ASU Preview

UCLA heads to Tempe to face off against the Sun Devils, and odds are that the Bruins will try to follow Oregon's blueprint against ASU...

• UCLA travels to Tempe, Arizona, to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils Saturday. The game is lated for 12:05 PT, and will be televised by FX, with Craig Bolerjack and Joel Klatt in the booth and Petros Papadakis on the sidelines.

• UCLA and Arizona State are both overall 5-2. UCLA is 2-2 in the Pac-12, and ASU is 3-1.

• ASU's only win over a team with a winning record was against FCS Northern Arizona -- meaning, the Sun Devils have yet to beat a FBS team with a winning record.

• If you throw out Northern Arizona, the opponents that ASU has beaten are a combined 7-21 on the season.

• Even one of ASU's two losses was against a team, Missouri, with a losing record.

• ASU is coming off a loss at home against #3 Oregon, 43-21. The game wasn't actually as close as the score, with Oregon leading 43-7 at halftime. The Ducks used back-ups in the second half.

• UCLA and ASU do have common opponents. UCLA got trounced by Cal in Berkeley, while ASU beat the Bears in Berkeley, 27-17. UCLA beat Utah last week in the Rose Bowl, 21-14, while the Sun Devils beat the Utes in Tempe, 37-7. UCLA and ASU both beat up on Colorado.

• The series between the two schools goes back to 1976, with UCLA leading 17-10-1. The series has largely alternated wins in the last several years, with ASU have won three of the last five. UCLA is 7-5 in Tempe.

• The Bruins have only won once in Tempe (in 2006, 24-12) in the last 21 years.

• In those three losses, UCLA has given up an average of a whopping 47 points per game.

• Last year, UCLA beat then #20-ranked ASU in the Rose Bowl, 29-28, with UCLA mounting a game-winning second half drive behind the running of Derrick Coleman, and ASU missing a last-second field goal attempt.

• ASU is coached by first year helmer, Todd Graham, who had coached previously at Pittsburgh, and then Tulsa and Rice prior to that. He is 54-31 overall as a head coach, having just one losing season in at those three previous stops. He is generally considered a defensive-minded coach, having been a defensive coordinator at West Virginia and Tulsa before becoming a head coach. Graham is praised for the job he's done at ASU, taking one of the youngest teams in the FBS that was expected to finish toward the bottom of the Pac-12 to a 5-2 record so far. He has gained a bit of a reputation for being a little difficult, and somewhat of an opportunist, leaving both Rice and Pittsburgh for greener pastures after coaching there just one season each.

• Arizona has started off games fast, outscoring opponents in the first quarter 69-32 on the season, and shutting out five opponents. ASU has also closed out games well, allowing just 7 points on the season in the fourth quarter, outscoring opponents 78-7.

• ASU's offense is definitely a quick-strike one, with 27 of its 39 scoring drives this season coming in three minutes or less. It went the entire game against Illinois without one scoring drive longer than three minutes.

• ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly leads the conference in passing efficiency (166.97), which is also eighth best in the nation.

• ASU, as a team, leads the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense (90.8), pass defense (130.43), passing efficiency (173.93), quarterback sacks (4/game) and tackles for loss (9.43/game).

• UCLA Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone, of course, served as ASU's offensive coordinator the two previous seasons (2010 and 2011). UCLA running backs coach Steve Broussard spent those same two seasons at ASU before coming to UCLA.

• Both Mazzone and Broussard coached many of ASU's players, including quarterback Kelly.

• On ASU's staff is former UCLA offensive line coach Bob Connelly, coaching in Westwood in 2007.

• UCLA is one win away from being bowl eligible. It would be the first time UCLA became bowl eligible in October since 2005.

• Arizona State, in 2011 started 5-1, exactly like this season, before getting beaten soundly by Oregon. The Sun Devils would desperately like to avoid this season what happened last season after it lost to the Ducks: It went on to lose five of its next six games (the only win being against Colorado), finishing the season 6-7. The loss to UCLA started the string of five consecutive defeats to end the season.

