Bercovici, Offense Ready to Roll

It’s been nearly four years since Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici last started a football game. After nearly winning the quarterback battle in 2011, he’s found himself backing up three year starter Taylor Kelly, patiently waiting for his moment.

For Bercovici and the Sun Devils, that moment comes Thursday when Arizona State hosts Pac-12 South foe UCLA in an early-season division showdown and no matter the stakes, Bercovici insists he’s ready for the challenge ahead.

It probably isn’t quite how he imagined it’d be, but junior Mike Bercovici will make his first start at quarterback for #15 Arizona State in place of the injured Taylor Kelly when the Sun Devils host division rival #11UCLA on Thursday night.

Bercovici, who last started a game at quarterback as a senior at Taft High School in 2010, has appeared in all three games for ASU this season and filled in for Kelly after the senior signal caller went down awkwardly against Colorado on September 13th, helping preserve the 38-24 Sun Devil road win.

Contrary to popular speculation at the time, Bercovici opted not to transfer away from Arizona State following the 2013 season, instead choosing to remain a Sun Devil and back-up Kelly once again this year with the hopes of starting as a senior in 2015.

That plan was put on the fast track when it was announced last week that Kelly would be sidelined for 4-6 weeks with a foot injury, forcing the back-up Bercovici into the starting role.

With Kelly out, Bercovici took over the starting QB duties last week, working with the first team offense during ASU’s bye week ahead of freshmen Manny Wilkins and Coltin Gerhart.

“It feels great to get these extra practices in just for a game plan perspective,” he said. “We’re always ready to go but to get these extra days in, it’s just extra film time, extra time with the unit, and extra time leading. I feel like the guys are more comfortable with me being more talkative than I was last week and that’s just a daily progression.

“The more reps you get in life, the better you get. Basically right now, I’m in a position where I feel that we know we’re going to win this game.”

For Bercovici, a native of Calabasas, Calif., the scene couldn’t be set up any more perfectly as he’ll make his first career start against UCLA, followed by a road trip to USC where he’ll have the opportunity to play in front of friends and family at the Los Angeles Coliseum in yet another pivotal division game for the Sun Devils.

“Well I don’t know if you can tell, but every day when we come out here for practice Coach Graham puts the pressure on us like it’s the national championship, so going into this game, it’s nothing new as far as the anxiety perspective,” he said. “I’ve just got to go out and do my job, run the quarterback position, not turn the ball over, and get the sticks going forward. That’s all we have to do.”

Thankfully for him, Bercovici won’t be counted on to the shoulder the load all by himself in the absence of Kelly as the Sun Devils boast one of the more dynamic offenses in the nation with playmakers like running back D.J. Foster and wide receiver Jaelen Strong.

Arizona State enters its game against UCLA averaging 47.0 points per game, second most in the Pac-12, and 539.0 yards of offense, which ranks 13th nationally.

Bercovici will look to target Strong early and often against the Bruins to help ignite the ASU passing game and keep the UCLA defense from loading the box against Foster and the stable of Sun Devil running backs.

“I would say the thing I’ve done differently is communicate more with him,” said Bercovici of Strong. “Obviously I’ve been a role player in the past and would tell him, you know, ‘Heck of a catch,’ where now I can talk to him and be like, ‘Hey, make sure that you expect that ball when you’re coming out,’ or whatever the case may be. It’s just more of a relationship where it’s more of a time to roll now.”

Another key to victory for Bercovici and the Arizona State offense on Thursday will be ball control. Through the first three games of the season, the Sun Devils have only committed one turnover - fewest in the Pac-12 - while being tied for the second best turnover margin in the conference at +1.67.

While Bercovici has only made nine career appearances at Arizona State with 24 total pass attempts, the junior has yet to commit a turnover.

In an effort to preserve that trend against the Bruins, Bercovici says he and center Nick Kelly have spent additional time perfecting their exchange, which he feels is the first step in playing turnover-free football.

