Expert Advance: UCLA

What are the challenges presented to Arizona State by UCLA? We delve deeply into that question in our expert advance preview of Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl.

UCLA Offensive Scheme

Arizona State fans are very familiar with UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone because he was the Sun Devils coordinator under Dennis Erickson in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and so we won't spend quite as much time explaining the scheme has we have with other ASU opponents thus far this season. 

Mazzone runs a classic so-called one-back, West Coast offense, which is predicated on being able to use the full width of the field to spread defenses out latearlly in order to run inside, and then, once it has established the ability to do each of those things, leverage it into one-on-one opportunities down the field. 

The Bruins usually operate with four wide receivers and one running back. They don't use a conventional tight end, but Mazzone has this year started to incorporate more use of a fullback in some situations, Nate Iese, who operates primarily from an h-back type alignment and frequently lead blocks or helps protect. Occasionally he'll be a receiving option out of the backfield, but the amount Iese is used varies from game-to-game. 

Part of the reason the Bruins are using Iese is a little more seems to be because they realize senior running back Paul Perkins is needed to be in a work horse role for the team this season both because of having a true freshman, Josh Rosen, at quarterback, and also because Mazzone doesn't have a number of great wide receiver weapons at his disposal. 

What ASU fans will see Saturday is a very health dose of Perkins carrying the ball behind an improved UCLA offensive line that incorporates man and zone blocking schemes. It will kick its linemen out and get them running to the perimeter, lead blocking on power sets, and there will also be lead zone with the fullback and split zone. 

Perkins is also going to be used a fair amount in the passing game as ASU fans recall Mazzone being very fond of swing passes to his backs out of the backfield, as well as lateral throws to the perimeter in the form of receiver screens. UCLA likes to bunch three receivers to either side of the field, even often doing it to the boundary as a means of forcing defenses to account for these types of plays. 

For Rosen, it's a pretty basic offense in which to operate. He's going to make a lot of quick hitting throws that are high percentage plays, and UCLA's receivers are going to have to block on the perimeter to make the plays a success. 

Sometimes what Mazzone is trying to do is get leading wide receiver Jordan Payton isolated in a man coverage matchup on one side of the field opposite trips on the other side. Payton is the big play threat and most capable vertical target for the Bruins. Look for UCLA to try to get him behind the defense on hitch-and-go routes in the boundary, often with Rosen selling a shoulder fake. Payton will also run post-corner routes that threaten to turn man coverage defenders inside out. 

When UCLA isn't handing it off to Perkins or trying to get Payton clear behind the defense, it'll either be swinging the ball to the perimeter in the quick game throws, or at times trying to get the ball to its bigger Y-receiver Thomas Duarte who plays the Gerell Robinson-role ASU fans may recall. Durate is a big-bodied guy who doesn't really separate but is a third down chain moving option that ASU has to be aware of. 

When the Bruins throw to their other top targets, Mossi Johnson and Devin Fuller, it's usually perimeter screens and other quick game passes. The same with the fullback Iese. 

UCLA Offensive Personnel

Josh Rosen, Quarterback (No. 3) -- Brimming with confidence, Rosen carries himself likes a veteran and has at times looked like one. He's a very accurate pro-style passer who has clear NFL potential, but is by no means experienced enough that he won't have hiccups. The UCLA scheme is well suited to him. He's not a mobile quarterback, but will scramble when forced to do so, and doesn't look terribly awkward doing so. 

Paul Perkins, Running Back (No. 24) -- Though he's not the fastest, most eye-catching running back, Perkins has deceptive short-area quickness and is extremely powerful. He runs through arm tackles, keeps his feet moving, and has great balance and patience as a runner, allowing his blocks to set up ahead of him. He plays very within himself, sees the field well, and exploits opportunities at a high level, epecially with how he's able to get yards after contact. 

Jordan Payton, Wide Receiver (No. 9) -- This is really the only UCLA player who is a speed threat to get behind the ASU defense and make a play because he has the skills to support his ability to get separation from defensive backs. He runs a very nice hitch-and-go, especailly into the boundary where corners are more threatened by the quickness with which the ball can reach the perimeter, and has an impressive post-corner route ability that he can use on either side but especially when aligned to the field. 

