Know Your Foe: UCLA

Even with the Pac-12 South entering just its fourth year of existence, one trend has been undeniable: the UCLA – Arizona State matchup has been crucial in determining the division champion, and this season promises to be the same. What can the Sun Devils expect from the 2014 Bruins?'s David Woods answers Sparky’s Huddle members’ questions regarding ASU's next opponent.

Let’s get the biggest and most obvious question out the way first, do you feel Brett Hundley is going to play, and if he did do you feel he would be 100 percent and just as effective as he was in the first two games of the season?

Woods: I'd be a little surprised if he didn't play -- not shocked, but a little surprised. The injury didn't look like it hindered him much on the sideline after he went down. It's anyone's guess how close he is to 100%. After an awkward injury to an elbow, he could be a little more tentative when running, but we'll see. Hundley is a pretty tough player.

If Hundley can’t go; Jerry Neuheisel will start for the first time this season. What are the biggest differences on the field leadership wise, and skill wise between Hundley and Neuheisel?

Woods: It's very likely that Jerry would get the start if Hundley isn't ready to go. Skill-wise, the differences are vast. Neuheisel doesn't have the arm strength Hundley has, as was easy to see last Saturday, and obviously isn't the same level of athlete. Neuheisel's big strength is that he doesn't get rattled, and though Hundley is certainly a calm presence behind center most of the time, Neuheisel was shockingly steady for a backup quarterback.

In terms of leadership, it's obvious that Hundley is the leader of the team, but Neuheisel has the respect of his teammates, so there isn't a huge drop off there.

UCLA has recruited very well on the offensive line, yet that unit hasn’t played well this year. Do you feel it’s mostly an inexperience or talent issue? Is position coach Adrian Klem a better recruiter than tactical coach?

Woods: UCLA has recruited well, but the Bruins have been hit by so many injuries and other issues over the last few years that it seems the OL is constantly in rebuilding mode. Last year, UCLA started three true freshmen on the offensive line, and while each of those freshmen are now a year older, in most programs they wouldn't even be starting yet.

So, in short, I think it's mostly an experience issue. If, in a year, the offensive line is still not in good shape when it potentially starts three juniors (Caleb Benenoch, Alex Redmond, and Scott Quessenberry) and two seniors (Simon Goines and Jake Brendel), then there might be reason for real concern.

The Texas game was by far UCLA’s best rushing game this year. Do you feel this offensive aspect has turned the corner or is it rather poised to still be an area of concern this season?

Woods: I think the offensive line started to finally feel comfortable as a unit, and it showed in the second half. As long as UCLA maintains reasonable health along the offensive line the rest of the year, I think the Bruins can continue to get credible play out of the line. It may not be a strength of the team this year, but with good health, it shouldn't be a major weakness.

How do you feel about the Bruins’ passing game and if Neuheisel does play do you feel that it could be impacted against ASU?

Woods: UCLA seemed to get a little more creative passing the ball in the Texas game, using a variety of screens, swings, slants, and fades to keep the Longhorns guessing. Through the first two games, UCLA went fairly vanilla with the play-calling, but this last game was a good step in the right direction. With Neuheisel behind center, I'd worry about UCLA's ability to throw consistently downfield, and would imagine that game plan will feature the same steady diet of swings and screens with the occasional slant or fade to keep the defense honest.

UCLA hasn’t blitzed all that much so far. Do you think they will be tempted to employ more blitzes than normal against backup quarterback Mike Bercovici?

Woods: It's the one big question about UCLA's defense so far, and it looks, through three games, like new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich is content to play coverage against most teams. Perhaps that'll change now that the Bruins have entered Pac-12 play, but it'll be interesting to see. Last week, UCLA also played against a backup quarterback in Tyrone Swoopes, and didn't blitz significantly more than it did against Memphis or Virginia.

Do you feel Myles Jack is now a better linebacker not only being a year older but also playing exclusively on defense?

Woods: As of right now, I'd say Jack is a bigger, stronger, faster version of the player from a year ago, but he has played a bit more undisciplined at times, so the improvement might be a wash. He's also not playing exclusively on defense, with carries in each of the last two games.

What do you think are the biggest concerns the Bruins have over the Sun Devil offense?

Woods: The misdirection inherent in ASU's offense caused UCLA fits last year, and judging by the Memphis game, where a much less talented Tigers team caused UCLA's defense many of the same issues with similar misdirection, those issues are still present.

The hope is that with Jack starting on defense rather than offense, he'll be able to counter a lot of that misdirection with his speed and recovery ability, but ASU's scheme is one of the trickiest UCLA will face all year, and a huge credit for that goes to Mike Norvell, who, in my opinion, is one of the best offensive coordinators in the Pac-12, and probably the country.

What challenges does the ASU defense present to the Bruins?

Woods: With all the new starters, I don't know what to make of ASU's defense quite yet. I think, based on what I've seen so far, that if Brett Hundley starts, he should have an easier time against this defense than he did against either of the last two iterations. If Jerry Neuheisel starts, though, I could see ASU pressing the receivers on the outside and bringing a fair amount of pressure, which could cause some issues. I think this is the first significant test for ASU's defense, and it'll be very interesting to see how the young guys do.

Overall, do you feel that the lofty preseason rankings and predictions for UCLA have been a distraction to the players and thus have affected their performance?

Woods: No, not really. As Mora said, it might have made them press a little bit more, but this is one of the most mentally tough UCLA teams I've ever seen. I don't really think expectations have been that big of an issue.

What are your keys to the game and score prediction?

Woods: The number one key to the game is whether Hundley plays. If he does, I'd imagine UCLA's offense should be able to put up points against ASU's defense, particularly given that the running game seemed to finally come alive against Texas. IF he doesn't, I could see Neuheisel struggling against an ASU team that has had 11 days to dissect every strength and weakness he has as a quarterback.

Defensively, UCLA will have to play its most disciplined game of the season against an ASU team that used reverses, end arounds, and counters to devastating effect in the game last year. It helps that the Bruins have a bye to work on fundamentals in that regard. If Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack, and Kenny Young can play gap-sound defense, that'll go a long way. UCLA's defensive performance will hinge largely on its linebackers.

In the end, as I said up top, I think Hundley will play, and this game will look very similar to the last two contests between the teams, with the game going down to the wire in the 4th quarter. I could see it going either way at this point, but with ASU definitely missing Taylor Kelly, I'll tip the scales in favor of the Bruins and go with 31-28 UCLA.

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