With a win over the Bruins, Arizona State will lock up the Pac-12 South and earn a spot in the conference championship game on December 7th.
On Wednesday night, Darby said he had some down time so he flipped on the TV to the Pac-12 Network. The analysts were talking about the importance of this game against the Bruins and the implications if the Devils won or lost. That’s the first time he really heard any outside influence talk in detail about the game in Pasadena, and it hit him.
“Man, this is a really big game,” Darby said. “This game is really walking the walk. It just got me hyped up. There’s a lot at stake here. The Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl hopes are now on the line here this Saturday. So this right here is the biggest game up to this point.”
A legitimate chance for a shot at a Rose Bowl…when’s the last time ASU players have been able to say that? Sun Devil fans have dealt far too much with teams that haven’t lived up to their potential, have squandered in November in route to disappointing seasons.
Darby has been a part of those teams in the past, and has seen talent go to waste around him. But this 2013 team is different because of their maturity, and a coach that keeps them level headed.
“Each week we get more mentally mature and the leadership each week is stronger and stronger,” Darby said. “In the mindset of a team, when you’re winning it’s easy for guys to be energetic and happy to come to practice and it’s a lot easier to get guys to buy in, to push through their injuries and push through the pain.
“So right now we are just in the state of mind where everybody is just focused on the goal. We can actually really see it, just one step away. We want this so bad.”
Most analysts at the beginning of the year had picked the Devils and the Bruins to be atop the South at this point in the year, with this game ultimately crowning the division winner.
The players knew they’d be here too. Darby specifically remembers one day in camp when the defense was going through a team session and he looked around and thought: “Man, this is a championship defense.”
But from the start of the season, the Arizona State defense didn’t have the look of a championship caliber team. The Devils relived the 2012 defense’s struggles of stopping the run, against teams like Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. Over that four game stretch, the Arizona State defense gave up an average of 215 rushing yards and 37.5 points per game.
“We had a meeting with everybody (after the Notre Dame game) and said, ‘look at our potential guys, we can run with the best of them,’” Darby explained. “’We lost a few games but we can run with anybody.’ And the last five games we went out there and have shown that we can go out there and stop the run, stop the pass and just play the game with a passion.”
Since the Notre Dame game, the Sun Devils have won five in a row and have allowed a stout 58.4 rushing yards a game, while giving up just under 19 points a game.
The defense – the whole team really – exudes a confident swagger heading into UCLA. Where the stage might have been too big for this Sun Devil team back in early October against Notre Dame in Dallas, this team is battle tested now, they won’t shy away from bright lights.
“You just have to embrace it,” Darby said. “For me, thinking about this game, thinking about the main stage we are about to go play on, it gets me more hyped. We live for moments like this. So that’s the whole mindset of the team, we are embracing it. We like to hear how big the game is, we like all of the talk around it.”
The last time Darby won a championship was in Pop Warner; he’s not familiar with the big stage, and most of his teammates haven’t been here either. There’s going to be jitters. But being the vocal leader, and one of the field generals of the defense, he’s going to try and get his team comfortable with the environment.
It may not be possible for the rest of the team to bring as much energy to the field as Darby does, but they will be ready.
All of the offseason workouts, the practices during the dog days of spring, summer and fall, the film study, the team bonding, it was all in preparation for these 60 minutes, to achieve their goal of winning the South.
“I’m going to do what I do,” Darby said. “First of all I’m going to try and make a play right off the bat, and get everybody hyped up and let everybody know that I’m trying to set the tone for how we should go out there and play. So I’m just going to make sure the energy is up and make sure everybody is focused. I want everybody to be as hyped as I am.”