Game Week: Arizona State Preview

SEP. 24 -- Arizona State has some question marks on both defense and offense, but the Sun Devils are still dangerous...

Facts and Factors

UCLA travels to Tempe, Arizona, to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils Thursday, September 25th. The game kicks off at 7:00 PST, and will air on Fox Sports 1.

• It’s the Pac-12 opener for UCLA and the Pac-12 home opener for ASU.

• ASU is 3-0 and ranked 12th and 15th in the two polls, while UCLA is also 3-0 and ranked 10th and 11th.

• The Sun Devils have beaten Weber State (45-14), New Mexico (58-23) and last week in their Pac-12 opener, Colorado (38-24).

• ASU’s three opponents are a combined 3-8 so far on the season. Weber State, an FCS team, is 0-4.

• UCLA and Arizona State have faced each other 30 times, with UCLA holding an 18-11-1 lead in the series and ASU having won four of the last seven. Since UCLA and ASU have had Jim Mora and Todd Graham as their head coaches, the scoreboard is 1-1, with this week’s clash being the rubber-game of the Mora/Graham match.

• When UCLA beat ASU in 2012 it was a big win for UCLA on its course to win the Pac-12 South. When ASU beat UCLA a year ago, it clinched the Pac-12 South for the Sun Devils. UCLA won in Sun Devil Stadium and ASU won in the Rose Bowl.

• In the last two seasons, the games were decided by a total of 7 points. If you throw in the game from 2011, the last three UCLA/ASU games have been decided by a total of 8 points.

• For the second-straight season, the two programs will enter the game ranked in the top 25 (last year UCLA was ranked 11th and ASU 17th entering the game). Before 2013, that hadn’t happened since 1986, when #16-ranked ASU beat #15-ranked UCLA, 16-9. It was one of the most successful seasons in ASU history, finishing the season 10-1-1 and with a victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

• It’s the first time since 2007 ASU has started the season 3-0, and just the 17th time since World War II.

• UCLA is 5-5 against ranked teams under Mora, and 2-3 on the road. Arizona State, under Graham, is 3-5 against ranked opponents and 2-2 at home.

• ASU is 12-3 under Graham at Sun Devil Stadium.

• UCLA is 9-4 in true road games (4-2 in both ‘13 and ‘12) under Mora. Both seasons of four road wins were the most in a season since 2002.

• The 20-17 win at Texas marked the 23rd straight game the Bruins have won when the opponent has scored less than 20 points. The streak goes back to 2007, when UCLA lost to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, 17-16.

• ASU is led by Todd Graham, who is in his third year in Tempe. Graham (49) is 21-9 at ASU, which is easily his most successful stop on his head coaching resume. Graham has clearly turned around the ASU program, in his first season in 2012 posting his first winning season since 2007, and the feeling out of Tempe is almost complete satisfaction with Graham’s job performance. Having a background as a defensive coach, he fields an aggressive, attacking defense, which has ranked among the top 50 in the nation in his first two seasons at ASU (despite being ranked 74th so far this season). He’s known for his confident and bombastic personality, last week claiming that he had the best quarterback tandem in the country and that ASU will beat UCLA.

• As DevilsDigest.com publisher Hod Rabino spoke of last week, UCLA has become UCLA’s unofficial #1 out-of-state rival, since they’ve directly competed against each for the Pac-12 South Championship the last two seasons.

• The UCLA game is the beginning of a tough stretch in ASU’s season. After playing the Bruins Thursday, the Sun Devils face #18 USC on the road, #16 Stanford at home, Washington on the road, Utah at home and #8 Notre Dame at home.

• Much of the hype for the UCLA/ASU game had focused on the quarterback match-up between UCLA’s Brett Hundley and ASU’s Taylor Kelly – before two weeks ago. That match-up is now not happening, with Kelly out for about a month with the leg injury he suffered against Colorado. Hundley, as everyone knows, is a question mark, too, after hyper-extending his left elbow against Texas.

