Takkarist McKinley (Photo by Steve Cheng)

ASU players, coaches evaluate UCLA

Arizona State's players and coaches offered their thoughts on the Bruins ahead of their matchup with UCLA.

Every year since Arizona State head coach Todd Graham's arrival in Tempe, the Sun Devils have consistently suffered one bad loss early in the season only to rebound the following week.

In Graham’s first year at ASU in 2012, the Sun Devils lost 24-20 to Missouri on Sept. 15, 2012 before coming back to win their next three straight games.

In 2013, ASU lost to Stanford 42-28 in week three before coming back the next week and dominating USC, 62-41. After a close 37-34 loss to Notre Dame the following week, ASU won its next seven games.

In 2014, the Sun Devils were blown out by then-No. 11 UCLA 62-27 before winning their next five games, including wins against then-No. 16 USC, then-No. 23 Stanford, then-No. 18 Utah and then-No.8 Notre Dame.

Last season, ASU lost to then-No. 19 USC 42-14 before coming back and beating then-No. 11 UCLA 38-23 in Pasadena, Calif. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen went 22-of-40 for 280 yards and one interception as the Sun Devils held UCLA’s rushing attack to a mere 62 yards.

“We played with incredible passion in that game, coming off the game prior to that (USC loss), if I remember correct we showed up and played and had a mental focus about ourselves and we were very aggressive upfront,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “I remember (senior defensive lineman) Viliami Latu being very active, almost to the point where he was unblockable at times and we need the same type of energy out of those guys this week.”

Following the pattern of years past, ASU (4-1 overall, 1-1 in Pac-12) will face UCLA (3-2, 1-1) at Sun Devil Stadium this week after getting blown out by USC on the road, 41-20.

“The last three years I’ve been here we’ve had those type of setbacks every year it seems like and really it's just coaching that game with a mental edge and a passion and their backs were against the wall and they played hard and made plays,” Patterson said.

Multiple players reminisced on ASU’s win last year against UCLA, and ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl said players were very focused last year following their loss to USC and he feels the same type of attitude headed into Saturday.

“They (players) were very involved mentally so I feel like that’s this week,” Kohl said. “Everyone had a little chip on their shoulder. Last year was a good game and I mean we came back, I think we were down in the first half and we came back and I remember the whole (ASU junior running back) Kalen (Ballage) run and that’s just how the game went for the second half, we kept pushing as a team.”

And while ASU is in a similar situation as it was last year, the two teams that will be playing against each other on Saturday are “totally different teams” compared to last year, according to ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.

“I think it’s two different teams,” Lindsey said. “Totally different teams to be honest with you. When you look at who we have now and who we had on that team then and on the other side, who did they have? A first round draft pick, a D-lineman (Kenny Clark) so they are a little different too, so you rely on that a little bit, but this team is different and we got to make sure we give this team the best chance to win.”

UCLA’s offense is noticeably different compared to last year, switching from a spread scheme to a pro-style offense with an offensive coordinator switch to Kennedy Polamalu, who took over after former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone took the job as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator in January.

Polamalu was elevated to UCLA’s offensive coordinator in January after serving as UCLA’s running backs coach the two previous seasons. 

ASU defensive line coach Joe Seumalo said he is good friends with Polamalu and has known him since Polamalu was playing at USC. Both coaches coached at the Troy Polamalu camp in American Samoa for the past two years.   

Seumalo also compared UCLA’s offense to USC’s offense under current Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll or when current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh was coaching at Stanford.

“Ironically they look a little bit more like USC traditionally,” Patterson said. “A lot of similarities between old USC and UCLA and it’s really good. I thought our schedule set up nicely, the Air Raid teams and then pro-style transitioning with run game and with play-action passing and so that’s good. Hopefully we will have some carry over from last week.”

Rosen leads the Bruins' offense this year and is 113-of-188 for 1,515 yards on the season with four interceptions and eight touchdowns. Last week in UCLA’s win over Arizona, Rosen was 20-of-37 for 350 yards while throwing for three touchdowns.   

