Ten Takeaways: UCLA

Arizona State improved to 5-1 with an impressive gut-check win over UCLA Saturday that keeps the Sun Devils squarely in the Pac-12 South mix even as they may be down to their fourth quarterback this week. Here's our look back at the UCLA game.

1. It is fitting that on a night that senior kicker Zane Gonzalez broke the NCAA record for field goals in a career, the game itself was to some degree decided by the disparity between Gonzalez and UCLA freshman kicker J.J. Molson. In the first half Molson missed a 46-yard field goal and 49-yards. Later, the Bruins didn't try to kick what would have been a 52-yard field goal and instead punted. Meanwhile, Gonzalez made all three of his field goal attempts including a long of 46 yards. Molson missed more field goals in the first half than Gonzalez (16 of 17) has missed all season. And the one kick Gonzalez has missed? It was from 53 yards on the road, just barely wide of the upright. In a game that was decided by just three points, with ASU winning 23-20, a strong case can be made that special teams -- and Gonzalez specifically -- allowed ASU to emerge on top. Even before the year we said that we thought this would be a season ASU wins a game due to a special teams edge. This one qualifies. 

2. If UCLA sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen had been healthy and in the lineup throughout the game, the Bruins likely would have won. But credit ASU's defense for taking advantage of a shaky UCLA offensive line that Bruins coach Jim Mora derided following the game. Rosen was sacked five times and hit at least a handful of other occasions. On UCLA's fourth series, with ASU leading 3-0, Rosen was sacked on a five man pressure by junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun and appeared to injury his right groin or hip flexor area. Immediately after, Rosen went to the trainer's table to get worked on. He tried to play on it throughout the rest of the game, but was bothered by it, clearly, and even appeared to argue with the UCLA quarterback coach several times about his ability to play. Ultimately, UCLA put backup senior quarterback Mike Fafaul on the field and there was a significant drop off in capability between the two quarterbacks. Fafaul had a bad throw on the interception by junior De'Chavon Hayes early in the third quarter that sparked the 17-point period, and later had a three-and-out before ASU scored again. Fafaul completed just 3 of 11 passes for 44 yards with two interceptions, including one on the game's final play to freshman nickel corner Robbie Robinson. Rosen did turn the ball over a couple times as well, but had 400 passing yards and two touchdowns. But he was playing far less than 100 percent, and also was off the field for enough series that the Sun Devils were able to pull off the win. The sacks and turnovers ASU generated reminded of how ASU'd beaten other good teams in past years under Graham. 

3. Against arguably the best defense in the Pac-12 South, Brady White completed 19 of 36 pass attempts for 179 yards, one touchdown and one interception in his first start. It was a very difficult opponent to play for a first game because the coverage is good in the secondary and there are few blown assignments to be had. White had some clear-cut mistakes, particularly throws down field on the perimeter in which there was plenty of time for the safety to get over to be involved in the play. He also had some very bright moments, particularly the touchdown throw to freshman N'Keal Harry in the back of the end zone with two defenders in the area; a 18-yard completion to sophomore Jalen Harvey in between levels of a UCLA zone; and a 30-yard fade to senior Tim White that was dropped into the bread basket. White's receivers didn't make it easy on him, as there were more drops by ASU than in previous games this season. Tim White had dropped a beautifully thrown ball 40-ish yards downfield that has to be caught. He had another drop as well. Senior Frederick Gammage couldn't come up with a shallow cross that was a little behind him on a big third down. Harry let a ball get into him that wasn't able to be completed. Conceivably White could have had three or four additional completions for another 50-plus yards and that would have been a pretty good stat line for a first start as a redshirt freshman against the Bruins. Did he do as well as Manny Wilkins would have done? Better? That's hard to say, but it probably wasn't a big drop off. 

4. The season ending injury suffered by White was very unfortunate in that it was terrible luck situationally. That same type of play could happen another 100 times without any serious injury. But now White is out for the season and facing a serious recovery that will take at least 6-to-8 months under the best case scenario, according to sources close to the program and White. That means he'll miss spring football, an important period of continued development. It was also unfortunate for White because it should have been a throw away earlier in the rep. White has shown a tendency in practices to want to wait for a receiver to come open and that can go both ways. Coaches like a quarterback who is able to extend plays and White presents that, but there's also more of a chance for negative plays and injuries. ASU's now had three of its four scholarship quarterbacks suffer injuries this year, two of which were very serious. 

5. Sophomore Manny Wilkins may or may not be back to start Saturday against Colorado, but a two-week recovery from a high ankle sprain is awfully quick. ASU coach Todd Graham thinks so but he's tended to be ambitious at times with his prognosis with player injuries. There was a lot of discussion immediately following the game regarding whether the Sun Devils should have used freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole after White was hurt. The Sun Devils knew immediately White's injury wasn't a minor one, and also knew going into the game that Wilkins would be questionable for Colorado. In such a scenario, and with ASU only leading by three points in the fourth quarter, the coaches made a reasonable decision to play Sterling-Cole. There's a very good chance he'll be playing Saturday against Colorado, if not starting. You can't really fault the decision, even though it probably wouldn't have been what I would have done. But the bigger question is whether ASU should had a play on third and 8 in which Sterling-Cole could have thrown an interception in the end zone, which he did. That's a tough one. A touchdown puts the game out of reach while a field goal gives ASU a six point lead and requires UCLA to score a touchdown to take the lead, and do so with a hurting Rosen on a full field drive. A reasonable person could see this either way, but with Gonzalez and a defense that had been playing well, I probably would have gone with the Sparky formation on second and third down, kicked a field goal on fourth down, and then seen if Sterling-Cole was needed following the ensuing UCLA possession. 

