• UCLA will host the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Rose Bowl on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. PST. The game will be telecast by Fox, with commentators Gus Johnson, Charles Davis and Kristina Pink calling the action.
• UCLA is 8-2 (5-2 in the Pac-12) and ranked 14th in the country.
• ASU is 8-2 (6-1 in the Pac-12) and is ranked 21st in the country.
• UCLA leads the all-time series 18-10-1.
• UCLA won in Tempe last year on a last-second field goal by Ka'imi Farbairn, which put the Bruins up 45-43 with time expiring after a last-minute drive led by quarterback Brett Hundley. In fact, in the last two years, while UCLA has won each game, the Bruins have won by a combined three points.
• Many of UCLA's coaches have spent time on the Sun Devils' staff, most prominently offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who held the same role at Arizona State the year prior to coming to Westwood. Steve Broussard also worked under Mazzone as the wide receivers coach at ASU, while Taylor Mazzone worked as a graduate assistant. Eric Yarber worked as the receivers coach at ASU from 2007 to 2009.
• If UCLA wins on Saturday against the Sun Devils, the Bruins will still have to beat USC the following week to ensure a Pac-12 South crown. On the other hand, if the Sun Devils beat UCLA on Saturday, they will have punched their ticket to the championship game even if they end up losing the rivalry game to Arizona. If UCLA beats ASU but loses to USC, the Bruins will also be eliminated from the south race, even if there's a three-way tie, because of some odd tiebreaker rules.
• Arizona State dealt with some controversy early in the year when the Sun Devils beat Wisconsin 32-30 after a bizarre ruling by Pac-12 officials. With time expiring, and Wisconsin driving well within field goal range, the Badgers' quarterback attempted to take a knee to center the ball. When he set the ball on the ground to get the offensive line set, one of the Sun Devils' players collapsed on the ball with over ten seconds remaining, attempting to give the impression that the quarterback had actually fumbled rather than take a knee. The Sun Devils defender laid on the ball so long, in fact, that Wisconsin wasn't able to get another play off to spike the ball and bring on the field goal unit. After conferring, the officials ran off the field rather than explain why they did not call a delay of game on the Sun Devils.
• Arizona State is led by head coach Todd Graham, in his second year in Tempe, with a record at ASU of 16-7. Graham, who took over for Dennis Erickson, has provided a spark to the Sun Devils over the last two years, and has done a fair amount of culture change. Arizona State has become one of the most disciplined teams in football, and is one of the Pac-12 leaders in fewest penalties per game. Last year, ASU posted its first winning record since going 10-2 in 2007. This year, Graham has the Sun Devils in the drivers' seat in the Pac-12 South, which probably puts the program ahead of schedule in the eyes of the fans.
• In a bit of an odd circumstance, the Sun Devils have only played three true road games all year, having played Notre Dame at a neutral site and having five of its nine conference games at home this year. In the four games ASU has played away from home, the Sun Devils are 2-2, with losses to the Irish and Stanford. Two weeks ago, the Sun Devils had to mount an incredible comeback to beat Utah 20-19 on the road.
• UCLA is undefeated at home this year at 5-0, and has won each of those games by double digits.
• Arizona State has an impressive streak of 24 straight games forcing at least one turnover, which is good for the third longest such streak in the country behind Missouri and Stanford.
• Over the last two weeks, UCLA has faced Ka'Deem Carey and Bishop Sankey, who are considered the top two running backs in the Pac-12. ASU's Marion Grice, though, has put together some impressive numbers himself. With 901 yards this year, Grice needs just 99 more to become ASU's third 1000 yard rusher since 2001.
• UCLA and ASU haven't played when both teams are ranked in the Associated Press poll since 1986, which pitted the No. 16 Sun Devils against the No. 15 Bruins. Arizona State won the game, and went on to win the Rose Bowl that year against Michigan, which is the lone Rose Bowl victory in school history.
• Under Mora, UCLA has done particularly well against the Pac-12 South, with an 8-0 record through the past two seasons. Winning the South this year, though, will be a tall order, since the Bruins suffered two losses to North powers Stanford and Oregon. Fellow South competitors ASU and USC both avoided Oregon this year.
• Jim Mora is 10-2 at the Rose Bowl in his two years at UCLA, and 6-2 in conference home games.
• It's the first time UCLA has opened a season ranked and remained ranked through the first 12 rankings since the 1998 season.
• With the eight wins this year, and the nine wins last year, this two year stretch under Jim Mora is the first time UCLA has managed at least eight wins in back-to-back years since 1997-98.
• The Sun Devils are favored by 2.5.
• The weather in Pasadena on Saturday calls for a high of 71 degrees, and it should be in the mid-60s shortly after kickoff, and could drop into the 50's during the game. There is a 30% chance of rain showers.