UCLA is No. 4 in the Pac-12 in pass offense with Rosen averaging 305.6 yards per game through the air. The Bruins are 16-of-20 in the end zone with 10 touchdowns and six field goals. 

ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said Rosen is “a big time quarterback” and said he will be one of the better quarterbacks ASU will have to face all season.  

“He can make every single throw on the field at any time,” Rushing said.  “He looks like he’s under duress some of the times, and no legs like, ‘How did he make that throw 45 yards down the field without stepping into it?’ Because he can. He can do that, and they do a good job. If you leave some guys open, he’s going to find them. So, we’ve got to do a good job of being sound in our coverage taking away what they’re trying to get.”

ASU sophomore defensive lineman Joseph Wicker said from high school to college, Rosen has always been good so it’s no surprise he’s turned out to be the good quarterback he is in the Pac-12.

Wicker said he thinks Rosen is the best pocket passer in his class, but there are a few things the Sun Devils can do on Saturday to slow him down.

“From last year, I've seen that he gets rattled in the pocket a lot and he gets happy feet,” Wicker said. “And not even last year, from the first game and the few games he’s played he tends to throw the ball up when he’s getting pressured and I’ve seen a lot of turnovers from him and it’s an advantage to us because everyone knows that we do a lot of pressures and stuff, but I don’t even know what we will be doing yet, but we will see.”

ASU sophomore safety Armand Perry said UCLA’s play-action could be tricky for the Sun Devils because the Bruins, “set up the run to hit you up over the top so from being a safety, just have to keep everything in front of you.”

Critical receivers down the field for ASU to keep on eye on are UCLA junior wide receiver Darren Andrews, who leads the Bruins in receptions with 21 catches for 301 yards and one touchdown, and senior wide receiver Kenneth Walker.

Walker has three touchdowns and 15 catches for 299 yards after a 2015 season in which he only had nine catches for 231 yards and one touchdown.

“I would say that they do (have an elite receiver),” Rushing said. “Their receiving corps is very similar to the wide receiving corps at USC. They don’t get the notoriety maybe USC does, just because its USC, and their quarterback (Rosen) is so big time he gets a lot of the publicity. With these guys, they’re capable. More than capable wide receivers that we got to treat just like we did USC’s guys.”

Perry said ASU's secondary will have to stay very disciplined down field in the passing game with Rosen in addition to in the run game.  

However, through five games this season, the Bruins are last in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, averaging only 119.2 yards per game. Sophomore running back Sotonye Jamabo only has 47 carries for 186 yards and three touchdowns and junior running back Nate Starks has 42 carries for 143 yards and one touchdown.

“They are definitely trying to run the ball a lot more,” Wicker said. “They use a lot of wings, ace tight, two tight ends stuff like that.”

“Wings” refers to an offensive formation UCLA uses with both a running back or wide receiver lined up just outside of a tight end on one side of the field. “Ace tight” refers to 11 personnel with a single tight end on the field and three wide receivers. The formation can be played from under center or out of the shotgun.

“They are going to be fresh and we are going to be after that because they will be running hard and the ultimate thing we have to do is stop the run and keep Rosen rattled I think,” Wicker said. “That’s the biggest thing. Keep him rattled in the pocket and we will win.”

Perry said UCLA has a lot of “speed guys” on both the offense and defense and Perry has a lot of personal ties to players on the team.

“I’m friends with a lot of them like (junior defensive back) Jaleel Wadood, Nate Starks, we all grew up together,” Perry said. “(I know sophomore wide receiver) Jordan Lasley. I know Rosen, (senior wide receiver) Ishmael Adams, it’s a game every game is big, but this game means a little something more for me.

“Me, Jaleel and Nate, we all grew up together since we were young so we're all in the same group chat. I talk to those guys every single day so this game means a little something more. All of our families are going to come out.”

UCLA Defense

On the other side of the ball, UCLA is in its second year under defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.

“I think they are the best defense that we’ve played so far, that we are going to play,” Kohl said. “They have a nice front and then their DBs are pretty good. Their linebackers have good size.”