• Whoever wins Saturday's game could be in the best position to challenge USC for the Pac-12 South title. If UCLA won it would be tied with ASU in the Pac-12 South at 3-2, with very similar schedules remaining for both. Both teams have to still play USC, Washington State and Arizona, while UCLA has to play #17 Stanford at home, and ASU has to go on the road to face #7 Oregon State.

• Perhaps one of the best defensive lineman in the nation, ASU's Will Sutton is questionable for the game Saturday, after suffering a knee injury. He's listed "week to week." Sutton, of course, had high interest in UCLA in high school when he was at Corona (Calif.) Centennial, but the Bruins didn't offer him, mostly due to academics. He actually sat out the Arizona State season in 2010 because of poor academics.

• Saturday's weather forecast for Tempe calls for a high of 88°.

ASU's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense

If there's been one big surprise for Arizona State's offense this season, it's the play of sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly (6'2, 202). Kelly, who played sparingly last season in relief of Brock Osweiler, was expected to be little more than a game manager in his first year as the full time starter. Naturally, instead of that, he's leading the Pac-12 in pass efficiency and currently boasts a 67% completion rate along with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.

So far this season, Kelly's shown very good decision making in Mike Norvell's offense, and the offensive system has put him in position to succeed fairly well, rolling him out frequently to keep the defense from keying on him and generating pressure. Kelly is very mobile, if not a real burner, and has been able to turn roll outs into long gains when nothing's been available. He's shown a good arm this year, but tends to struggle on some of the longer throws.

Aside from Kelly, though, the three-headed monster of Cameron Marshall (5'11, 215), Marion Grice (6'0, 199), and D.J. Foster (5'11, 183) has been the most valuable part of the offense so far this year. Marshall, the experienced senior, actually leads the team in rushing, but both Grice and Foster are close behind, and they split carries fairly evenly. Foster is probably the most electric of the bunch, with great agility and change of direction. After Noel Mazzone's offense last year tended to utilize running backs a little less, Norvell has seemingly made the rushing attack a much more significant part of the offense, with the unit averaging over 180 yards on the ground per game this season.

Tailback D.J. Foster.
The receivers have been generally inconsistent, but the best of the bunch has been tight end Chris Coyle (6'3, 230) who has already caught 35 passes for almost 450 yards. Coyle is a good athlete who was underutilized last year due to Mazzone's offense not really using a tight end. Coyle has had to be good this year, because the other receivers have struggled to get separation at times, which has led to Kelly having to dump off to Coyle fairly often. Seniors Rashad Ross (6'0, 167) and Jamal Miles (5'10, 184) have been relatively underwhelming so far this year, and both struggled against Oregon last week, with Ross gaining negative yards receiving and Miles not even catching a pass. Freshman Richard Smith (5'9, 164) has game breaking speed, but has yet to really break out this season, but has a couple of touchdowns. Rounding out the rotation is redshirt junior Kevin Ozier (6'2, 196) who is more of a possession type receiver who, like Coyle, has gotten a lot of catches mostly due to the lack of downfield separation by the other receivers.

ASU's offensive line has certainly been a mixed bag this year. Generally undersized, the Sun Devils have made up for that most of the season by playing fast to keep defenses from getting set. Against most of the relatively untalented teams on the schedule so far this year, they've been successful. Against Oregon, it was another story. Kelly was pressured all game due to breakdowns along the line, especially on the interior and left hand side. On the plus side, their offensive line has been remarkably healthy: each of the five players has started every single game this year. Senior Bryce Schwab (6'7, 302) anchors the right hand side of the line, and had his own struggles against Oregon's blitzes last Thursday. He is flanked by senior guard Andrew Sampson (6'4, 301) who started all of last year and was an off and on starter through the previous two years. There's more inexperience along on the interior and left side, which could explain some of the issues, with a sophomore in Jamil Douglas (6'4, 284) at left guard and a redshirt junior in Kody Koebensky (6'3, 285) at center who's in his first year starting. Oregon's blitzes really hampered the offensive line, and their adjustments will be interesting to see.

UCLA's defense had been a hyper aggressive unit against most team, up until two weeks ago against Utah, when the Bruins went much more to a zone and a four man rush. The scheme worked very well against the Utes, but odds are that it was more of a matchup thing. The modus operandi for the defense all year has been to start the game with aggressive blitzing and dial back as the game goes on, and there's little reason to expect that to change long term.

