Here's another aspect that makes you wonder: ASU, for the season, is averaging 475 yards per game (3rd in the Pac-12), but has averaged just 319 yards in its last two games against Oregon State and Utah. It's always what have you done for me lately, and the Arizona State offense hasn't done nearly as much as it did earlier in the season.
It's a bit of a deceptive offense, too. It's billed as a spread, but in practice it doesn't necessarily use the spread concept extensively. Sure, it lines up out of a shotgun most of the time, and while it does spread out its receivers in some formations, often it keeps an extra blocker tight on the line and works with two running backs. Recently it's looked more like a West Coast Offense, employing a short passing game based on timing patterns. It definitely has been emphasizing its power running game, too, many times working out of the Pistol. And it definitely isn't one of the most up-tempo offenses UCLA will face.
This could be that the ASU offense has changed some since the beginning of the season. It hasn't been good at protecting the quarterback, so game plans have gone more to the run and a short passing game.
It also could be that junior quarterback Taylor Kelly (6-2, 201) has increasingly struggled to throw the ball down the field. (Does any of this sound familiar?). Kelly isn't known for the strongest arm, and he's really struggled looking down the middle of the field in particular. He threw two bad picks last week against Oregon State, when he really wasn't pressured. It seems, after a breakout season a year ago and then a big start to this season, opposing teams (read: Pac-12 opponents) have got him scouted out.
|Quarterback Taylor Kelly.|
As the passing game has trailed off some, ASU's running game has remained consistent. A great deal of that is due to how good ASU executes the zone option. Kelly, who is known for his smarts, is very good at it. It also helps when you have a good running back like ASU senior Marion Grice (6-0, 207). UCLA has gotten Ka'Deem Carey and Bishop Sankey in the last two weeks and there isn't much drop-off to Grice. He's big and strong, and a straight-head, downfield type of runner. Here's a testament to how good the zone option works: Grice leads the team in rushing with 933 yards, and Kelly, who is good running with the ball, is second at 312 yards. Junior Deantre Lewis (5-11, 190) has shown some explosiveness, but a penchant for fumbling. One element of the offense that ASU also does exceptionally well is pass out of the zone option.
A featured player in the offense is sophomore D.J. Foster (5-11, 195), who is an F-back type that runs the ball from scrimmage but mostly catches the ball out of the backfield or from the slot. Foster runs hard and picks up good YAC, and is second on the team in receptions with 50. Grice, actually, is third on the team with 43, which is more than any UCLA receiver. It's clear that ASU tries to find its running backs on short throws to get them in space.
The difference-maker on offense this season, however, has been sophomore transfer receiver Jaelen Strong (6-3, 205). He is one of the most under-hyped players in the Pac-12, and probably among the few best receivers. He's a big kid that is very tough to bring down. He had a dinged up ankle for a while, but he looked like he was back 100% last week against Oregon State. In fact, Kelly went to him four times on the first drive of the game.
The next two primary targets are senior tight end Chris Coyle (6-3, 240) and sophomore slot receiver Richard Smith (5-9, 172). Coyle, who was considered one of the best returning tight ends in the nation, was emphasized early in the season, but hasn't had many balls thrown his way lately. Smith has some quickness and has been featured more recently, with ASU trying to get some speed in the pattern.
For an offense that has put up big numbers, the veteran-led offensive line has had a mixed year. It's been good in run blocking but suspect in pass pro, especially against big-time rush ends. The group is led by four-year starter, senior left tackle Evan Finkenberg (6-4, 298), who is serviceably athletic. Senior center Kody Koebensky (6-3, 298) is a good one, and junior guard Jamil Douglas (6-4, 301) is their best interior run blocker. The new starter at right tackle, junior Tyler Sulka (6-5, 298), gets picked on some, and he's working with another new starter on the right side in sophomore Vi Teofilo (6-3, 302). One big advantage: ASU has had the same starting five on its offensive line for all nine games this year.
UCLA's defensive line might have had its best game of the season last week against Washington. Not only did Cassius Marsh have a number of big-impact plays, but Eddie Vanderdoes, Kenneth Clark and Ellis McCarthy all played well, especially against the run.
The Bruin secondary has had some more vulnerability as the season has gone on, and that's completely within reasonable expectation. The unit started the season playing exceptionally well, and opposing defenses continuing to try to exploit the secondary's youth and inexperience have broken it down some. Cornerback Fabian Moreau hasn't been quite the same since dinging up his knee against Colorado, and that probably has been most of it.
If we had to choose, we'd probably give a slight edge to UCLA's defense even though, on paper, Arizona State's offense looks superior to UCLA's defense.
There are some factors that do mitigate ASU's on-paper advantage. First, we think ASU's offensive stats might be a bit misleading. Take away the fattening-up games, in the other games against decent or good defenses, and if you throw out the game against USC, ASU is averaging 26 points per game. Clearly, the offense has struggled lately, averaging just 18 points in the last two games against Utah and Oregon State.
And then, UCLA's defense matches up well against ASU's offense. The Bruin defense put up a very good performance against the run last week in the Washington game, and that's what ASU has been emphasizing more recently, its running game. The ASU offensive line is a bit suspect against a good pass rush, especially with one that has a good edge pass rusher – like Anthony Barr. UCLA's season-long strategy to rush just 3 or 4 predominantly, keep the quarterback contained in the pocket and make him beat you is perhaps the ideal defensive strategy against Kelly. Pressuring him actually puts him in situations where he can use his smarts and improvise, and can sometimes make him more effective. Right now, making Kelly try to beat you downfield, especially without any clear, established downfield threat for ASU, is a pretty sound strategy. UCLA's defense compares favorably to the defenses of Utah and Oregon State, and both those schools provided UCLA a bit of a blueprint the last two weeks on how to defend Arizona State and limit Kelly.