Thomas Duarte, Wide Receiver (No. 18) -- At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Durante is a big-bodied receiver who plays big. He is very capable at making possession type receptions in traffic, high points the football, and has impressive hands. He's the guy who catches the football when defenders think they've had good coverage but still lose the rep. In the red zone he's a weapon because of these things and UCLA's general offensive approach. 

ASU Defense against UCLA's Offense

Everything starts with whether or not ASU will be able to be at least somewhat effective at limiting Perkins without having to commit additional resources into the box. Ideally, ASU would like to keep just its front four players and inside linebackers Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam in the box, and allow Laiu Moeakiola to be the disruptive force he is -- when healthy, which is another issue -- on the perimeter against wide runs and screens. A healthy Moeakiola can be a force in this game.  We may see ASU elect to play some stack defense in this game, with Devil backer Antonio Longino as a MIKE alingment in an effort to try to clog things up for Perkins in light of the fact that Rosen isn't a run threat.  ASU runs to the football relatively well on the perimeter and it will have to get off blocks at cornerback -- which it has done better this season with heavier, more physical corners Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown than it has in the past -- and get to the ball on wide screens and swing passes. Then, ASU will have to keep Payton from beating its defensive backs in big plays down the field, or using Durate as a chain-mover. The receipe is winning against Payton with man coverage, getting off blocks on the perimeter, and clogging up the middle for Perkins and getting him on the ground with the first tackle opportunities. 

UCLA Defensive Scheme

The relationship between UCLA head coach Jim Mora and his 2014 defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich generated a lot of conversation during the Bruins' under-performing in an ultra-conversative approach last season, with the indelible memory of Mora taking Ulbrich's face in his hands on the sidelines following an in-game tiff regarding play calling. 

Mora and Ulbrich parted ways and the Bruins have a new defensive coordinator this year, Tom Bradley, but things haven't changed too much. Bradley runs a similar scheme to the one UCLA played last season. It's a conservative approach that tends to utilize personnel in a very similar fashion, and a lot of the coverage shells are also the same. 

There are a few changed, of course, with Hollins being moved from field to boundary side to generate a match-up advantage, as well as either play with his hand down, or as a stand-up pass rusher in an odd-front that really isn't much different in how it's ultimately defended. 

Bradley was a very successful defensive archictect under the Penn State revival late in Joe Paterno's career, as the team gave up just 16.4 points between 2004-11 with Bradley calling the defense. He has a relatively conservative approach, doesn't blitz a lot -- though more than Ulbrich -- but ultimately hangs his hat on making opposing offenses extend double-digit play drives in order to put points on the board. 

UCLA operates primarily out of a Cover 2 shell look, though he will play a variety of man and zone combinations with it. Sometimes a safety will come down just pre-snap and it'll turn to a single high look. Often UCLA will play man underneath with a two high look topping it. They'll have linebackes and corners responsible for the flats and mix in could and sky coverage three deep looks. 

A few injuries have changed the Bruins' overall capability and approach in some respects. When defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes was lost, it hurt the front's potency against the run and pass rush with four capability. Myles Jack played WILL 'backer on run downs but then shifted to a safety roll on passing downs as UCLA got speedy linebacker Jayon Brown on the field at WILL as a coverage guy over the middle and on wheel routes to the running back. 

What really is eye-catching about the Bruins is how relaxed the coverage often is. Though occassionally they'll play press man into the boundary with cornerback Randall Goforth it's much more frequently an 7-10 yard cushion provided to wide receivers, up to and including on third and medium situations. Bradley really likes letting his defensive backs read the play and then come unhinged and attack when the ball is released. Beating this is underneath is very possible but requires synced up timing between quarterback and receiver, and ideally a player with enough speed to keep the cornerback respecting it. 

The safeties play as deep as any you'll see in the Pac-12. Vertical shots are hard to come by against the Bruins, and it's even tough to access Cover 2 busters behind the corners and in front of safeties on the edges because of the cornerbacks' depth. 

