UCLA Preview

To no one's surprise the battle for the Pac-12 South championship is more than likely to be decided in the Arizona State at UCLA contest this Saturday. Both teams haven't been plying their best in the last couple of weeks, but how will that affect Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl? Joe Healey analyzes ASU's next opponent.

Offense Preview

Phoenix area football fans have been aware of Brett Hundley's sensational skill set for several years, and in under two seasons guiding the UCLA offense the former Chandler High School standout has quickly escalated to a position among the nation's most physically talented quarterbacks.

Hundley's combination of size, athleticism and willpower has enabled him to help exalt the Bruins away from the dormant years under Rick Neuheisel to a top-15 ranking under Jim Mora, Jr.

A dual-threat quarterback in every sense, Hundley is a perennial "X-factor" with the ability to make big plays out of what seems like nothing and can do so with equal effectiveness on the ground as he can through the air.

Statistically on the season, Hundley has thrown for 2,384 yards with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions at a completion rate near 68% while also standing as the team leader with 502 rushing yards with seven scores on 120 total carries.

With all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin gone from last year's team to the NFL, UCLA, due to issues with injuries and effectiveness, has been forced to rotate a series of running backs—and even a linebacker—in the team's ground game.

Jordon James began the season on fire, rushing for 424 yards in the first three games of the season before suffering a long-term injury in the fourth game of the year. James returned for one contest but was sidelined again, though reports are that he should be able to see action Saturday against ASU.

James' status notwithstanding, it's a safe assumption UCLA will continue to feed college football's most captivating two-way player, true freshman Myles Jack. A linebacker by trade—and a hell of a linebacker at that—prior to the Arizona game two weeks ago, Jack was ushered into the offensive lineup at running back and responding with a national headline-grabbing 120 yards and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors.

At 6-foot-1, 225-pounds with breakaway speed, Jack followed his sensational rushing debut with a four-touchdown effort last week against Washington, proving he is a consistently dangerous runner and not just a flash-in-the-pan type for his performance against the Wildcats.

ASU's defense, however, will provide the most formidable challenge Jack has faced, so time will tell if the Chuck Norris-esque legend of Myles Jack will reach a third week.

Chandler native Paul Perkins is UCLA's overall rushing leader among running backs, having carried 112 times for 476 yards with three scores. Also a factor in Noel Mazzone's offense as a receiver—as Sun Devil fans would expect of a Mazzone running back—Perkins has hauled in 19 receptions for 187 yards.

Further down the depth chart, Malcolm Jones typically sees a handful of carries each game with season totals of 48 carries for 238 yards with three scores.

As has been the case with personnel in the run game, physical limitations might emerge this weekend as the status of team receptions leader Devin Fuller (40-453-4) is uncertain after an injury suffered last week against Washington.

If Fuller is absent Saturday, Shaquelle Evans, the team leader in receiving yards (524) and touchdown catches (seven), will be the clear-cut top receiving target for Hundley. Jordan Payton (27-336-1) and Devin Lucien (13-216-1) are plausible candidates for increased looks if Fuller is out of action against ASU.

A potential sleeper candidate to contribute at a high level Saturday is true freshman Thomas Duarte (15-206-2), who occupies the "Y" receiver spot for UCLA. At 6-foot-3, 221-pounds, Duarte presents the blend of size and athleticism that other traditional tight ends have used to attack the Sun Devil defense with substantial returns.

Left-to-right, UCLA's starting offensive line figures to feature tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo, guard Scott Quessenberry, center Jake Brendel, guard Alex Redmond and tackle Caleb Benenoch.

The key story of this group is the trio of Quessenberry, Redmond and Benenoch, as all three starters are true freshmen. Redmond has been a starter all season, while Quessenberry and Benenoch joined the first-team during the middle portion of the season. In all, this weekend marks the fifth consecutive game the first-year trio has started together this season for UCLA.

Offense in a Nutshell

As exciting as Myles Jack has been the past two games, the Bruin offense hovers around the play of Hundley.

With his ability to make plays just as easily when allowed time in the pocket and when pressed into scrambling, Hundley presents a major challenge to the Sun Devil defense and likely is the most gifted quarterback ASU will have seen throughout the entire regular season.

The first key to limiting the Bruin offense is to apply pressure to Hundley with the matchup of a seasoned Sun Devil front versus a UCLA line including three true freshman starters. However, that focus can't be limited to initial pressure as Hundley can easily evade waves of defenders and scramble for yards on the ground or completions on the run.

Beyond ASU's focus on Hundley, ASU's front must limit the enthusiastic play of Jack on the ground, using its collective experience to close in on a true freshman in only his third collegiate game at running back.

In the pass game, Osahon Irabor and/or Robert Nelson will need to keep Evans under close watch, while ASU has to figure out a solution against bigger receivers/tight ends as it can't allow an athletic youngster like Duarte to create the type of damage Connor Hamlett did last week.