ARIZONA STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Arizona State's offense has been hot and cold this season, similar to UCLA's offense. Its performance, too, has been deceptive, benefitting from a very favorable schedule that enabled it to put up some big numbers in Tempe against less-than-stellar defenses.
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.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ARIZONA STATE'S DEFENSE
The Sun Devil defense is easily the best defense UCLA has faced yet this season. Ranked 16th in the country overall, they're also 17th in rush defense.
Its strength last season was pass defense (ranked 3rd in the country in 2012) and, while the secondary has had a good year in 2013, ASU's defensive forte has been to stop opposing team's running game this year. It started out the season giving up huge amounts of yardage on the ground to Stanford and USC, but then settled in. In the last five games it's allowed an average of just 58 yards per game.
The 3-4 ASU defense has pretty much functioned like a 4-3 for much of the season, and is really geared to stop the run, being aggressive at the line of scrimmage, run blitzing often.
It also helps that they've had some players step up and have exceptional seasons. Senior Will linebacker Chris Young (6-0, 224) is having an all-Pac-12 type of season, leading the conference's best defense in tackles with 71. Redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso (6-0, 226) plugs in at either the Will or the Sam, and he has been a bit of a surprise in how effective he's been, being very active and quick.
|Linebacker Chris Young.|
The hybrid linebacker, which they call the "Devil" linebacker, is junior Carl Bradford (6-1, 242), and his emergence this season has had a huge impact. He lines up most often on the edge to rush the passer and he's good at it, with a team-leading 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. What was interesting is that Bradford got in a sideline argument with Graham last week during the Oregon State game and Graham benched him. They've smoothed it over, at least in the media, however.
Of course, the headliner on the ASU defensive line is senior Will Sutton (6-0, 305), who bypassed the NFL Draft last spring to return for his senior season. The result has been mixed; he put on some weight, and it doesn't appear to be good weight, and he seemingly has lost a step. But the returning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is still very good, and probably the best DL UCLA will face this season. He still has a very quick first step. Coming off the edge with some quickness, too, has been senior Gannon Conway (6-4, 280), who has also been somewhat of a pleasant surprise for Arizona State. Senior Davon Coleman (6-1, 283) is considered a starter himself, and is second on the team in tackles for loss with 10.5. The nose is sophomore Jaxon Hood (6-0, 299), who is hailed as their next Sutton-esque star on the defensive line.
The ASU secondary hasn't had the type of year it did in 2012, but that's probably because all opposing offenses are making a concerted effort to throw away from senior cornerback Osahon Irabor (5-11, 186). He's probably the best defensive back and cover guy in the Pac-12, and despite offenses trying to avoid him, he still has 42 tackles and 2 interceptions. Offenses have clearly targeted the other side of the secondary, looking to throw at sophomore Lloyd Carrington (6-1, 185). ASU has used senior Robert Nelson (5-11, 169) more extensively at corner and, while he and Carrington aren't nearly as good as Irabor, they've still played well. Nelson is a very good athlete who has turned into a playmaker, getting two picks last week against Oregon State, and it's now been three games in a row he's recorded an interception, with six total on the season, which leads the conference. Senior safety Alden Darby (5-11, 192) is no slouch either, being very good in run support, second on the team in tackles (49), and sophomore free safety Damarious Randle (5-11, 178) has stepped up to fill in solidly when Nelson is at corner.
UCLA's offense is a bit of a mystery at this point, in many aspects. The biggest mystery is Myles Jack. Two weeks ago he made his debut at tailback, in exclusively the heavy formation, and had a huge game. Last week, he got a little time in the base offense at running back along with the heavy formation, and continued to look exceptionally talented, even though Washington was prepared for him. This week you'd have to
There is a mystery, too, as to how quarterback Brett Hundley will perform. He's looked better the last couple of weeks, but he hasn't faced a defense that will put as much pressure on him as ASU.
Devin Fuller, UCLA's leading receiver, was knocked out of the Washington game and we've heard from sources that his availability is uncertain for the ASU game.
Mora has said that offensive tackle Simon Goines will return this week. That would more than likely then return Xavier Su'a-Filo to the left guard spot and give UCLA a little more chance against the ASU defensive line.
Advantage: Arizona State.
Only a pure homer viewpoint would advocate UCLA's offense has an advantage over ASU's defense heading into this game.
That's not to say that UCLA's offense doesn't have a chance against ASU, because it certainly does. But all indications are that ASU's defense holds the advantage.
UCLA, clearly, is going to have to throw the ball effectively against the Sun Devils. Its pass defense is pretty good, but it's more vulnerable than its rushing defense. UCLA will have to pass to set up the run in this game if it hopes to consistently be effectively offensively. That means two things – UCLA will have to provide Hundley some good pass pro and Hundley is going to have to probably have his best game of the season. It would help, too, if we get the more dynamic, creative playcalling rather than the more predictable version. When there is a good mix of short, timing routes in the game plan, like there's been in the last couple of weeks, Hundley has certainly fared better.
