UCLA has gotten very familiar with ASU’s offense over the last two years, being on the receiving end of two heavy barrages from the Sun Devils. In 2012, in a losing effort, the Sun Devils scored 43 points on the Bruins on 5.7 yards per play. Then, last year, ASU scored 38 points on 6.0 yards per play, and had a very efficient rushing attack, averaging 4.5 yards per carry for a total of 223 yards.
Of course, all of that came with redshirt senior quarterback Taylor Kelly (6'2, 210) at the helm. Kelly, especially last year, became one of the better quarterbacks in the conference at running the zone read, and was never more devastating than he was against UCLA, consistently making the proper decisions against UCLA’s crashing linebacker/defensive end, to the tune of 4.5 yards per carry and 99 rushing yards.
Now, Kelly is out for the game, and in steps his backup quarterback, redshirt junior Mike Bercovici (6'1, 200). Bercovici is somewhat of an unknown quantity, but what is known is this: he was the primary backup to Brock Osweiler his true freshman year and was the favorite to replace him before Kelly proved a much better fit for what offensive coordinator Mike Norvell wanted to do. Bercovici is not the runner that Kelly is, but even during their competition before Kelly got the nod, it was acknowledged that Bercovici was likely the better passer, with a much stronger arm.
We really don’t have a great idea of how Norvell will adjust the offense to accommodate Bercovici’s strengths, or to what extent he’ll change up the scheme. Seemingly, we’d have to imagine that ASU will run considerably less zone read and perhaps more fade routes and deeper balls down the sidelines, but it’s anyone’s guess after just getting a brief glimpse of Bercovici against Colorado. Whether the ASU scheme changes significantly is probably the biggest factor of this matchup heading into Thursday’s game, and it’s almost a complete unknown.
That said, the rest of ASU’s offense is pretty well known to UCLA at this point. D.J. Foster (5'11, 205), the junior tailback, has become one of the most statistically impressive running backs in college football this year, taking over as the primary guy for the departed Marion Grice. He’s averaging almost 10 yards per rush and almost 13 yards per catch, though the defensive competition through three games hasn’t been particularly stout. ASU is running him between the tackles considerably more this year, but Foster is still mostly a guy who’ll work around the edges of the defense and explode off the outside of the offensive line. He’s still built like the F-back he started out as, though he looks like he’s gotten a bit stronger and thicker in the offseason. When ASU wants to bulk up a bit and pound for touchdowns, true freshman Kalen Ballage (6'3, 220) has been the primary option, scoring three touchdowns on just 18 carries so far this year. Fellow freshman Demario Richard (5'10, 210) and redshirt senior Deantre Lewis (5'11, 192) have also factored into the rotation.
That should give you an indication of how little Arizona State spreads the ball around — at least to any significant degree. Foster is the second leading receiver, catching a variety of swings and wheels out of the backfield, and then sophomore Cameron Smith (5'11, 195), the other starting receiver and third-leading pass catcher, has caught seven balls so far this year. Smith is dangerous in other ways, though, often being used on sweeps and reverses from the outside receiver spot (if you’ll remember, last year ASU burned UCLA a few times with Smith on those plays). Redshirt junior Gary Chambers (6'4, 206), the starting Y, hasn’t factored much into the passing game yet, but provides another big target for Bercovici. Chris Coyle, the other big option at tight end for Kelly last year, really hasn’t been replaced at this point, but it’s early. Generally, though, Arizona State has always liked to throw to its talented running backs, and that likely won’t change significantly with a quarterback switch.
Probably the biggest difference for ASU between this season and last has been the changing of the guard along the offensive line, and the switch hasn’t gone completely swimmingly. The Sun Devils lost two starters and mainstays from last year, and have had to switch some things around, with redshirt senior Jamil Douglas (6'4, 300) bouncing out to left tackle after playing guard last year. Redshirt senior Tyler Sulka (6'4, 295) and redshirt junior Vi Teofilo (6'3, 305) return on the right side, but ASU is breaking in a new center in junior Nick Kelly (6'2, 290) and a new starting guard in redshirt junior Christian Westerman (6'4, 305), though both have some experience. It’s hard to tell since the competition has been so bad, but to our eyes ASU’s interior has not been as stout as it was last year, and even Weber State’s defensive line was able to generate some push, particularly in the early stages of that game. It hasn’t been a bad unit, at least not so far, but there is some concern how the interior will fare against the better defensive units in the Pac-12.
