Ten Takeaways: UCLA

What enabled Arizona State to beat No. 7 UCLA by double digits despite being nearly a two-touchdown underdog? And what's the significance of the win for ASU? Here's our 10 takeaways.

1. ASU's response in the face of adversity was tremendous and revealing about the mental state of its team, but not uncharacteristic in the Todd Graham-era. The Sun Devils are 7-1 following a loss since start of the 2013 season and have responded time and again when put into adverse situations. Fans of the program were nervous or downright upset after ASU lost badly to Stanford in 2013 but then reeled off eight straight Pac-12 wins. Last season was considered to be on the brink of disaster after the Sun Devils gave up 62 points at home in quarterback Mike Bercovici first start, but they still managed to finish with a 10-win season. Graham said every time ASU is backed into a corner it seems to respond and that's proven true in recent years. Players and coaches said the week of practice was great, with Graham talking less than normal after the sessions to the group, and confidence never seemed to drop whatsoever after the rough 2-2 start. The players knew they were capable of performing a lot better than they had, and then did so. 

2. The ASU run defense was excellent right from the get-go and that carried through the contest until ASU had a three touchdown lead in the third quarter and this was led by excellent play at the line of scrimmage by ASU's three defensive tackle rotation of Viliami LatuTashon Smallwood and Demetrius Cherry. All three of those players had multiple very noteworthy plays. Statistically their performances don't show what they accomplished. ASU's inside linebackers junior Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam were coming up and making plays without being blocked, and they did a great job of tackling. Fiso has been excellent this season and Sam is a heavy tackler and an absolutely superstar player in the making. First possession, Bruins running back Paul Perkins, a very physical runner, carried it for no gain on first down, result is a three-and-out. Second possession, Perkins carried it for 1 yard on first down, three-and-out. Third possession, Perkins carried it for four yards on first down, but on second down he carried it for a loss of two yards and it was three-and-out. Fourth possession, Perkins carried for no yards on first down, and that series resulted in a safety when Latu pressured freshman quarterback Josh Rosen in the end zone. UCLA's first first-down of the game came on a pass interference by Jordan Simone with less than a minute left in the first quarter. At the end of the first quarter UCLA had minus-five rushing yards on eight carries and 18 passing yards. UCLA had two good drives in the second quarter but the second one was one minute offense in which ASU made the mistake of not having having its nickel defense on the field. UCLA had seven rushing yards at halftime. In the third quarter UCLA had only 14 rushing yards and 13 of those came on its first drive in which it only got one first down. By the end of the third quarter ASU was up 29-10 with a commanding lead.

3. ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell moved back to the sidelines after three games in the box and though the offensive rhythm and execution that had escaped the Sun Devils through most of their first four games still wasn't firing on all cylinders, the game plan against UCLA was better. A lot of fans have been frustrated with a lack of imagination from Norvell, but we actually feel like that's not been the biggest problem.  Norvell has actually been a bit too aggressive from a play calling standpoint. A lot of the calls made by Norvell in earlier games, in particular against USC, were likely to work perfectly if his players executed, but he's overestimated at times the likelihood of their ability to do so. Explained another way, many times Norvell has correctly identified big play opportunities but whether it's been poorly run routes, dropped ball, missed blocks or other inefficiencies, those things haven't been capitalized on and instead yielded no yards or even resulted in negative plays. Norvell would have been better served at times to take the higher percentage play that would have likely yielded a moderately successful outcome even if a theoretically higher yield potential play was available. Against the Bruins, Norvell seemed more committed to running the football on early downs and that ended up opening up other opportunities as the game progressed.

4. As soon as Bercovici committed to keeping the ball on zone read in the second quarter against UCLA it really opened up ASU's offensive capability. There were a few plays in the first half that screamed for Bercovici to keep the ball and then immediately after he made the mistake of not doing so on one rep ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell dialed up the same play call on the next down and Bercovici kept it for 11 yards. Not long after he had the long touchdown run. Norvell made a savvy adjustment to have Bercovici be the inside dive option on the play concept because of UCLA defense end Deon Hollins tendency to be so reliant on his speed rush and how it creates a natural run gap on his side that can be further exploited when he has to flatten out more for the running back outside threat. ASU had a hard time with junior nose tackle Kenneth Clark at the point of attack, but when they doubled him on split zone runs it worked, especially when he was aligned next to Hollins. 

