- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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We were wrong. Oregon wasn't the true test for Arizona State. That was, at best, a long shot. The Ducks are a national title contender. The Sun Devils are not.
No, the true test for Arizona State starts Saturday when UCLA visits. It's about taking on the second half of the season. It's about everyone seeing how the new-look Sun Devils under first-year coach Todd Graham respond to adversity.
As noted before, Arizona State started the 2011 season 5-1 and it did so against a tougher schedule than this year's 5-1 first half. Then, after a blowout loss to Oregon, things went rear-end-over-tea-kettle -- five consecutive losses to finish the season (after a win over woeful Colorado).
And it all started with a 29-28 loss at UCLA, which at the time was fairly surprising.
So there's a nice symmetry here.
Further, the Bruins also are 5-2. The winner of this game might become the top contender to challenge USC for the South Division crown.
Yet, at least a few Sun Devils fans must be nervous about a potential hangover from the Oregon loss. So much emotion went into the setup for that game, but then the Ducks unleashed their maelstrom and things were over well before halftime.
"Anybody that says they have a hangover because they got beat the last week, that is just an excuse," Graham said. "You have to get your guys ready to play every week. You go out there and you play well. You can have a hangover or have a letdown because you just won a big game [also], so it is about being mature. It is about being a competitor."
A further challenge for the Sun Devils is managing the loss -- for however long -- of defensive tackle Will Sutton to a knee injury. While reports from Graham indicate it's not a season-ending injury, it seems unlikely Sutton will be ready for the Bruins. Sutton was the best defensive player in the Pac-12 over the first half of the season, with 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss.
There's a foundation for hope in that the Sun Devils played well in the second half against Oregon, though that was almost entirely against the Ducks' backups. Still, it's fair to wonder whether the Sun Devils' confidence might be shaken.
"If you lose your confidence after one game, you didn't have any," Graham said. "I think our guys are very confident."
UCLA and Arizona State have a lot of similarities. Both feature first-year coaches. Both feature young quarterbacks -- ASU sophomore Taylor Kelly and UCLA redshirt freshman Brett Hundley -- who have played well. Both feature new, aggressive schemes on both sides of the ball that have yielded mostly positive results over the first half of the season.
And both are 5-2, needing a single win to become bowl eligible.
If there is a difference, it is the different results each got from a visit to California on consecutive weekends. On Sept. 29, the Sun Devils produced a workmanlike 27-17 win in Berkeley. On Oct. 6, the Bruins produced their worst day of the season in a sloppy 43-17 loss. In that game, Hundley threw four of his seven interceptions this season.
Here's a guess that the young QB who makes the fewest mistakes on Saturday will leave the field with the winning team.
The test for the Bruins is producing a quality road win, which they have yet to do this season (Rice and Colorado don't count).
The test for the Sun Devils is proving to themselves -- and their fans -- that reports of a program culture change haven't been greatly exaggerated.
1dKevin Gemmell and Erik McKinney