Defense Preview

UCLA operates out of a 3-4 base defense with dynamic athletes throughout the front seven, starting up front with ends Eddie Vanderdoes and Cassius Marsh around nose tackle Seal'i Epenesa.

Marsh leads all Bruin defensive linemen with 46 tackles and ranks second on the team with 6.5 TFL's, while his 3.0 sacks ranks third on the team. Vanderdoes has totaled 37 tackles including 4.5 for loss while Epenesa, a substantial space-eater at 310 pounds, has posted 13 tackles and a sack this year.

Ellis McCarthy (23 tackles, 4.0 TFL's) and Kylie Fitts (one tackle) are listed as the primary reserve ends with Kenny Clark (19 tackles, 2.5 TFL's) behind Epenesa at nose tackle.

In all, with Vanderdoes, Fitts and Clark, half of UCLA's defensive line two-deep consists of true freshmen.

Behind an athletic and effective defensive front lies a group of incredibly dynamic linebackers, headlined by All-American Anthony Barr.

After a breakout campaign in his first year on defense after two years on offense, Barr remains one of the most fearsome defenders in college football. Statistically, Barr has totaled 50 tackles, including 14.5 for loss with 7.0 sacks, as well as four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

A Second-Team All-American and First-Team All-Pac-12 member last year, Barr has the ability to terrorize opponents in the backfield and must be accounted for by the Sun Devil offense on every snap.

Though Barr is the marquee athlete of the group, he's been perhaps overshadowed in popularity lately by the emergence of two-way freshman sensation Myles Jack. A four-star recruit last year who strongly considered ASU, even before—and during—his unreal run at tailback, Jack has established himself as a rangy, impactful outside linebacker in his first year at the college level.

On the year, Jack is tied for third on the team with 67 tackles including 5.0 for loss while adding an amazing total of 11 pass deflections to lead UCLA. Undoubtedly, Jack is well on his way to Freshman All-America recognition and despite only playing two games at running back, this week he was named one of five finalists for the Paul Hornung Award (as was ASU's Marion Grice), awarded to the nation's most versatile athlete.

In addition to the attention Barr and Jack have gathered, UCLA enjoys veteran stability from inside linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt, players both likely to vie for postseason all-conference recognition this year.

Kendricks, the Pac-12's leader in tackles in 2012, is the head-and-shoulders team leader this season with 87 total stops, good for third in the league thus far in 2013. Zumwalt ranks second behind Kendricks on the team in tackles with 68, adding 5.0 TFL's. Both players bring leadership, experience and tenacity to the inside linebacker spots of the Bruin defense.

Isaako Savaiinaea (23 tackles) and Ryan Hofmeister (15 tackles) are among the team's most productive reserve linebackers.

As imposing as the Bruin front can be, UCLA's secondary has suffered criticism this season and surely will be a focal point of the Sun Devil offense.

At cornerback, Ishmael Adams (49 tackles, four INT's) is joined by Fabian Moreau (45 tackles) in the starting lineup, with safeties Randall Goforth (60 tackles, three INT's) and Anthony Jefferson (67 tackles, two INT's) back at safety.

Brandon Sermons (27 tackles, 3.0 TFL's) and Tempe native Priest Willis (four tackles) are labeled as the two primary backups at cornerback with Tahaan Goodman (eight tackles) and Stan McKay (seven tackles) as reserve safeties.

Defense in a Nutshell

For ASU against the UCLA defense it's all about the five men up front and the one taking snaps.

Despite winning both contests, Taylor Kelly's performances the past two weeks have been far below his par from the previous eight games of 2013. Additionally, Kelly has had cases of getting atypically rattled on the road, creating an overall need for the junior to focus against an attacking front from UCLA.

That attacking front seven for the Bruins will look to push through a Sun Devil line that has taken some lumps lately, though the overall effort last week against Oregon State for the group was an improvement over an abysmal performance the previous game at Utah.

Undoubtedly, the Bruin defense will look to its All-American in Barr to both create havoc in the backfield and attract blocking attention to open holes for his fellow UCLA defenders.

The weak spot of the UCLA defense comes against the pass, giving a healthy and rejuvenated Jaelen Strong the opportunity for a standout performance, especially if matched up one-on-one with Adams as Strong holds an eight inch height advantage in that exchange.

Special Teams Preview

Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn, who stuck the dagger in the Sun Devils' hearts last season, is 12-of-16 on field goals for the season but all four misses have come from 45 yards and beyond.

True freshman Sean Covington handles punting duties for the Bruins and averages 41.4 yards on his 42 punts.

Shaquelle Evans averages 7.7 yards on punt returns and UCLA's kickoff return situation is in a bit of peril due to injuries to the primary return options.

Keys to a Sun Devil Victory

Contain Hundley

Hundley can break and evade tackles, he can out run defenders, he can throw on the run if needed—keeping clamps on him is a tall task for any defense.