6. Defensive personnel moves by the Sun Devils proved very productive, but none more so than the decision to start junior Marcus Ball at Bandit for the first time. ASU's been very challenged at Bandit all year and even played four players at the position against USC a week earlier. Earlier this season the Sun Devils had played Ball at Spur with senior Laiu Moeakiola moving back from Spur to Bandit. But they'd never tried it the opposite way until Saturday against the Bruins. It worked. Ball did have a bad missed tackle on a 52-yard UCLA touchdown in the third quarter, but overall he played considerably better than others had before him in the role. He actually led the Sun Devils with 10 tackles, including perhaps the biggest hit of the entire season on defense, and had a critical second half interception after Moeakiola tipped a pass. For his efforts, Ball won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors. That's a remarkable success story for a guy who started his career as a back level safety before moving to Spur. It seems very likely Ball has locked up a starting spot for the time being. 

7. Patterson had a smart plan to match up sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr against top UCLA receiver Kenneth Walker in this game that ASU had to abandon in the first quarter when Orr got hurt and knocked out. Orr was hurt by teammate Maurice Chandler on an a play in which Chandler attempted to block a UCLA field goal only to roll into Orr's right leg. Oddly enough, Chandler was getting his first career start at the cornerback spot opposite Orr. The Sun Devils were able to mirror Walker with Orr in part because the Bruins play a slower pro-style offense even though they don't huddle. It was something they did a couple weeks earlier with Orr against Cal receiver Chad Hansen, and had success with in the second half. When Orr went out -- he tweeted he'll be back this week -- ASU inserted Hayes into the lineup at cornerback and played more traditionally at the position. But Hayes ended up having a critical interception and played well overall, while Chandler also had a good showing for his first game. Sure, ASU gave up 444 yards through the air and remains last in the country in passing defense, but the Bruins threw the ball 54 times on the night, so that's not a big surprise. 

8. One of the reasons the Bruins threw it so much is because once again they had no ability to run the ball. By the middle of the third quarter they'd effectively abandoned the run entirely, and threw the ball 25 consecutive times to end the game. UCLA has struggled to establish a run game all season and is the only team in the Pac-12 averaging fewer than 100 yards rushing. But even so, this was a total disaster with the Bruins totaling -1 total yards rushing on 23 carries. Importantly, the Sun Devils didn't even have to run blitz on early downs as much as they had in previous games because they controlled the front more without needing to do so. One of the enabling factors was the play of Renell Wren, a sophomore reserve defensive lineman who has come alive in recent weeks. One of the strongest and most physically imposing players on the roster, Wren playing well at tackle allowed ASU to move junior Tashon Smallwood to end for some reps for the first time in his career. At times ASU went with Smallwood and sophomore Joseph Wicker at the end spots and Wren with senior Viliami Latu at tackle. That's four 270-plus pound players, and it helped ASU win the line of scrimmage better, particularly on the edge, where UCLA has struggled to create running opportunities. 

9. Stop me if you've heard this before, but an adjustment with ASU's run game in the third quarter proved very important to its success. After rushing 13 times for 24 yards in the first half, the Sun Devils had 12 carries for 42 yards in the third quarter alone. They started to pull both the guard and tackle on one side of the line toward the other side and running behind it, and it worked on no fewer than four plays. They did this both going going left, behind senior right guard Stephon McCray and sophomore right tackle Quinn Bailey, and going right, behind sophomore left guard Sam Jones and senior left tackle Evan Goodman, and junior running back Demario Richard was the benefactor. Richard had seven carries for 40 yards in the period, and a 5-yard rushing touchdown that came on the same play concept, which the Bruins weren't able to adjust to and stop before ASU had scored 17 points in the period (enabled by two turnovers). ASU certainly didn't run the ball well enough on the night to call it a success overall, and probably didn't commit enough to it early considering redshirt freshman Brady White was starting for the first time.  

10. The next iteration of ASU's uniforms must include numbers that are more clearly identifiable when it wears some of its alternate looks. This isn't as much of an issue when it wears white jerseys on the road, but at home, the gray uniforms with a shiny number that has no clearly identifying boundary leads to the number being very difficult to discern from the press box, on television, and even from the stands. There were times, even when watching the game for the second time, I had to watch plays three or four times to try to figure out who certain players were. It makes for a poor fan experience if you're interested in knowing who all the players are on the field on any given play. We'd argue, that's one of the more enjoyable and thought provoking aspects of football. 

Sun Devil Source Top Stories