UCLA v. ASU: A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

An old football saying states: a team is as only good as its backup quarterback. In Thursday’s UCLA – Arizona State contest that theory will certainly be put to the test by the Sun Devils and perhaps by the Bruins as well, elevating the intrigue of this matchup to even higher levels than it was just weeks ago. Joe Healey examines ASU’s next opponent and its tendencies on both sides of the ball.

UCLA Offensive Personnel

The current face of UCLA football is one that calls an area not far from ASU’s campus home as Chandler native and Chandler High School product Brett Hundley entered the 2014 season as a Heisman Trophy candidate and top-level NFL prospect.

One of the nation’s top dual threat quarterbacks who has guided the Bruins from mediocrity to prominence in a few short years, Hundley has totaled 686 passing yards with three touchdowns and one interception while adding 74 rushing yards with one score as a starter in all three games.

Though Hundley has started all three games, in UCLA’s most recent contest he was sidelined with an elbow injury that forced backup Jerry Neuheisel into the lineup for the majority of the Bruins’ matchup with Texas almost two weeks ago.

In his first substantial college action, the son of former UCLA QB and head coach Rick Neuheisel turned in a surprisingly sturdy effort with 178 yards with two touchdowns, helping him net not only a Bruin victory but Pac-12 Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Entering Thursday’s matchup with ASU, the Bruin staff has been as tight-lipped as a new collagen injection patient as Jim Mora, Jr., and company have closed practices and greatly restricted general media access. It is known, however, that Hundley has been at practice and the prediction of most experts is that Hundley will be available and start Thursday against the Sun Devils.

If in the lineup and anywhere near 100%, Hundley presents perhaps the greatest quarterback challenge ASU will face all season with his experience, versatility and dynamic playmaking, drive-extending nature.

Hundley isn’t the only prominent Arizonan for the Bruins as fellow Chandler High product Paul Perkins has enjoyed a stellar start to the season and is well on his way to a 1,000-yard campaign as he averages over 100 rushing yards per game with 304 yards on 63 carries with two touchdowns. Perkins’ productivity has progressed as the 2014 season has advanced as he began with 16 carries for 80 yards at Virginia, 23 carries for 98 yards against Memphis then 24 carries for 126 yards versus Texas.

Behind Perkins, Jordon James was used scarcely the first two games (seven carries for three yards) but had 69 yards on eight carries against Texas. Last season, James was off to an incredible start with over 400 yards in the first three games of the year before suffering a long-term injury thereafter.

As we all know by now, Myles Jack doesn’t sleep – he waits. There used to be a street named “Myles Jack”, but it was changed because nobody crosses Myles Jack and lives. Myles Jack can cut through a hot knife with butter. Myles Jack has counted to infinity…TWICE and death once had a near-Myles Jack experience.

Aside from his infallibility and immortality, though his face has yet to replace that of George Washington on Mount Rushmore and Jack’s portrait has yet to replace the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Jack has followed up his all-time, all-galaxy, metaphorically saving-kids-from-a-burning-orphanage freshman season with some very solid play as a sophomore thus far in 2014.

Jack’s role on offense, however, has been fairly limited as he has totaled only eight carries for 21 yards with one touchdown and a long run of nine yards.

At receiver, Jordan Payton is on his way to validating his high recruiting ranking of a few years ago with 19 receptions for 266 yards with one touchdown through three games. Elsewhere, Thomas Duarte ranks second on the squad with 170 yards on nine catches with a team-best two touchdown grabs.

In what we’ll call the “Noel Mazzone Effect”, receivers Devin Fuller and Devin Lucien average 5.9 and 4.4 yards per CATCH respectively with 14-83 for Fuller and 10-44 for Lucien. As Sun Devil fans are painfully aware, the offense driven by Mazzone—former ASU Offensive Coordinator now holding the same role at UCLA—utilizes numerous swing passes and other short-range patterns with both running backs and receivers.

Perkins is also used regularly in the pass game with nine receptions on the year, while one-time ASU recruit Eldridge Massington has six catches as a reserve receiver.

There’s no sugarcoating the disappointment that is the Bruin offensive line this season, understandably creating a handful of starting lineup shuffles in only three games.

Thus far, only tackles Malcolm Bunche and Caleb Benenoch have started all three games at the same position.

Alex Redmond started the opener at one guard position before switching for the last two, Scott Quessenberry started the first game at center before relocating to guard when Jake Brendel became the starting center and true freshman Najee Toran started the opener at guard.

UCLA Offensive Summary

The situation at quarterback for UCLA is hugely important, of course, because as composed as Neuheisel was in his pinch-hitting performance at Texas, if somehow, someway Hundley is entirely out of action against ASU the game-planning for the Sun Devils becomes a much different creature.