“When you wear a fork on your helmet, ball security is the number one thing, so this is nothing new for us or new for me,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been here, ever since Coach Graham has be

en here and Coach Norvell, that’s the number one thing we focus on every single day. “We come out here every single day and have a huge emphasis on the center-quarterback exchange. That’s something that’s, like, the identity of our program. It doesn’t start with the quarterback, it starts with the center. They’re the first people to have 100% ball security, so if that happens we’re going to keep moving down the field.”

Aside from trying to minimize mistakes, Bercovici says that he’s also been relying heavily on Kelly, who despite being sidelined for now, has been sharing his own insight of the Sun Devil offense with his back-up to help prepare for Thursday’s match-up.

“Taylor and I, we talk all the time. He talks to me about the very minute things,” said Bercovici. “Coach Norvell does a great job of telling us the game plan and whatnot, but he talks to me mostly about eyes and the stuff that only he would understand as far as the quarterback position. I can always count on him for the most detailed information.

“Everyone tells me to embrace the situation and obviously I am. I know a lot of people are counting on us to win this game and I appreciate everyone that has congratulated me but ultimately nothing has been accomplished yet.

“This week we’ll be 4-0 and then we’ll move on to next week.”

*****

Here Come the Bruins

After finishing last season ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 2005, UCLA began the 2014 campaign ranked seventh in the AP preseason poll, their highest preseason ranking since 1998.

However, the Bruins have struggled to look the part through the first month of the season, struggling on both sides of the ball at various times.

Defensively, UCLA enters the week allowing an average of 24.0 points per game, which ranks ninth in Pac-12 and 60th overall in the nation, but is yielding just a modest 392.3 yards of total offense to the opposition, sixth best in the conference.

“Each defense has its own personality and we’re going against a long and athletic defense. They’ve got some tremendous playmakers,” said ASU Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell. “What we’ve got to do is go out and play our game. We’ve got to be able to play fast and make the most of the one-on-one opportunities that we can.”

One cause for UCLA’s early struggles has been the lack of experienced depth on defense. A year after setting a school record by playing 18 true freshman in 2013, the Bruins have already played eight true freshmen this season, including five on defense.

With Kelly out, Arizona State may look to use its running game to set the tone against UCLA. The Sun Devils sit atop the Pac-12 in team rushing, averaging 304.3 yards per game, thanks in large part to junior running back D.J. Foster.

Through three games Foster has already accumulated 510 yards on the ground and his 216.3 all-purpose yards per game is second in the nation.

“The biggest thing when we go into any game is we want try to expose match-ups,” said Norvell. “We want to get our best guys on guys who we feel confident in those on-on-one’s and then adapt to how the game flows. We have to take what the defense gives us.

“They’re going to have a specific plan for us going into this game and it’s going to be a great chess match. There will be a lot of great players in this football great and it’ll be a great game to see.”

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Lights Out at Linebacker

While UCLA may lack experience in some areas of its defense, it certainly doesn’t at linebacker where the Bruins are led by the senior Eric Kendricks and sophomore Myles Jack.

Kendricks, who enters the game with 32 career starts for the Bruins, tops on the team, became the first UCLA player to record 100+ tackles in consecutive season when he totaled 106 last season.

Kendricks recorded 150 tackles as a sophomore and through three games this season has posted 37 tackles, one tackle for a loss, one interception and a forced fumble.

Playing alongside him is Jack, who became the first Pac-12 player to ever be awarded conference’s Freshman Defensive and Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2013 when he tallied 75 tackle as a true freshman.

“When you watch those guys, they’ve both got high motors and both are tremendous football players,” said Norvell. “They can make plays sideline-to-sideline. They seem to have a knack for getting to the football, whether it’s being thrown or run. Those are guys you definitely have to account for and will be two of the better football players that we’ve faced this year.”

Typically, the Bruins like to play aggressively with their front seven, pressuring from a variety of angles. While the numbers may not paint a complete picture - UCLA has recorded just three sacks this season for a total of -12 yards - the Bruins have demonstrated that they won’t hesitate to use the linebacker combo to bring some extra heat, especially against the green Bercovici in an effort to rattle him early on.

