- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Washington and Arizona State both headed into the 2013 expecting big things. Both have posted impressive wins. Both have experienced hard losses. And neither can afford to lose in their matchup Saturday in Sun Devil Stadium, at least if it doesn't want to be forced to re-evaluate preseason aspirations.
That third loss, after all, means there won't be double-digit victories in the regular season. The winner will be ranked. The loser will not.
"We control our destiny, so this is a must-win situation for us," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.
If the Sun Devils win the rest of their games, they will win the Pac-12's South Division, which would give the program a shot at its first Rose Bowl since the 1996 season.
The Huskies don't have that control because they've lost consecutive games to Stanford and Oregon. In fact, their chances for a North Division title are remote. But there's little shame in consecutive losses to top-five teams, a point national pollsters acknowledged by still ranking the Huskies in the top 25.
They won't be so forgiving this week should the Huskies fall to the Sun Devils for an eighth consecutive time in the series, though the teams haven't played since 2010.
Arizona State has an initial advantage playing at home. Not unlike Washington, the Sun Devils play much better when served home cooking. The Huskies, however, believe they've shaken off their road woes with a win at Illinois (at Soldier Field) and a strong performance in a tight loss at Stanford.
"I think we are more mentally tough than years past," coach Steve Sarkisian said." I think guys almost embrace this role of going on the road now, and here’s another great challenge for us."
One player who's glad to be home is Arizona State qaurterback Taylor Kelly. His pass efficiency rating is 27 points higher at home, where he's thrown 10 touchdown passes and two interceptions. Away from home, he has six TDs and four interceptions. He's been sacked three times at home and nine times on the road.
Sarkisian, a former BYU quarterback, joked this week that Kelly reminds him of himself.
"He’s just a scrappy guy, man," Sarkisian said. "He makes all the plays when he has to make them. He runs when he has to run. He throws the back-shoulder fade to Jaelen Strong extremely well."
Slowing down Kelly-to-Strong will be a first priority for the Huskies. Strong is ranked No. 12 nationally in receiving yards per game (113.0). He's difficult to cover with seven pass interference penalties committed on throws to him this year. He's also accounted for 20.6 percent of the Sun Devils first downs.
But when the Sun Devils want go get into the end zone, they go with running back Marion Grice, who leads the nation with 15 points per game.
"[Grice] is probably the best running back’s nobody’s heard of," Sarkisian said.
Most folks have heard of Sarkisian's running back, Bishop Sankey. He leads the nation in rushing with 149.8 yards per game. The Sun Devils' run defense yields 4.58 yards per carry, which ranks 90th in the nation.
Graham said the Sun Devils' biggest problem against the run has been yielding big plays. The Sun Devils surrendered an 80-yard touchdown run to Wisconsin, and USC had scoring runs of 26, 24, 15 and 58 yards.
Sankey had TD runs of 60 and 25 yards against Oregon's rugged defense. So slowing him is the Sun Devils' first priority. That starts with good tackling, but it also might require the undersized defensive front taking some chances.
"I think a key, too, is getting into their backfield," Graham said. "We've got to penetrate and attack and not just sit back and defend everything they are doing. We need to attack on their side of the football."
Coaches don't like to call a game a "must win." And a victory Saturday for either won't mean much if it turns around and loses the next weekend. Further, all is not lost with a defeat.
But a third loss for either will change how it is viewed nationally and within the Pac-12 pecking order. That special season both teams coveted in August? The curtain might lower on that for the loser.