Assuming Hundley not only plays but starts, the young Sun Devil defense needs to mature quickly and play with perfect discipline to prevent the Chandler native from breaking containment or throwing darts over the top to Payton and company.

Discipline is necessary against Hundley’s backfield mates as well, as the trio of Perkins, James and Jack can capitalize on any opportunities or openings that Arizona State provides.

The Sun Devils can give themselves a major advantage by successfully attacking the porous Bruin line, as only four teams in the FBS allow a greater average than UCLA’s 4.0 sacks allowed per game, while the 10.33 tackles for loss allowed per game by the Bruins is the worst at the FBS level thus far in 2014.

UCLA Defensive Personnel

As with every football team, UCLA’s defense includes defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs.

Unfortunately, UCLA’s game notes do not include a depth chart, so I’ll do my best in breaking down each specific position.

To paraphrase the great Bob Uecker as Harry Doyle in “Major League”, “…we don’t know what position these Bruins play, but I’m sure they do a hell of a job.”

Different from its offensive line, UCLA’s defensive line has had stability in terms of the starting lineup as Owa Odighizuwa, Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes have started all three games up front for the Bruins.

Clark leads the defensive line and ranks third on the team with 16 tackles, while Vanderdoes has tallied nine tackles, including a team-best three for loss with one sack. Odighizuwa has registered seven tackles including one for loss.

A tag team that rivals the likes of The Outsiders, the New Age Outlaws or the Steiner Brothers in terms of ferocity and talent, the duo of Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack at linebacker for the Bruins is one of the most formidable in all of college football.

An absolute tackling machine, Kendricks is among the national leaders with his 37 total tackles through three games. Kendricks was the Pac-12 leader in tackles per game in 2012 (10.64) and ranked third in 2013 (8.8), making him one of the most accomplished and reputable defenders—though maybe one of the most underrated—in college football.

When not winning games of Connect Four in only three moves, lighting fires by rubbing two ice cubes together or slamming revolving doors, Jack—the Chuck Norris of college football—has continued to be one of the most active defenders in the Pac-12 Conference.

Used predominately on defense this year, Jack ranks second on the team with 26 tackles with a pair of pass breakups as well – a mark he made consistently his freshman season as he deflected numerous passes from his linebacker position.

In addition to the Kendricks-Jack tag team, Deon Hollins and quick impact true freshman Kenny Young have emerged as routine starters for the Bruins. Thus far on the season, Young has totaled 10 tackles while Hollins has posted six total stops.

In the secondary, Ishmael Adams and Fabian Moreau have started all three games at cornerback, though the Bruins have suffered ins-and-outs of injuries at both safety spots.

Anthony Jefferson missed the Texas game due to injury but is expected back against ASU, but it was recently announced that Randall Goforth will be out the remainder of the season due to injury.

Jefferson started the season’s first two games but was replaced by Tahaan Goodman against Texas, while one-time ASU commit Jaleel Wadood took over for Goforth versus the Longhorns.

Statistically, Adams has totaled 14 tackles with one interception, while Moreau has chipped in 13 tackles and two pass breakups. Wadood leads all safeties with 12 total tackles, while Jefferson has 11 in just two games and Goodman has registered six tackles.

Tempe native Priest Willis—a name all Sun Devil followers keep an eye on when the Bruins are on the slate—has appeared in all three games and has branded seven total tackles on the scorebooks thus far.

UCLA Defensive Summary

Though UCLA’s defensive line has had greater continuity in terms of the same faces in the starting lineup each game compared to the Bruin offensive line, the statistics are similarly questionable on both sides.

As a team, UCLA stands tied for 105th in the nation with an average of only one sack per game, while ranking 108th nationally with an average of 4.0 tackles for loss per game.

Despite the poor statistical standings, the talent exists in droves on the Bruins’ defensive depth chart (that I presume exists somewhere). Undoubtedly, the likes of Jack and Kendricks will look to attack D.J. Foster and limit that weapon as much as possible for the Devils and force first-time starter Mike Bercovici to shoulder the offensive burden for Arizona State.

UCLA’s defense is active and full of four and five-star potential playmakers, with a perfect example surfacing week one with the three touchdowns scored by the Bruin defense at Virginia.

The Bruins can also be expected to aggressively pursue Bercovici and interrupt his timing and calmness, placing a major premium on the Devils’ ability to quickly and accurately operate the pass game as to avoid catastrophic collisions in the backfield that give new meaning to ASU’s #BlackOut on Thursday.