Regardless of where the pressure comes from on Thursday, Norvell says his offense is prepared for whatever the Bruins plan to bring.

“They’ve actually done a pretty good job of pressuring the quarterback,” he said. “I know a lot times the quarterback has been able to dump the ball out or get rid of the ball right before he gets hit, but they’ve got some guys up front that definitely know how to get to the quarterback.

“They can try and bring more pressure and show Mike some different looks, but we’re prepared. We’ve obviously played quite a few pressure teams and we’re looking forward to seeing what they bring at us.

“I mean, they’ve got to come with something,” added freshman running back Demario Richard. “Their defense is kind of aggressive but if you’re over-aggressive we can strike quickly, so they’re going to have to be patient on what they do. Whatever they got coming, we got a back-up for.”

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Shaking Up the Secondary

It was announced on Sunday that junior safety Randall Goforth, who separated his right shoulder in UCLA’s home victory over Memphis on September 6th, would require season-ending surgery, dealing the Bruins a big blow to their secondary.

Goforth, a one-time ASU prospect, recorded 78 tackles last season as full-time starter, the fourth most on the team.

Despite the loss of Goforth, UCLA remains very talented in its defensive secondary, which is anchored by the cornerback tandem of Ishmael Adams and Fabian Moreau.

Adams, who started all 13 games last year for the Bruins while snaring a team-high four interceptions, comes into Thursday’s meeting against the Sun Devils with 14 tackles and an interception.

He’s paced on the opposite side by the 6-0, 195 pound Moreau, who has logged 12 tackles and one tackle for a loss through the first three weeks of the season.

“They both do a great job of getting their hands on receivers,” said Norvell of the two juniors. “They’re guys who are athletic and play a lot of man coverage. That’s going to be something where we’ve got to do a great job of getting off the ball because when you do that in man-too-man coverage, you’re going to have opportunities to make some big plays.

“We’ve got to continue to attack and it’s going to come down to who can make a true football play.”

While the Bruins boast an experienced duo at cornerback, the loss of Goforth leaves them bereft of that same experience at safety.

Senior Anthony Jefferson missed the team’s September 13th match-up against Texas with a sprained ankle but is expected to start against the Sun Devils.

The 6-1, 192 pound Jefferson earned All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention honors last season while totaling 89 tackles on the season.

He’ll be joined by sophomore Tahaan Goodman, who after appearing in 13 games last season and recording a season-high four tackles against Arizona State, made his first career start against Texas in place of the injured Goforth.

“I think they’re a quality defense, said Norvell. “Obviously they had an injury there at safety, but they’ve got some young guys who are very talented and can run around. It’s going to be a great match-up.

“It’s one where we feel there will be a lot of strengths for them and a lot of strengths for us and it’s just going to come down to who goes out there and makes plays.”

Regardless if Jefferson is a go or not for the Bruins, true freshman Jaleel Wadood, the cousin of former Arizona State cornerback Rashad Wadood, is expected to see significant playing time against the Sun Devils.

Wadood also made his first career start at safety against Texas, recording nine tackles in the win.

The Bruins enter the week allowing an average of 255.7 passing yards per contest, ninth most in the Pac-12, but have also proven to be very opportunistic on the defensive side of the ball.

UCLA has forced three turnovers in its first three games - interceptions by Kendricks and Adams and a fumble recovery by Goforth - all of which have resulted in defensive scores.

“They got good players over there,” said Bercovici. “Just like we recruit, they recruit. It’s going to come down to some one-one-one’s and our guys making plays and really, all we’ve got to do is our job.

“We can’t really worry so much about them as far as doing our job.”

Thursday’s match-up between UCLA and Arizona State kicks off at 7:00 pm PT and will be televised on Fox Sports 1. The Bruins lead the all-time series between the two teams by a count of 18-11-1 but the Sun Devils have won four of the last seven meetings, including last year’s 38-33 victory at the Rose Bowl as ASU clinched its first Pac-12 South division title.


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