The strength of UCLA's defense this year has been the defensive line, especially defensive ends Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh, who have both started to flourish in this 3-4 defense. Marsh, especially, has improved greatly over the last few games, and is playing well enough that he's almost challenging outside linebacker Anthony Barr for defensive MVP honors. It's strange, but both look much better rushing the passer in a 3-4 defense (where ostensibly they are supposed to be holding up blockers more than rushing the passer) than they ever looked in a 4-3 defense. While much of that has to be attributed to the players' improvement, you have to credit first year defensive line coach Angus McClure, who has helped turn a unit of underachievers last year into a much better unit this year, all while they were learning a new defensive scheme.

Barr, of course, has been so good this year that it's tough to even remember that last year he was languishing as an F back in an anemic offense. What's been most amazing about Barr is that his decision making has been so good; everyone knew that Barr was an athlete, but it's been pretty astounding to watch him actually, for example, cover the correct player on an option run, or track a zone read better than some of the other defensive players.

Obviously, this will be the second game for Jordan Zumwalt at inside linebacker, after he switched there during the Utah week. Zumwalt is probably the best blitzer that UCLA has tried at inside linebacker this season, so it'll be interested to see whether the scheme gets more aggressive than it was against Utah to take advantage of his skills. Dalton Hilliard has also been strong at inside linebacker, when UCLA goes to more of a nickel look. Hilliard was always one of those guys who played extremely hard, but he seems to be executing much better this year, with better tackling form, cover technique, and instincts. After playing offense for the entirety of the spring, it's been good to see him make such an easy adjustment back to defense, and a new position.

Dalton Hilliard.
The significant issue for UCLA's defense this year has been the secondary, which has struggled in this new aggressive defense. Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price have both had their struggles in man to man coverage, while Tevin McDonald, at safety, has struggled with his positioning at times. Andrew Abbott has been the lone bright spot in the secondary, and he'll probably have to play exceptionally well down the stretch against some of the powerful passing attacks that UCLA will face through the last five games.

Advantage: ASU

Arizona State had significant struggles against Oregon last week, but much of that was due to getting down early due to defensive breakdowns. Kelly had, probably, his first bad game of the year, and it came against one of the best attacking defenses in the Pac-12. UCLA will try many of the same blitzes that Oregon tried, but, given what we've seen from UCLA this year, it's hard to say that UCLA will have the same kind of success against the Sun Devils.

The Bruins have also had some struggles with mobile quarterbacks this year, through the first couple of games, and it's a question whether UCLA has gotten better at defending scrambles, or if the quarterbacks UCLA has faced are just a lot less mobile. Kelly will be a big test for this UCLA defense, and until the Bruins can show that they have the ability to stop a mobile quarterback, and a relatively balanced offensive scheme, it's tough to give them an advantage.

It should be noted, though, that UCLA's primary struggles on defense this year have come because of game breaking receivers for the opposing team (Markus Wheaton, Brandin Cooks, and Keenan Allen). ASU doesn't really have one of those types on its squad this year, with the possible exception of Smith, who is a freshman. So, much of this matchup will hinge on UCLA's ability to get pressure on Kelly. If UCLA can do that, then it could be a long day for ASU.

UCLA's Offense vs. ASU's Defense

The wounded elephant in the room for the ASU defense is defensive tackle Will Sutton (6'1, 267). Sutton has evolved into one of the best defensive lineman in the nation, and, from the defensive tackle spot, had already gotten eight sacks, and double digit tackles for loss this season. Unfortunately, against Oregon, Sutton got hurt on the second play of the game, injuring his knee after forcing a fumble from Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Everything we've heard indicates that he's doubtful for this weekend, and that's obviously a big blow for ASU's defensive line.

Luckily for the Sun Devils, their other defensive line star, defensive end Junior Onyeali (6'0, 233), will likely return this week from the shoulder injury that sidelined him early against Oregon. Onyeali, obviously undersized for a defensive end, has been a significant pass rush threat, with the Sun Devils opting for speed and quickness along the defensive line rather than size.