Jack, then, too, will be a key. UCLA isn't going to blow through ASU's rushing defense, but at least being able to gain a decent amount of rushing yards to balance the attack, and keep ASU's pass rush from teeing off on Hundley, would be a success. Jack's style of power running seems like just about the only way to get that done. Hundley's ability to gain yards on the ground, too, is going to be critical to enhance UCLA's running game and keep the ASU pass rush at least thinking twice.
If UCLA, though, insists on trying to run too much it's going to be a long day. UCLA has to put its trust in Hundley. The runs on second-and-long are clearly calls that don't have confidence in Hundley and have stopped down more UCLA drives this season than any other factor.
We expect UCLA to unveil more offensive wrinkles against ASU, too. It's a game in which UCLA's offense is going to have to be a bit surprising on every level – its playcalling, Hundley's performance and potentially Jack's performance being the difference-maker. The offense has the talent and capability, it's just a matter of it coming together and realizing it – with that lightning in a bottle very well potentially being Jack.
ASU doesn't have anything special about its special teams. The Sun Devils have had used three punters this season because they can't find a reliable guy. Alex Garoutte has taken over the duties as of late but he's 11th in punting average in the conference, averaging 38.5 per punt. ASU's placekicker Zane Gonzalez is reliable within 40, but gets shaky beyond that. He's missed his two attempts over 41 yards.
Grice returns kicks and gets a usually decent return, but doesn't have that potential break-it capability. Nelson returns punts and, with his athleticism, is a bit more of a break-it threat.
UCLA has a better punter in Sean Covington and at least as good a field goal kicker in Ka'imi Fairbairn. UCLA's kick-off return is up in the air without Steven Manfro or Devin Fuller, and Shaquelle Evans has been struggling to get positive yardage on punt return. UCLA's punt and kick-off coverage, though, have been excellent, with Jayon Brown pushing for UCLA Special Teams player of the year with his ability to get a big hit on a kick-off return.
You have to worry a little that UCLA has been susceptible to the fake punt recently.
We admit that Arizona State might be slightly over-rated, and are really an unknown on the road. They've had four road games this season, with one being on a neutral field, and they're 2-2. One of the road wins was in Pullman against Washington State and the other was a limp-to-the-finish-line type against Utah in Salt Lake City.
Even so, you can't deny that Arizona State is good team with a defense that's going to not only keep them in every game but potentially win it for them. The match-up of ASU's defense against UCLA's offense tilts toward the Sun Devils, especially since UCLA is going to have to pass to be successful and you just can't put much faith in Hundley going against the aggressive pass rush/blitz scheme of ASU. UCLA, too, could be without its best receiver in Fuller.
Of course, Jack is the wildcard. But you can't base an analysis on a wildcard. We don't want to undersell Jack's abilities, but for a defensive player to take over a major role at tailback against a defense that is one of the best at defending the run in the country and predict he's going to do well would be a bit of a leap of faith. If Jack does dominate the ASU rushing defense then he legitimately needs to be considered a Heisman Trophy candidate.
The ASU offense/UCLA defense match-up should be a fairly even one, with UCLA having a slight edge in different aspects of the match-up.
In other words, this is a very close call.
If you're looking for any slight edge you have to give it to ASU in terms of turnover margin and penalties. If there is a clear change that Graham has made at ASU it's been to instill discipline, and that has really manifested itself in ASU's lack of penalties. Under Dennis Erickson, Arizona State was a mess of personal fouls, but now ASU is the least-penalized team in the conference, while UCLA is the second-worst. Right there Arizona should gain 50 yards.
There's a 40% chance of rain Saturday, and with UCLA needing to pass the ball to win, and ASU having such a formidable run defense, rain hurts UCLA more than ASU.
There is also the mental, intangible element that probably favors ASU. The Sun Devils can clinch the Pac-12 South title with a win Saturday, with one game to play, against Arizona. The entire program is completely focused on the UCLA game, and hungry to win the Pac-12 South title for the first time. UCLA, on the other hand, has the ASU game sandwiched between the emotionally-draining games of Washington and USC. The Trojans loom big, and despite what players and coaches say that they take one game at a time, you'd have to think that the surging Trojans are a bit of a distraction. At the very least, the players have to at least feel in the back of their mind that they need something left in the tank for USC. The intangibles go to ASU.
It's easily a game either UCLA or ASU could win. It's also a game that we feel will have some unexpected developments, and probably coming mostly from UCLA, and perhaps from Myles Jack. But it's difficult to put too much expectation on something that is unexpected.
Arizona State 27