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Sun Devils ready to bounce back from losses
By JOHN MARSHALL
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Arizona State opened the 2011 season with five wins in six games, then fell apart after being routed by Oregon, losing its final five games.
This season, the Sun Devils again started 5-1, got run over the by the Ducks and followed with a loss to UCLA last week.
So is another flailing finish on the way?
Sun Devils coach Todd Graham doesn't think so.
"There is absolutely nothing about this team that resembles anything from the way that things were done last year and in attitude and approach that they take," Graham said.
He has made sure of that.
The knock on last year's team was its lack of discipline and penchant for withering when things got tough. The Sun Devils bounced back from their loss to Oregon last season with a win over struggling Colorado, but lost by one the next week against UCLA and faded down the stretch.
Coach Dennis Erickson lost his job after a loss to California in the regular-season finale and Arizona State was crushed 56-24 by Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
When Graham became coach, he promised a makeover of the program, his primary focus to instill a level of discipline that had been missing in previous years.
Gone were the earrings, the long hair, hats and headphones in the football offices. Pants had to be pulled up, shirts tucked in, no bandanas or bad language.
The Sun Devils bought into the Graham way, becoming a tightly run ship, cutting back on penalties - particularly the personal foul and unsportsmanlike varieties - and crisply running their new coach's up-tempo offense.
Arizona State used its businesslike approach to open the season with five impressive victories and nearly another when a last-minute comeback against Missouri came up just short.
The past two weeks have tested the Sun Devils' resiliency.
Arizona State's Oct. 18 game against No. 2 Oregon was one of the biggest at Sun Devil Stadium in years, a measuring stick to see where the program stood against one of the best teams in the nation.
That game was pretty much over by halftime as the Ducks raced past the Sun Devils for a 43-21 win.
With a chance to bounce back, Arizona State came up short last week against UCLA, losing 45-43 after allowing the Bruins to march down the field in the final 1:33 to set up Ka'imi Fairbairn's 33-yard field goal as time expired.
The two losses could have left the Sun Devils with that here-we-go-again feeling.
Instead, it made them want to dig in and play harder, not fall apart like last year's team.
"Make any comparison you want to; we can't pay attention to what people say on the outside," Sun Devils linebacker Brandon Magee said. "We have a tough game against Oregon State coming up and we are focused on that now. Then we play USC, Washington State and Arizona and we have to run the table and really step it up the next few weeks. We are a completely different team."
Arizona State still has plenty to play for.
With No. 18 Southern California's loss to Arizona last Saturday, the Sun Devils, at 3-2 in the conference, are just a game behind the Trojans in the Pac-12 South, tied with UCLA.
If things fall the right way, Arizona State could end up in the Pac-12 championship game and, at 5-3, the Sun Devils are in good position to play in another bowl game.
Arizona State starts the final stretch of the season on Saturday at No. 13 Oregon State, then faces USC on the road, Washington State at home and finishes against rival Arizona in Tucson on Nov. 23.
"We have only lost two games, we still have four left. We are only halfway through conference play," Graham said. "These kids are going to battle through this whole thing and I believe in this team. I have great confidence in them."
Just as important, the Sun Devils seem to have confidence in themselves, which could go a long way toward avoiding a letdown like last season.
Updated November 1, 2012