The Sun Devils run a pretty interesting front, generally shifting between three and four down linemen depending on the situation, but always having 4 or 5 players at or near the line of scrimmage. Against Oregon, they generally seemed to have four down linemen. "Devil" backer Carl Bradford (6'1, 233) plays the role of the shifting lineman, either playing with his hand down or as a linebacker depending on the play. With the amount that the Sun Devils blitz, he's rushing the passer more often than not, as the defensive game plan for ASU involves generating turnovers and applying pressure.

Davon Coleman (6'2, 262) played very well in the absence of Sutton and Onyeali, and our guess is that he'll get the majority of Sutton's time on Saturday, if Sutton isn't ready to go. Freshman Jaxon Hood (6'2, 295) is the nose tackle in this defense, and he'll generally come off the field in nickel situations. The defensive line has clearly been one of the strengths of the defense so far this year, but without Sutton, it remains to be seen exactly how good they can be.

Brandon Magee (6'0, 228) leads the linebackers, and as a senior, has become one of the main leaders on the team. Despite missing a game this season, he's the second leading tackler from the weakside linebacker spot. Chris Young (6'0, 232) plays the "Spur" linebacker position, which, like the "Devil", spends a pretty significant amount of time near the line of scrimmage. He's leading the team in tackles, with 51, and shows off pretty good speed for a linebacker, and has looked good in pursuit this year.

Linebacker Brandon Magee.
The secondary has been another big strength for the team this year, but it should be noted that the Sun Devils haven't played too many good passing attacks. Additionally, the pressure that ASU's front seven has been able to generate has made life easier on the defensive backs. It's a veteran unit for ASU, with two juniors and two seniors, and they've played like a heady bunch so far this year. Deveron Carr (6'0, 190) is the field corner and hasn't been thrown against much this year, which is a credit to his coverage abilities. He and boundary corner Osahon Irabor (5'11, 185) do tend to struggle in run defense because, like much of the ASU defense, they are a bit undersized.

At boundary safety, the star of the secondary is Alden Darby (5'11, 185), who even against Oregon was all over the field making plays. He's a sure tackler, despite lacking ideal size. He and Keelan Johnson (6'1, 207), who mans the field safety spot, are 4th and 3rd on the team in tackles respectively.

What to make of UCLA's offense at this point of the year? Through three games, many UCLA fan were ready to anoint Noel Mazzone the chosen one. Since averaging 600+ yards through the first few games, though, the offense has come back to Earth quite a bit as teams have begun to adjust to Mazzone's scheme.

Of course, much of the difficulty is that the vertical threat that was there through the first couple of games is now mostly nonexistent. Devin Lucien, who had established himself as a guy who could stretch the field, hurt his shoulder a month ago, and that seems to have hindered UCLA's deep game. The larger culprit, though, is Brett Hundley, who has struggled to hit deep passes with any consistency, which has allowed defenses to key on stopping the run and short passing game.

Considering that teams are stacking the box against him, and blitzing him with some success, it remains astounding how good Hundley has been. He has tremendous agility and decent pocket presence, which sometimes causes him to take unnecessary sacks because he thinks he can elude defenders indefinitely. He seems like he finally is full speed again in terms of his running, which will hopefully add a dimension to Mazzone's offense and keep teams from blitzing the middle quite as much.

UCLA's own three-headed monster at running back has been fairly dominant in its own right this year. Johnathan Franklin is a much better player than a year ago, with drastically improved balance and ball carrying skills. There's little doubt that if he can continue on this pace, and not have a return of the fumbleitis of previous years, that he could be a decent NFL draft pick. Damien Thigpen and Jordon James have both had electric moments this year, but James has struggled a bit with decision making behind the line of scrimmage, occasionally not making a quick enough cut which has resulted in some tackles for loss.

The offensive line has been slightly above mediocre, which, all in all, has to be the biggest positive for UCLA this season. Considering what he's had to work with, Adrian Klemm has done a very good job. With three freshman starting along the offensive line (including a center who has had to make all the line calls and two tackles who have had significant trouble in pass blocking at times this year) an experienced starter out with a concussion for two games, and his best lineman a guy who just came back from a Mormon mission, Klemm has somehow cobbled together passable line play.

