Wildcats' second best rushing attack in the Pac-12 and has amassed over 1500 yards on the ground this season.

"Of all of the backs we have faced, and the ones that I've seen on film, he's the best back in the country, no doubt about it," Graham said. "Probably the best back in the country last year, and he's much improved from that. Just as tremendous downhill runner, a guy that with balance, strength and finishes runs. He's the key to stopping them, and that's a tall order. He's as good as there is."

When asked about the health of Marion Grice Graham said that they will continue to evaluate the running back and that he is day to day. He added that the game plan won't change even if the reserves had to shoulder the load.

"If that does happen (Grice being out), we have a lot of confidence in D.J. (Foster) and Deantre (Lewis)."

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