UCLA’s defense has been decidedly average through three games, but in a fun way, with a very good performance against Virginia, a very bad performance against Memphis, and a decent game against Texas. It’s been a mixed bag full of mixed bags, but the one consistent aspect has been an overall emphasis on coverage over pressure. New defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has not emphasized blitzing, which isn’t actually a big switch from Lou Spanos, but there’s an argument that without Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh (not to mention Keenan Graham) UCLA may need to blitz more to generate a consistent pass rush.
With Goforth out, the expectation is that Jaleel Wadood will likely crack the starting lineup for a second consecutive game. Wadood was the best defensive back on the field for UCLA against Texas, and showed a remarkable feel for the game for a true freshman. While a bit diminutive for the position, he’s a big hitter, and is very good in run support.
At linebacker, UCLA has gone with formations with anywhere from two to four linebackers, with Myles Jack, Kenny Young, Eric Kendricks, and either Deon Hollins or Aaron Wallace starting in the base. There have been plenty of variations throughout the year, but the consistent two have been Kendricks and Jack. Kendricks has been mostly his usual self all year, but Jack has been a little inconsistent and has struggled to play with the same discipline he showed even last year as a true freshman. This week, with all the misdirection ASU likes to use, would be a good time for him to clean up his play. And, if you remember, last year against ASU Jack didn’t play defense at all, and Arizona State exploited his absence significantly, so any Jack, even the undisciplined version, is probably better than no Jack at all.
The defensive line has been the strength of the defense so far, and so much of that is because of Kenny Clark, the force at nose tackle. Clark, just a sophomore, has been pretty close to dominant through three games, consistently beating whatever interior lineman matches up against him. He’s shown not only great ability as a run stuffer, but has also been effective rushing the passer and forcing hurried throws. The return of Owamagbe Odighizuwa has also been significant, with Odighizuwa being the most consistent pass rusher on the team so far this year (aside from perhaps Hollins). Eddie Vanderdoes, as he has worked himself back into shape after an injury that held him out of spring and some summer workouts, has looked better and better, culminating with his best game of the season against Texas last week. The hope is that with a week off he’s been able to get his form completely back.
The defense as a whole hasn’t met the expectations that many held for it, at least so far, but now that UCLA has had a bye week and a chance to self scout, there’s a hope that the Bruins have ironed out the schematic kinks and are ready to put together some complete defensive performances.
It’s a tricky matchup to call. On the surface, if you were just looking at the talent of each side, you’d say that UCLA probably has the advantage. The UCLA defensive line is, man for man, probably better than ASU’s offensive line, and the linebackers seems to match up well against the running schemes of the Sun Devils. About the only area, talent-wise, where you might say UCLA would have trouble would be in pass coverage against Jaelen Strong.
But if we’ve learned nothing else from this matchup over the last two years, it’s that ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is an excellent planner and play caller. He had the perfect game plan installed last year to attack the lack of Myles Jack on defense, and he has a great ability to adjust on the fly to changes in the opposing defense. He’ll have less to work with without Kelly in the backfield, since Bercovici is nowhere near Kelly’s level a dual threat, but we’d count on him attacking the thinness and shakiness in UCLA’s secondary with passes down the sideline to Strong and Smith.
That said, the addition of Jack to the defense could prove significant in stopping ASU’s outside running, and whatever zone read action Norvell attempts with Bercovici, which could force Foster into more interior runs, which isn’t his most efficient running style. Having Jack’s speed on defense could change the complexion of this matchup almost as much as Kelly not being in the game.
If we had to pin this matchup on anything that could sway it in UCLA’s favor, it’d be the defensive play calling. Bercovici has some talent as a passer, and he isn’t a true freshman thrust into duty for the first time. If UCLA gives him significant time to throw, he’ll likely complete a healthy percentage of his passes. Putting pressure on Bercovici could be significant, and it’ll be interesting to see whether UCLA blitzes heavily for the first time this year.