Obviously, some of the credit has to also go to the experienced Baca. With Baca out, the line struggled mightily, and it's a credit to him that as soon as he returned to playing, the line performed much better in pass protection. Baca's versatility also helps set him apart. If you were paying attention in the Utah game, when Baca relieved Simon Goines at right tackle, he proceeded to handle the left defensive end who had been giving Goines fits with ease. Xavier Su'a-Filo has lived up to his billing, and handled Star Lotulelei mostly one on one against Utah.
Jeff Baca.
Torian White returned to practice this week after undergoing a heart procedure last week. There's no word on whether he'll be under any kind of restrictions during the game, but for now, we'll guess that he'll be starting and playing.

The receiving corps has been a bit of a disappointment this year, both in how they've played and how much attrition they've suffered already, with Devin Lucien, Darius Bell, and Jerry Johnson all missing time so far this season. The loss of Lucien hurts especially because he was starting to emerge as that necessary deep threat. Steven Manfro has looked decent at times at receiver, but has also suffered some drops. Shaquelle Evans has probably been the best deep threat, outside of Lucien, but he's been plagued by some inconsistency and miscommunication with Hundley. Joseph Fauria, like last year, has fluctuated between dominant force and a ghost on the field, depending on the play.

UCLA is in need of a consistent player who can get separation down field, and it remains to be seen who it will be.

Advantage: Even

If Sutton were in, we'd probably give this matchup to ASU, but without that force in the middle, there is some weakness that UCLA's running game should be able to exploit. Against Oregon, ASU really struggled defending the zone read, and this game could prove to be an excellent time to display a bit more zone read for the Bruins, who now have a healthy quarterback who can run it well.

Even without quarterback runs, UCLA should be able to generate a running attack. The question, of course, will be if it can generate much of a passing attack. Even without Sutton, ASU has a very good pass rush, and they blitz from multiple angles. Against Hundley, and a very young offensive line, you can expect that ASU will be able to get some pressure, especially on the edge against White and Goines.

We don't expect that ASU's institutional knowledge of Noel Mazzone's offense will play much of a factor, considering the staff turnover, but that should be noted as well.

Special Teams

ASU's kicker Alex Garroute is just 6 of 11 on field goals this year, so he's a pretty close analogue to UCLA's own Ka'imi Fairbairn. Neither team has a particularly strong field goal kicking game, but UCLA tends to use its kicking game a bit more.

Jeff Locke has been very good for UCLA this year, but, dare we say it, has had some minor struggles the past couple of games, and could be suffering from some tired leg. This week, in the desert, we imagine he'll start booming kicks again.

ASU's punter Josh Hubner has a big leg, and is currently second in the conference in average punting yardage, at just over 46 yards per punt. He has just three touchbacks this year, on 25 punts, and has downed 11 inside the 20.

Jamal Miles handles all of the return duties for ASU, and has shown game breaking potential in the past. He has yet to break a big one this year, but has returned four kicks for touchdowns in his career.

Damien Thigpen took over the punt return duties from Manfro last week, and it remains to be seen if that'll be a permanent move. If it is, we'll call it an upgrade. Thigpen is very fast and shifty, and seems poised to break off a big punt or kick return at some point this season.

Advantage: Even

Prediction

UCLA comes into this game after a bye week and a somewhat sleepy win over Utah, where the offense once again looked worryingly pedestrian. Now, the Bruins head on the road to face off against a decent Arizona State team that just got trounced by Oregon.

Looking at this game, you have to figure that UCLA is going to try to do some of the things to ASU that Oregon did—namely, you have to expect the Bruins to go much more to the blitz than they did two weeks ago against Utah, and you have to guess they'll attempt to live and/or die by the run.

ASU, though, has had a week and a half to adjust to the glaring errors shown by the Oregon game. More to the point, the Sun Devils have also had longer to look at UCLA's offensive and defensive schemes. We obviously don't know much about Todd Graham as a coach, but reports indicate that he's a good game planner, and a quality coach.

In the end, what this game could come down to is UCLA's ability to generate a quick, effective pass rush on Kelly. Given what we've seen from UCLA's blitzes this year, that might be too tall of an order. Then, when you factor in how UCLA has performed on the road this year and in season's past, you have to figure that it's all probably just too much to overcome.

ASU 30
UCLA 24

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