5. Todd Graham admitted to a few reporters after the game that his perspective is that the loss of former running backs coach Bo Graham has been disruptive to ASU on game days. Bo Graham was always very relied upon in the press box during games according to Todd Graham at relaying information to Norvell on the ASU sidelines and that communication change has been abruptly different this season and taken time to adjust to in a way that probably hurt ASU's overall capability to some degree early in the season. Other ASU sources have indicated they haven't felt as though the loss of Bo Graham has been as significant in-game, and Bo Graham is Todd's son after all, so there could be the possibility of an inherent bias at some level, unconscious or otherwise. It's really difficult to determine just how much of an impact this has had during the team's struggles offensively. It's probably more than we realized earlier in the season, but certainly not as big a deal as ASU's ball security issues and inability to execute. 

6. In our Viewing Guide a day ahead of the game we spelled out the five things we felt needed to happen for ASU to win. They were, being the team that did a better job establishing the run; being the team that impacted the quarterback more; executing better than previously on offense; taking care of the football as well or better than the opponent; handling the road atmosphere and associated challenges effectively. ASU did as well or better than UCLA in all of these facets and played much more comfortably on the road than against Texas A&M. It easily won the ground game battle, impacted UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen more than any prior opponent's quarterback and made Rosen unsettled at times in the pocket, had 465 yards of total offense (5.2 per play) and it was balanced, with 192 rushing yards, and turned the football over just once, on a tipped Bercovici pass. There no were no lost fumbles after losing seven in the previous four games. ASU gave up just one sack in the game and Bercovici had a comfortable pocket to operate from on most reps. 

7. ASU's pressure-heavy defense puts its back seven in a lot of conflict situations and open spaces in which guys have to make tackles or else give up big gainers. Look no further than ASU's top tacklers for an indication of this. Salamo Fiso is leading the nation in total solo tackles (39) and second in tackles per game (7.8), which Jordan Simone's is second in the nation in in solo tackles (37) and third per game (7.4). How often does a team have two players who are No. 1 and No. 2 nationally in solo tackles? The Sun Devils bring so much blitz pressure that its players have to make big play saving tackles time and again. Against UCLA, Fiso and Simone tied for the team-high with eight total tackles apiece, with all eight of Fiso's being of the solo variety and six of Simone's. For the second game in a row, an opponent worked hard to try to isolate Simone in man coverage situations by putting twin receivers into the boundary and running vertical routes with the slot receiver on that side of the field. Simone had a pass interference on one rep and gave up a long reception, but more than made up for it with his tackles in space and overall stabilizing influence on the defense's impressive night.  

8. Junior punter Matt Haack's performance was tremendous and it seemed only fitting that in ASU's big win, a special teams performance played a major role. Haack had five punts inside the UCLA 20 in what was largely a field possession game for large stretches, including the 63-yard punt inside UCLA's 1 yard line that ultimately led to UCLA's questionable decision to take a safety. Overall, ASU had its best special teams performance of the year and Haack was its top player. 

9. ASU's improved on the perimeter in a way that might be easy to overlook. It has better blockers at wide receiver this year and those players did a nice job of enhancing the Sun Devils' bubble screens and swing passes on the perimeter against the Bruins. UCLA likes to give a lot of cushion at cornerback and play its safeties deeper than a lot of team. This allowed for more time to develop with receivers blocking ahead of the play and ASU exploited it. Demario Richard in his fifth consecutive 100-plus yard from scrimmage game of the season, led ASU with eight catches, and junior Tim White -- even though he had a couple drops -- also was able to make plays in space with the football. On defense, ASU's more stout at cornerback than in years' past, with the heavier and more physical seniors Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington better able to get off blocks and be disruptive along the line of scrimmage. This was a significant factor against UCLA's West Coast offense which involves an effort to use a lot of bubble screens to spread defenses out laterally. ASU owned the line of scrimmage not only in the trenches in this game, but importantly, also on the perimeter, and the full 53.3 yards wide matter. 

10. As we said after its loss to USC, things are never as good or bad as they seem. ASU was never the doormat it appeared to be against Texas A&M and USC. A lot of fans felt like ASU wasn't a good team after its 2-2 start but the truth is a lot more complex than that. In college football it's easy to have performances that aren't indicative of a team's overall capability and if it happens multiple times at the outset of a season it's going to yield a lot of consternation when expectations are very high, but the truth is, how two teams play on one day is not necessarily how the game would unfold if the two teams played again. ASU is a fine football team, not a national title contender but that was never the case. It was always a team that had a chance to win the Pac-12 South but it was going to be a major battle to get there. In October, it's still a possibility. We'll see if that's the case in November. 

Sun Devil Source Top Stories