• The game could materialize into a less-glamorous but interesting match-up between the back-up quarterbacks, ASU’s Mike Bercovici and UCLA’s Jerry Neuheisel. Two weeks ago, Neuheisel, of course, led UCLA to the dramatic, storybook win over Texas, while Bercovici mopped up against Colorado.

• Interesting trivia: While in high school Neuheisel and Berkovici were on same 7-on-7 travel team.

• Both teams are coming off a bye week.

• In a complete turnaround from last season when ASU had one of the most veteran-laced teams in the nation, this year the Sun Devil roster is dominated with youth, with its two-deep featuring 26 freshmen and sophomores.

• UCLA is favored by 3.5 points.

• The weather forecast calls for a sizzling high of 103 degrees Thursday, and by game time should still be in the 90s.

Arizona State Offense vs. UCLA Defense

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.

Jaelen Strong
At receiver, Arizona State returns redshirt junior Jaelen Strong (6'3, 215), arguably one of the best receivers in all of college football and the king of the back shoulder catch. He helped turn Kelly into a credible downfield threat thanks to his size, strength, and excellent hands, catching countless jump balls down the sideline thrown to the back shoulder. He has picked up right where he left off last year, averaging 14 yards per catch and almost 90 yards per game. How’s this for a statistic? He has caught 37% of all completions for ASU this year. To compare, Jordan Payton, UCLA’s leading receiver, has caught just 23% of all UCLA completions.

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.

Ishmael Adams
The degree of difficulty has gone up a bit as well this week, with the announcement that Randall Goforth will miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgeries on both of his shoulders. Goforth was UCLA’s most consistent defensive back last season, and looked good through the first two games of this season. Along with his injury, both Anthony Jefferson (ankle) and Fabian Moreau (elbow) got nicked up against Texas, though it’s expected that both will play. Moreau has not played anywhere near the level he showed during spring and summer, and Coach Mora actually challenged him a bit after the Memphis game to start making plays. Ishmael Adams has been a key cog for the Bruins, and will likely be called upon to do more in Goforth's absence, as he has the ability to play corner, nickel, or safety in UCLA's scheme.

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.

ADVANTAGE: Even

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.

Arizona State Defense vs. UCLA Offense

Though the ASU offense will assuredly look a bit different with Mike Bercovici at quarterback, the defense is where the real changes have happened. Arizona State lost an astonishing nine starters from last year’s senior-laden defense, which included nine of the top 11 tacklers on the team. The Sun Devils have gone from having the most experienced defense in the conference to starting three true freshmen, and the effect, as you might imagine, hasn’t been excellent.

Losing Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Davon Coleman, and Gannon Conway, the Sun Devils have been less than solid up front, giving up an average of 4.7 yards per rush against what should be some mediocre rushing teams in Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado. Against the Buffs last week, ASU gave up 6.3 yards per rush, which is, needless to say, very bad.

The scheme is still pretty similar to last year, with plenty of attacking and blitzing coming from all angles, but the players are neither as experienced nor as talented as the group from last year. It’s a 3-4 in spirit, but functions mostly as a 4-3, with the “Devil” linebacker more often than not lining up on the line of scrimmage. It’s a scheme designed to stop the run and pressure the quarterback, but so far this year has been effective at neither. The deficiencies along the defensive front have been readily apparent, particularly against Colorado, when the Buffs were able to push around ASU’s defensive line for much of the game.

Tashon Smallwood (6'0, 275), the three-tech who has taken over for Will Sutton in number, has struggled a little bit, as you might expect from a true freshman in his first college games, but has probably been the best of the defensive line through the first three games. Junior Jaxon Hood (6'0, 300), the old man of the unit, is the one returning starter at nose tackle, and, while he has been billed as the next Will Sutton, has really struggled to make an impact this year, looking a bit slow and out of shape. At the “Devil” position (essentially a hybrid OLB/DE in the Anthony Barr mold), ASU hasn’t found a real replacement yet for Bradford, with two-way redshirt senior De’Marieya Nelson (6'2, 235), redshirt sophomore Edmond Boateng (6'3, 265), and redshirt junior Antonio Longino (6'2, 230) all getting a look.
Damarious Randall
It looks at this point like Nelson could get more time this week after splitting time between offense and defense the last few games, but as of yet, ASU hasn’t been able to generate much production from the position, with just 2.5 total sacks from the defensive line as a whole this year. At the other end, senior Marcus Hardison (6'4, 300) has been serviceable holding the edge, but hasn’t made much of an impact in the pass rush.

