Sun Devils in control of Pac-12 South

JOHN MARSHALL (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press
Sun Devils in control of Pac-12 South
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Arizona State wide receiver Richard Smith (3) is hoisted by offensive linesman Evan Finkenberg after scoring in the fourth quarter during an NCAA college football game against Utah on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Arizona State won 20-19. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) -- Arizona State has shown it can win on the road, close out tight games, win in November.

Compared to previous seasons, this is definitely progress for the 21st-ranked Sun Devils.

The key now for Arizona State is to finish it off. The Sun Devils are in control of the Pac-12 South and to reach their goal of winning the Pac-12 championship, they can't let up or it could end up as just another good-but-not-great season.

''You have a tendency when you have success, everybody's kind of patting you on the back and you think you've done it, but we haven't done anything,'' Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said Monday during his weekly news conference. ''Win the next four games and you've done something.''

Arizona State (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) has made marked progress in its second season under Graham.

A year ago, the Sun Devils started strong and faded with a four-game losing streak, unable to pull out tight victories or win big games on the road. Arizona State finished strong, winning its final three games, but fell short of its goals.

The Sun Devils again got off to a solid start this season and have built upon it with a string of impressive wins.

Since a three-point loss to Notre Dame on Oct. 5, Arizona State has won four straight, including a few program-changing victories.

The first was against Washington on Oct. 19. The Sun Devils have had trouble against ranked teams in recent years and not only beat the 16th-ranked Huskies, but blew them out 53-24 at Sun Devil Stadium.

The Sun Devils tossed aside another perception - they can't win road games late in the season - by crushing Washington State 55-21 in Pullman.

The topper came this past weekend, when Arizona State grinded out a 20-19 win over Utah, proving the Washington State game was no fluke and that it could win when things get tight.

The Sun Devils pulled out the win in Salt Lake City by overcoming a sluggish start with a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives to beat a team that knocked off Stanford and played close games against UCLA and Oregon State at home.

That was a big step for a program that had gone 4-15 in games decided by a touchdown or less the previous five seasons and was 4-12 in November the previous four.

''We've had a lot of games this season that weren't close and I love those, those are great, but the reality is you're going to be in a lot of close ones and you've got to be able to win them,'' Graham said.

The difference hasn't been just in wins and losses. Graham has noticed growth in all areas, from work ethic and practice habits to composure and discipline.

Before he arrived in the desert, the Sun Devils had been known as a loose bunch who often tried to intimidate and taunt opponents, often piling up penalties along the way.

Graham's mantra since he became a head coach with Rice in 2006 has been discipline and he gave Arizona State a big dose of it, changing the culture within the program and making it one of the least-penalized in the country.

That discipline helped the Sun Devils when Saturday's game against Utah started getting chippy and players from both teams started jawing at each other. Arizona State held its cool, for the most part, and benefited when the Utes backed out of field goal range in the first half after a personal foul penalty for shoving an Arizona State player who didn't shove back.

''That discipline helped us there and I think our guys saw that,'' Graham said. ''When people are punching on you and doing extra stuff, guys get real emotional about that. I talked to them about being a champion and part of that is controlling your emotions.''

Now it's time to keep the momentum going.

Arizona State has three games left, starting with Saturday's game against Oregon State at Sun Devil Stadium, followed by UCLA on the road and rival Arizona at home.

Win all three and the Sun Devils will be Pac-12 South champions. Stumble and they'll need help.

For a team that's built up so much momentum this season, the Sun Devils don't want to let it slip away.

''I think we're hitting our stride,'' Graham said. ''We need to be.''