Bradley replaced Jeff Ulbrich, who spent three seasons with the Bruins and is now the linebackers coach for the Atlanta Falcons.   

Bradley was named the defensive coordinator at UCLA in February of 2015. In his first season at UCLA in 2015, Bradley’s defense surrendered just 4.9 yards per play, the lowest mark in the Pac-12. The Bruins' defense is similar to USC's and they play both in zone and man coverage. UCLA often loads the box and plays with a single high safety. 

“This team will mix in a little more odd front than we’ve been seeing,” ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said. “Schematically, a little bit different. The ends are bigger bodies than what we’ve seen, and then (UCLA senior defensive lineman Takkarist McKinleya big, long guy with speed. Does a good job rushing the passer. (Senior defensive lineman Deon Hollins) 58 is still there. We’ve been going against him for years. He’s got speed off the edge and he’s a real change up. Then they got big bodies that like to power rush. They do a good job with their hands, so I think it’s the best group we’ve faced.”

Despite losing former standout defensive tackle Kenny Clark to the 2016 NFL Draft, McKinley has stepped up for the Bruins, leading the team with six tackles for loss and also three sacks. McKinley had 35 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2015.

“You’ve got to identify for your tackles each week what the skill set of the guys they’re going against," offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said. "What’s their skill set and how do you combat that? It’s no different this week as far as identifying. It’s a little bit different approach. They have a mixture of people coming at you. McKinley, who’s kind of a combination of speed and power. You got 58 (Hollins) with speed. Then you’ve got some big bodies who are more power, but they’re good with their hands, so each snap you have to kind of identify who I am going against and what he likes to do. You’ve got to be ready to combat that. It’s a challenge.”

Last season, Hollins had 18 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. This season, Hollins only plays on third and long downs and has almost been non-existent stats-wise -- with two sacks being negated due to penalties -- but Kohl remembered his play from last season. 

“Well I deal with the ends a lot just being a tight end and noticed they have good size on the ends there, but they are more athletic than USC’s were in my opinion,” Kohl said. “I don’t really know their names, but No. 98 (McKinley) and then I remember No. 58 (Hollins) from last year. Those guys are pretty athletic and good-sized too.”

While UCLA has a lot of strength in its front seven, the Bruins are No. 9 in the Pac-12 in sacks, recording nine. Additionally, the Bruins’ red zone defense is No. 10 in the Pac-12, allowing opponents to score 14-of-15 times with 10 touchdowns and four field goals.

“I think they will be one of the best overall units,” ASU wide receiver Tim White said. “They have great players all around the board so we are looking to compete against them and they stack up pretty good.”

UCLA has five interceptions with a return average of 17.8 yards per interception. UCLA has a turnover margin of plus-one on the season.

Led by UCLA senior cornerback Fabian Moreau, sophomore cornerback Nathan Meadows, senior safety Randall Goforth, and Wadood, the Bruins are No. 3 in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing 186 yards per game.

Goforth, who has two interceptions this year, was second team all-conference last year and has 30-plus starts in his career. Moreau was also a second-team all-league player who was hurt in the third game last season and did not play for the remainder of the season. 

UCLA’s linebackers prove to be a strength, led by UCLA senior linebacker Jayon Brown and UCLA junior linebacker Kenny Young.

Young is No. 6 in the conference with 39 tackles and a 7.8 per game average. Young has three sacks on the season. In UCLA’s win over Arizona last week, Young had 12 tackles and one sack.

Brown leads the team in tackling and is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in tackling with 44 total tackles and an 8.8 per game average. Brown led the team last season with 93 tackles.

Additionally, the Bruins are No. 7 in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing 170.8 yards per game.

“Their run defense, honestly UCLA’s is way better than SC’s, but the D-line is about the same,” ASU junior running back Demario Richard. “They got some dogs up there. Not knocking SC at all, they got some dogs up there at UCLA. We’ll see. It’s going to be a good game. Especially after last year, how we did running the ball last year.”


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