Woods: It's a tricky question to answer. Rationally speaking, no, you can't say that a 5-2 record, at this point in the season, is a disappointment. When we were predicting the year, we were expecting 4-3 at this point, so 5-2 is obviously an improvement over that. But, after watching how dynamic the offense was through the first three games, the mild unraveling over the last four weeks has been a concern. The Nebraska win, in particular, showed off an offense that had the potential to be a historic one for UCLA, and a defense that at least had the potential to be dominant. Since then, though, the offense has not adjusted to the changing defenses that teams are throwing at it, and the defense has had its warts in the secondary exposed for all to see.
Long story short, I think you can say that the record itself isn't a disappointment, but how the team has achieved that record has been. When a team gets blown out against a mediocre Cal squad on the road (a team ASU beat pretty handily on the road), then you have to start worrying.
While Jonathan Franklin is leading the Pac-12 in rushing and averages over 125 yards a game, he scored just four touchdowns. How would you rate his performance and is his lack of scoring one of the knocks against him?
Woods: The lack of scoring isn't so much of a knock on him as it is a knock on the red zone offense, which hasn't been great, and has displayed some curious play calling. Franklin has been fantastic this season, and has elevated himself from a good player to an excellent one. He's markedly improved in terms of his balance, frequently taking hits and maintaining his feet after contact, which was not a strength of his through his first few years. Probably the biggest change is that (knock on wood) he appears to have cured his fumbleitis, which plagued him greatly each of the last three years. He's turned himself into a complete back- good balance, good vision, and good speed- and has gone from what would have been a fringe NFL prospect to a fairly obvious one.
At this point, my only knock on him is that he's not getting the ball enough, but that's more of a criticism of some of the offensive decisions.
Brett Hundley has put up solid numbers as a first-year starter at quarterback. How you rate his game in terms of strengths and weaknesses?
Woods: Brett Hundley has been just a revelation as a redshirt freshman. He displays a much older player's confidence in his game, and it shows with his play.
He has very good pocket presence for a young guy, and has tremendous agility, which helps him to avoid the rush. At times, this agility has cost him, because he believes he can elude defenders longer than he really can, which has led to him taking some unnecessary sacks. He's not super-fast, despite what some reports may indicate, but he's a solid runner who can generate some yards off of breakdowns and the occasional zone read. His passing is still a work in progress; he hits Mazzone's staple, the swing pass, really well, and generally throws mid-range dig routes and sideline passes pretty well.
He struggles, so far, with the deep ball (which he generally overthrows) and slant passes (which he pretty consistently puts behind guys). After years and years of quarterbacks who struggled to hit any throws, though, UCLA fans are pretty excited to have a guy as talented as Hundley.
The big storyline for this game is the fact that ASU will face UCLA's offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone, who coached in Tempe the last two years. Have fans been happy with the Bruins' offense so far?
Woods: It's been a mixed bag. Initially, I think UCLA fans were so high on Mazzone's offense that they had to be peeled off the ceiling. It stands to reason: after years of the pistol, seeing anything that actually put playmakers in space was simply amazing.
Through three games, the team was averaging over 600 yards of offense, and it seemed like good times were here to stay. Then, of course, there was a little regression to the mean. As with most offenses, outside of some freak things like Oregon, there have been some warts, as ASU fans well know. At times, as against Cal, the offense has abandoned the running game, to a large extent, which was an odd choice given Cal's struggles against the run. At other times, as against Utah, the coaching staff seemed altogether too focused on running up the middle, given Utah's defensive strength was in the center of the defense.
Still, it should be said, Mazzone is a massive upgrade over the previous offensive staffs at UCLA, and you get the sense that if UCLA had a couple more playmakers at receiver, and a little more accuracy from Hundley, the deep ball would be a larger part of the offense, and it would look a fair bit more dynamic. The loss of Devin Lucien, who was emerging as a bit of a deep threat, has made the offense more one-dimensional. For Mazzone's swing pass-heavy offense to be successful, there needs to be a vertical threat, which there just isn't at the moment.
There seem to be differing opinions on whether Mazzone will have an advantage this week knowing the ASU personnel or that ASU has the advantage being so familiar with his system. What is your opinion?