When he came back last week againt Arizona following a multi-game suspension, Ishmael Adams was used primarily as a nickel back, and picked on, uncharacteristically, by the Arizona offense. 

Up front, UCLA will sometimes cheat to what looks like a five man front, with its outside linebacker on the field side cheating to a 2-point stance just outside of the down lineman in an effort to make it tougher to access the lane on designed runs or read-option carries, and provide additional pass rush capability. 

UCLA Defensive Personnel

Kenny Clark, Defensive Tackle (No. 97) -- One of the best defensive players we watched on tape in the Pac-12 last season as a sophomore, Clark has been overshadowed to some degree by defensive teammates Myles Jack and Eddie Vanderdoes, both of whom are injured and out for the season, but that shouldn't be the case. At 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, Clark is a nose tackle who is extremely powerful and locates his heavy hands very well. He violently disengages from blocks and gets back to the football. 

Isaako Savaiinaea, Inside Linebacker (No. 44) -- ASU fans can think of Savaiinaea as being like the Salamo Fiso of the UCLA defense. He's a downhill SAM backer type who squares well to the ball carrier, is a relatively sure tackler -- leads UCLA with 26 tackles through four games -- and is less capable against the pass, though a servicable player in that regard as well. He can hit and tackle with pop, but when stressed laterally is only adequate running to the perimeter. 

Deon Hollins, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker (No. 58) -- An undersized pass rusher, Hollins is someone of a one-trick pony, but he's excellent at it. He's a pure and unbridled speed rusher on the perimeter, with truly elite short-space acceleration and an ability to time the snap very effectively. ASU's offensvie tackles are going to have to cheat to pass set against Hollins because he bends the edge well, also. At 6-foot-0 and 230 pounds, he's particularly adept at countering inside, and isn't strong against the run. 

Ishmael Adams, Defensive Back (No. 1) A physical and athletic -- albeit undersized -- defensive back who led the Bruins in interceptions last season and hurt ASU and other teams as a returner, Adams looked rusty last week in his first game back, playing mostly a nickel/slot defensive role. He looked a step off of his normal self and was beaten in man coverage a few times, grabbing and trying to get back up to speed. 

ASU Defense against UCLA's Offense

The whole key here is running the football early and often, and in particlar running the ball right at Deon Hollins and using his strength to ASU's advantage. Adams is a pure speed rusher and his path to the quarterback often takes him way outside and creates natural run lanes in which to exploit. Hollis is undersized and not very good against the run. The only player who is a major threat to ASU's run game success is Clark because he's the type of defensive tackle who will be hard for ASU center Nick Kelly to control and move. ASU wil want to double-team Clark on split zone carries, and run away from him the rest of the time, with a preference of taking the ball into the B and C gaps. Without Jack on the field, UCLA doesn't have as much pop running to the football laterally, so this is a game ASU can perhaps acess the alley in the run game. UCLA doesn't give up vertical shots and ASU doesn't have the pieces to do it anyway, really. There's a lot of opportunity though to complete passes across the entire width of the field of the short-to-intermediate variety. Look for more crossing routes and digs over the middle in an effort to force UCLA's inside linebackers into conflict situations. 

Special Teams

Adams has given teams fits on special teams as a return man in the past, including ASU, but this year in his absence Devin Fuller has taken the job and not shown any reduced capability. He had a really nice punt return, and kickoff return against Arizona last week. ASU can't allow Fuller to get UCLA's offense into short field situations, or worse, give up a return touchdown


ASU has a high degree of unpredictability at this point in the season. Its turnover margin is far outside the normal expectation, as is its third down performance on defense. It has been uncharacteristically mediocre in its offensive execution in some respects. It is capable of playing much better, but it's tough to expect it to do so on the road against a No. 10 team, even though this one sets up well for the Sun Devils. They should be able to run the ball, and Rosen isn't a scamperer at quarterback and the Bruins don't have a lot of athleticism at receiver, so it is more manageable against its attack defense. An ASU win would would not surprise us in this one, as the teams are more evently matched than might be realized. But it's just tough to predict it will come together for the Sun Devils right now. UCLA 30 ASU 27

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