In the linebacker corps, Arizona State has another returning starter in redshirt sophomore strong-side linebacker Salamo Fiso (6'1, 235), who has gone from a first-year starter last year to one of the old men of the defense this year. Fiso is one of the leaders of the defense, and has been a sure-tackler through three games. The famous true freshman D.J. Calhoun (6'0, 215) has been mostly a bright spot for ASU at the weak-side linebacker spot, looking fast and solid in run support for his size. Aside from those two, though, the linebackers have had difficulty, and it’s still a question how much redshirt sophomore Laiu Moeakiola (6'1, 215), the “Spur” linebacker, will be able to play against UCLA after suffering an arm injury against Colorado, If he’s out, ASU will likely rely on true freshman Christian Sam (6'1, 220) or more nickel, either of which will further test the depth of the defense.

The secondary has also had its share of struggles, with both starting cornerbacks, redshirt junior Lloyd Carrington (6'0, 192) and freshman Armand Perry (6'0, 190), looking shaky through the first three games. At strong safety, redshirt senior Damarious Randall (5'11, 190) is the leading tackler on the team this year, as he’s had to pull up into run support quite often. Redshirt junior Jordan Simone (6'0, 195) has provided solid contributions at free safety, and is the second leading tackler after Randall with 23 through three games. ASU hasn’t really been tested by a very good passing attack, and there’s little doubt that the one they’ll face this week will be the toughest they’ve faced.

And so we get to the big question this week: will Brett Hundley play for UCLA after suffering an elbow injury against Texas two weekends ago? As Jim Mora said yesterday and our video from Sunday showed, Hundley has practiced, and looked pretty good throwing the ball. While we wouldn’t say anything with certainty, we’d have to imagine he’ll start on Thursday. We’d wonder a bit about his effectiveness, particularly as a runner if he has to wear a brace on his left elbow, but based off what we’ve seen of Jerry Neuheisel over the last two years, Hundley’s value as a thrower is more than enough to start him, even if he can’t run effectively.

Before he got hurt against Texas, Hundley looked poised to continue the success he had against Memphis, looking accurate and decisive through the first two drives against the Longhorns. What’s more, the offensive play-calling seemed to open up a bit, with Hundley (and Jerry Neuheisel) both benefitting from a more varied game plan that accommodated roll outs, screens, and a variety of quick-hitting passes.

Paul Perkins
With Hundley out for the second half against Texas, UCLA was forced to go much more heavily to its running game, and the result was probably the most positive development to come out of the game. First, Paul Perkins has more or less secured the starting running back job for as long as he’s healthy. He had nearly 200 combined yards receiving and rushing, and looked like the exact type of back new running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu wanted, running with decisiveness and power. He has enough elusiveness to break the occasional long run, but he showed a consistent ability to gain tough yards up the middle, which has to make his coaches happy. Second, the offensive line, which had been only decent in run-blocking through the first two games, broke through in the second half against Texas and looked like a unit that has the potential to be a good one by the end of the year.

The receiving corps has been about what UCLA expected through the first three games, with generally solid play from its starters. Jordan Payton has emerged as the No. 1 receiver through three games, while Thomas Duarte, Devin Fuller, and Eldridge Massington have all shown themselves to be key cogs in the rotation. UCLA is still waiting for Devin Lucien to break out this season, and UCLA fans are still waiting to see more from true freshman Mossi Johnson and redshirt sophomore Kenny Walker, who scored a touchdown against Memphis and didn’t get much, if any, playing time against Texas.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

Obviously, this is very contingent on Hundley playing. Our expectation is that he’ll play, and actually pick up more or less where he left off just prior to the injury.