ASU hasn't played may dual-threat quarterbacks this season, but its most recent clash of such nature—Utah with Travis Wilson—did not always end up ideally for the Devils as ASU defenders on multiple occasions were pushed out of pursuit and running lanes up the middle emerged.

Saturday in Pasadena, ASU has to attack relentlessly but do so with intelligence and discipline. If Hundley is able to frequently escape pressure, not only does that give him favored odds to gain yardage, but it will also help him tilt momentum to UCLA's favor.

TK Back on Track (Second Attempt)

Many thought Taylor Kelly's struggles at Utah were simply an aberration and a case of an off day in a tough road environment. However, Kelly returned home to Tempe last week still with some noticeable rust and was not the same quarterback we saw in the first eight games before ASU's trip to Salt Lake City.

If Taylor Kelly struggles—either by self-inflicted mistakes or if UCLA presses him into poor decisions—ASU's chances drop dramatically. Of course, despite Kelly's struggles, ASU claimed victories in each of the past two games, but the results may not be the same at UCLA if the Devils have flat quarterback play.

To help return Kelly to his earlier form, the Sun Devil offensive line must take a firm stance and provide enough time for operating, while the likes of D.J. Foster, Chris Coyle and Richard Smith must be reliable in short to medium range plays to open up downfield mismatches for Jaelen Strong.

Embrace the Opportunity

There's no doubt that ASU has exorcised several demons in Todd Graham's almost two seasons at the helm, but the hex that has yet to be undone is the Devils' struggles in high magnitude games away from Sun Devil Stadium.

ASU needs to play as loosely as it can and embrace the role that it truthfully owns as the team in the driver's seat in the divisional standings.

It is UCLA—not ASU—that is the desperate team in this exchange. It is ASU—not UCLA—that can wrap up the Pac-12 south Saturday.

ASU needs to enter Saturday's contest as the aggressor, as a team expecting to win, not a team hoping for enough opportunities to escape without a loss.

With a win Saturday, Todd Graham then gains a huge notch on his Sun Devil belt, ASU and its collective support system can exhale a little and have some fun in preparation of the Territorial Cup matchup to end the regular season.

Conclusion

As dramatic and profound as many of us like to be prior to a big-time game for the Sun Devils, there's truly no way to overstate the magnitude of Saturday's contest as a win automatically grants ASU a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.

Aside from intangibles and focused more on "X's and O's", this game figures to be as even as the last two, in which UCLA won by three combined points in a fashion each time that destroyed the happiness and mental stability of Sun Devil fans everywhere.

The Devils have to make containment of Hundley priority one, but not allow that focus to be so tunnel-visioned that Jack or any other skill players have easy options.

When ASU has the ball, Taylor Kelly absolutely must return to form of the savvy field general he was before the Utah game, an effort that will be made or broken depending on the consistency of the offensive line.

A game like this typically carries a high likelihood that momentum plays and errors will be amplified tenfold; third-down situations, special teams and turnovers will undoubtedly have a major impact on the game's outcome.

ASU will also hope for timely yardage gains by way of penalties from a youthful Bruin line and overaggressive UCLA defense, as the Bruins rank next-to-last in the FBS in penalties per game (8.8) and penalty yardage per game (88.0).

Sure, ASU can still plausibly lock up the Pac-12 south even with a loss Saturday, but a victory in a hostile, historic facility will signify a massive leap for Todd Graham at ASU and propel the Sun Devils to within one victory from a Rose Bowl appearance.

Familiar Faces

UCLA assistant coaches Steve Broussard, Noel Mazzone, Taylor Mazzone and Eric Yarber previously coached at ASU under Dennis Erickson.

UCLA RB Paul Perkins' father, Bruce (1988-89) and Jordan Zumwalt's father, Rick (1986-87), both played football at ASU.

ASU CB Marlon Pollard played for UCLA in 2009 and '10.

UCLA LB/RB Myles Jack's parents both attended ASU.

ASU S Laiu Moeakiola verbally committed to UCLA as a high school senior before ultimately signing with the Sun Devils.

UCLA's Reed Buce (Peoria Centennial High School), Brett Hundley (Chandler High School), Kenny Lacy (Phoenix Mountain Pointe High School), WR Jalen Ortiz (Peoria Centennial High School), Paul Perkins (Chandler High School) and Priest Willis (Tempe Marcos de Niza High School) are all Arizona natives.

UCLA TE Jordan Barrett attended Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame High School, as did ASU OL Tyler Sulka.

UCLA DB Randall Goforth and LB Stan McKay attended Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High School, as did ASU's Salamo Fiso, Matthew Rowe and Richard Smith. Goforth had verbally committed to ASU before ultimately signing with UCLA.

UCLA WR Zach Hernandez, RB Malcolm Jones, LB Cameron Judge, DL Cassius Marsh and WR Jordan Payton attended Westlake (Calif.) Oaks Christian High School, as did ASU TE Chris Coyle and LB Carlos Mendoza.


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