Woods: I'd guess not much of an advantage for Mazzone, given ASU's change in scheme. I think if there's an advantage, it's on the ASU side, but even that is fairly minimal with the change in coaching staff. I think ASU's players might be able to sniff out a few swing passes, based off what they saw in practice the last two years, but that's about it.
Going back to ASU-UCLA meetings the last couple of years, do you feel that the UCLA offense is a carbon copy of what Mazzone ran in Tempe?
Woods: It's pretty darn close, especially through the last few games. At the beginning of the year, when UCLA's receivers were a bit healthier, he incorporated more of a deep passing game than he had at ASU, which seemed to help the offense quite a lot. Also, to take advantage of some of Hundley's skills as a runner, he has incorporated a little more zone read into the offense, which didn't seem like a big staple with Brock Osweiler. Other than those wrinkles, though, it looks like the same deal: emphasis on stretching the field horizontally and generating a good tempo between plays.
At ASU Mazzone rarely used the tight end but at UCLA (and wisely so) he makes Joseph Fauria a big part of the offense. Do you think this is something that he was forced to do because of the personnel he has or maybe a directive from the head coach?
Woods: Joe Fauria's been used primarily as a red zone threat and a possession receiver; he's actually a pretty bad blocker, so mostly Mazzone's been using him as that "Y" receiver, and not as a traditional tight end.
Fauria's talents as a receiver are unquestioned, and I think the entire coaching staff saw that he could be a potentially dominant threat, especially in the red zone. So far, one big positive about this entire coaching staff is their utilization of talent; so many players who languished under Rick Neuheisel have started to flourish a bit more, and are being used in better spots. Fauria really is just a gigantic receiver, so the offense has generally asked him to do more receiving, less blocking. On the few plays where he'll be asked to block on Saturday, you'll probably see why.
Speaking of head coach, how is Jim Mora Jr. viewed so far by the fans and what does this coaching staff bring to the table that recent staffs in Westwood were not able to do? Is there one area that this staff comes up short compared to other staffs at UCLA?
Woods: I think, even despite the hiccups in the last month or so, the fan base has been mostly pretty ecstatic with what Mora has brought to the table. There is a greater sense of professionalism around the program, and the changes that he's brought in terms of scheme (a more up tempo offense focused on the passing game, and a defense focused on aggression) have been most welcome.
This staff is comprised of truly great recruiters, which is what sets it most apart from Rick Neuheisel's staff. Neuheisel was a great recruiter, but his staff was generally uninterested in recruiting; with the new coaching staff, you get the impression that almost all of them really love recruiting.
So far, this staff is actually probably one of the better ones that UCLA has had in recent memory, so it's hard to pick out a shortcoming, compared to other staff. Relative to their recruiting prowess, there might still be some question marks in terms of positional coaching, but that kind of stuff is borne out over a two or three year period, rather than through seven games, so it's a bit hard to say.
Looking at the stats it appears that the UCLA defense maybe took a step back compared to recent years. What is your evaluation of this group and who are some of the standouts on this side of the ball?
Woods: This is a case where the defensive coaching staff has a philosophy that they want to instill for the long haul (aggressive, blitzing pressure) and they don't quite have the personnel in place to implement it yet.
The defensive line is the strength of the defense, and the outside linebackers are also very good. So far, the big weaknesses have been at inside linebacker and throughout the secondary—and in a blitzing 3-4 defense, those are not good areas to be weak. The team has been very good at forcing turnovers, though, and you have to like the potential if and when the coaches can recruit some lockdown defensive backs.
Anthony Barr, who switched from playing minimally on offense last year to outside linebacker this year, has been an absolute force from the outside, and will present serious problems for almost any offensive tackle. He's extremely fast, very athletic, and has shown good instincts for a first-time defensive player. Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh line up at the two defensive end spots, and both have shined this year, using their quickness to beat both guards and tackles. Those three guys will be the primary players pressuring Taylor Kelly on Saturday.
Fill in the blanks: Fill in the blanks. If ASU does __________ they will win the game. If UCLA does __________ they will win the game.
Woods: If ASU can exploit UCLA's secondary, and limit the amount of pressure UCLA is able to exert in the backfield, they will win the game. If UCLA can get to Taylor Kelly early and often, generate an efficient running game with a healthy dose of the zone read ASU struggled with against Oregon, and hit a couple of deep balls early, they will win the game.