UCLA Special Teams Summary

Ka’imi Fairbairn handles placekicking duties for the Bruins and is 2-of-3 on field goals and 10-of-11 on PATs this season. Fairbairn has been deeply involved in the budding rivalry between the Bruins and the Sun Devils the past two seasons as he nailed the game winner for UCLA as time expired in 2012 but suffered a crucial miss late against Arizona State last season.

Matt Mengel (37.1 avg.) and Adam Searl (35.0 avg.) have both seen action at punter for the Bruins, with Mengel taking the greater share with 17 of UCLA’s 20 total punts.

A dangerous performer against the Devils last season, Ishmael Adams is an X-factor on both kick and punt returns. On the season, Adams averages 15.4 yards on seven punt returns while also splitting time with Devin Fuller on kick returns.

Adams’ 45-yard punt return against Texas set UCLA for its final go-ahead touchdown, while last season against the Sun Devils Adams totaled 234 return yards.

Special teams have significantly impacted the past three games in this series and one would wager the trend continues Thursday in Tempe.

Final Analysis

In general, this game represents one of the biggest – and quite possibly the biggest—challenge Todd Graham has faced in his coaching career. After 30 games leading Arizona State, for the first time Graham has a starter not wearing No. 10 leading his offense—against a highly ranked opponent, no less.

Winless in nine career attempts against teams ranked 13th or better by the Associated Press, to defeat the No. 11 Bruins would be a feather in the cap of Graham that would legitimately rival many of last year’s high magnitude wins.

Admittedly this game has an odd feel to it – this will not be the third and final in a line of epic Taylor Kelly-Brett Hundley matchups and it’s being played in the month of September instead of a portion of the season when the division and conference races are more developed.

Regardless the time of year, however, the last three games of this series have determined the Pac-12 South winner and have been as good for fans’ blood pressure as a barrel full of salt-covered sausages eaten on a rollercoaster inside a haunted house.

In some form or fashion it stands to reason that this game will impact the Pac-12 South race again this year as momentum will clearly swing toward the victor and significantly distance itself from the loser.

Major questions understandably exist at quarterback for ASU with Mike Bercovici taking his first career starting snaps at the college level, while the Sun Devil defense also enters on the heels of its most recent collective performance that yielded far too many yards to Colorado.

A quarterback quandary exists as well for UCLA, but it is far more likely to be gamesmanship by Mora and company rather than an issue in any way comparable in severity to Taylor Kelly’s foot injury.

Tempe will be rockin’, hopefully Sun Devil Stadium will be filled to capacity and the #BlackOut will be in full effect – an added wrinkle that for all the head-shaking it incites among old school traditionalists invariably brings extra excitement all around Frank Kush Field.

The bye week ASU has used since its most recent action is perfectly timed given Kelly’s injury and the general difficulty UCLA presents, however the Bruins also enjoyed a week off of action, perhaps mitigating the value for the Sun Devils.

In all, Thursday will be a true test of Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s preparation and adaptability, the demeanor and talent of Bercovici and the stability and perseverance of Arizona State’s defense.

With USC and Stanford up next on the schedule and Taylor Kelly’s availability uncertain at best for both contests, Thursday’s game undoubtedly will go a long way toward the acceleration or stoppage of momentum for the immediate future of Sun Devil football.

Familiar Faces

• UCLA Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone, QB Coach Taylor Mazzone and WR Coach Eric Yarber all coached at Arizona State under Dennis Erickson.

• UCLA QB Brett Hundley and RB Paul Perkins are Arizona natives and attended Chandler High School. Perkins’ father, Bruce, lettered at ASU in 1988 and ’89 and his brother, Bryce Perkins, is verbally committed to ASU.

• UCLA OL Kenny Lacy (Phoenix Mountain Pointe High School), DB Jalen Ortiz (Peoria Centennial High School) and DB Priest Willis (Tempe Marcos de Niza High School) are all Arizona natives.

• UCLA DB Ishmael Adams, WR Zack Bornstein, WR Zach Hernandez, LB Cameron Judge, LB Jake Jules, WR Jordan Payton attended Woodland Hills (Calif.) Oaks Christian High School, as did ASU LB Carlos Mendoza.

• Injured UCLA DB Randall Goforth attended Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High School and was a teammate of ASU LB Salamo Fiso. Goforth verbally committed to ASU prior to signing with UCLA.

• UCLA DB Tahaan Goodman attended Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) High School, as did ASU’s Alani and Viliami Latu.

• UCLA WR Eldridge Massington attended Mesquite (Texas) West Mesquite High School, as did ASU CB William Earley.

• UCLA DB Jaleel Wadood was verbally committed to ASU prior to signing with UCLA.

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