Week 13: Pac-12 toughest top to bottom?

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
11:00
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Will SuttonMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDefensive lineman Will Sutton has helped the Sun Devils win six games in a row.
For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our “Story of the Season” double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.

WILL SUTTON WIELDED the hammer like Thor.

On Saturday night, Arizona State's 6-foot-1, 288-pound senior defensive lineman stood in the center of the visitors’ locker room, surrounded by his teammates, and nodded his head as they egged him on with concentrated silence, his very large hands wrapped around the maroon and gold handle.

Just moments earlier, the Sun Devils were dancing and celebrating on the field at the Rose Bowl, having just held off a late-charging UCLA Bruins squad to win 38-33, clinching the Pac-12 South and a berth in the Dec. 7 conference championship game. On the line against Stanford that night will be a shot at a BCS bowl berth and a possible return trip to Pasadena for a much, much larger game.

That would complete a long road back for a team that started the season 3-2 with the biggest of those three wins (a Week 2 victory over Wisconsin) still considered by some to be hampered by an asterisk.

Now the Sun Devils have won six in a row.

“Most impressive thing I’ve ever watched,” second-year coach Todd Graham said to his 9-2 team in the locker room after the win over UCLA, shifting into State of the Union mode. “Pac-12 South champions. We gotta go beat Arizona next week. And then we host ...” The coach paused after adding emphasis to the word host before continuing. “And then we host the conference championship.”

Then, as has happened all season, a large black brick was laid out onto a towel in the center of the room. This one was engraved with the true blue UCLA Bruins logo. That’s when the hammer was handed to Sutton, who grew up just 45 minutes away in Corona, Calif. The 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year let out a primal scream and unleashed the sledgehammer, smashing the brick to bits.

The whole night was a bit of a mountaintop experience for Sutton, who started his career in Tempe as a redshirt on a four-win team, endured the firing of coach Dennis Erickson, the controversial hiring of Graham and is now an integral member of the first nine-win ASU team since 2007, when it won 10. After starting the year with nagging injuries and whispers about his weight and declining stats, Sutton has rediscovered his 2012 form, leading a unit that racked up nine sacks and 10 tackles for loss against the Bruins.

In the midst of the postgame celebration, Sutton felt a hand on his shoulder. It was UCLA coach Jim Mora. “Will Sutton is a big-time player,” he said. “It’s not often after the game I’ll seek someone out, but [quarterback Taylor Kelly] and Will Sutton, I wanted to shake their hands. I have a lot of respect for those guys.”

ASU’s run to the postseason is the perfect encapsulation of this most unusual Pac-12 season. A year that began as another edition of “Oregon, Stanford, (maybe USC) and everyone else” has emerged as possibly -- some would say finally -- the year that a league has stepped up to seize the role of “Best Top-to-Bottom Conference Not Called The SEC." For that to happen, the Pac-12 needed the Grand Canyon State to help close the gap.

“All of that sounds great and something I want to be a part of,” says Graham. “But right now our focus is beating Arizona.”

Ah, yes, the Wildcats. Before the Sun Devils took on UCLA Saturday night, they were already well aware of what their rivals had accomplished down in Tucson. Coming off two straight home losses and sitting at a mediocre 6-4, Arizona woke up and completely dismantled fifth-ranked Oregon in a 42-16 rout.

The Ducks’ second loss in three games knocked them out of Pac-12 and BCS contention, officially sliding Stanford into the conference title game. Quarterback Marcus Mariota's first and second interceptions of the season likely knocked him out of Heisman contention. And like Graham, who infamously bailed on Pitt after one season to go to ASU, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez took one more giant step away from the shadow of his disastrous three-year stint at Michigan.

There are few game tapes to be found in Ann Arbor that illustrate a RichRod offense doing what it is supposed to do best. But there are many in the library at West Virginia. And now there is at least one in the offices at Arizona. The extremely red-clad Wildcats rolled up 482 yards of offense, 304 on the ground, anchored by junior Ka'Deem Carey's 206 rushing yards and four scores on a bone-crushing 48 carries.

Rodriguez started the week preaching about respect. So much so that Arizona Daily Star columnist Daniel Berk wrote: “The only thing missing from Rich Rodriguez’s weekly news conference Monday afternoon was Aretha Franklin and her fleet of backup singers.”

What RichRod didn’t know was that at the same time he was delivering lines like “This is the game you prove it," the Wildcats' opponents were in the process of taking the Rose Bowl down a notch. Some have argued that the comments made by Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff about wanting to play for a national title and not just another Granddaddy of Them All were taken out of context. But anyone who watched the Oregon offense on Saturday quickly realized that a "what’s-the-point-of-it-all" malaise had grabbed a hold of the usually machinelike Ducks.

Arizona deserves credit for forcing three turnovers, particularly the Ringling Brothers tip drill at the start of the game. But from the onset, Oregon contracted a rash of drops with seemingly pass after pass banging off receivers’ chests. An offense that had been averaging more than 50 points per game scored just 16. Now the Ducks won’t have to worry about settling for the Rose Bowl. They’ll likely be headed to the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30. (Just imagine if they were joined there by fellow high-scoring Baylor, which was held to 17 points by Oklahoma State on Saturday.)

While the Wildcats' archrivals were holding off UCLA, Rodriguez was chatting with a group of recruits, anxious to leverage the biggest win of his still-young Arizona career. In the hallway, a handful of RichRod's 16 seniors were wondering aloud if perhaps a photo of this win might go up in the concourse gallery reserved only for the program's defining victories, the images that future players will use for inspiration as they make the walk out into Arizona Stadium.

“I love adding photos to that wall,” said Rodriguez. “I look forward to the day when we are in so many big games that it makes it hard to choose which ones go up there.”

Suddenly, this week’s trip to Tempe has a chance to be one of those games.

Ryan McGee | email

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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Friday, 11/28
Saturday, 11/29