ASU’s defense isn’t good, and has given up some considerable yards to offenses that also aren’t very good. The Sun Devils have some talent, but the lack of experience and depth up front has left the run defense with few answers. UCLA should be able to exploit the inexperience up front, particularly with the newfound running game the Bruins discovered in the second half against Texas.

We’d imagine UCLA will go pretty heavily to the run to start out against Arizona State, and then, depending on how much success ASU has with its run blitzes to stop the running game, emphasize the passing attack more as the game wears on. Even with Jerry Neuheisel at the helm, we’d imagine the game plan would be more or less the same, except that ASU would be able to key even more on the run.

The one limitation for UCLA is that, if Hundley plays, we can’t imagine he’ll be much of a running threat, since the coaching staff (and Hundley himself) won’t want to risk a re-injury. With the success that Perkins has had in the last two games, we don’t know how significant of a limitation it’ll be, but it bears noting.

Special Teams

Arizona State has yet to return a kickoff this year, and returned just six punts for a total of 13 yards, so there’s very limited data on the return game. Damarious Randall is the designated punt returner, and he has the athletic ability to be a good one, even if he hasn’t shown it yet.

Sophomore Zane Gonzalez (6'1, 182) has been pretty good from middle distance this year, making three of four, with his one miss coming from 44 yards (his longest attempt of the year). Last year, he was first team All Pac-12, making 25 of 30 field goals. He’s a real strength for the Sun Devils.

Lefty sophomore Matt Haack (6'1, 195) takes over for Josh Hubner at punter, and so far he’s been pretty good for the Sun Devils, averaging 43.3 yards per punt with a long of 57. He’s buried four of his 14 kicks inside the 20, but he has a big enough leg that he can occasionally out-kick the coverage. Three of his 14 kicks have been returned for a combined 55 yards.

On the UCLA side of things, Ka’imi Fairbairn had his best game of the season against Texas two weekends ago, nailing a couple of field goals and looking confident doing so. The hope is that the junior kicker can finally build on that success and start kicking with consistency.

UCLA has no clarity at punter, with Matt Mengel and Adam Searl both looking like iffy options. UCLA’s punt coverage is so good that as long as those guys can kick the ball 35+ yards with a little bit of hang-time, that’s enough to get the job done, but it’s questionable whether they can do that with consistency. On top of that, Mengel went down with an injury halfway through the Texas game, and it’s not certain whether he’ll be back for Thursday.

Returner Ishmael Adams might have been the MVP of the Texas game, taking a critical punt return at the end of the game to the Longhorns’ 33 yard line, setting up Jerry Neuheisel’s game-winning throw to Jordan Payton. Adams is one of the more dangerous kick returners in the Pac-12, and, as we say every week, could return one for a touchdown at any point.

ADVANTAGE: Even

Prediction

The last two years have seen a budding rivalry between the two South powers, with UCLA winning on a last-minute field goal in 2012 in Tempe, and Arizona State holding on for a 38-33 win in Los Angeles in 2013. Todd Graham has made no secret of the fact that he considers the UCLA game one of ASU’s biggest every year, and it’s a fair bet that the Sun Devils will come into the game amped up for what they likely consider the game that decides the South.

The one major advantage UCLA has going into the game, though, is that Brett Hundley is more than likely going to play, while Taylor Kelly is definitely out. With Hundley in the lineup, the UCLA offense should be able to march through ASU’s young, inexperienced defense with relative ease. With UCLA’s running game seemingly coming to life against Texas, the Bruins could be poised for their best offensive performance of the season.

The game will likely hinge, though, on UCLA’s ability to stop ASU, and Bercovici. UCLA looked shaky against the multiple nature of Memphis’ offense two weeks ago, and the Arizona State scheme is arguably more varied and diverse. What’s more, with Bercovici in for Kelly, it’s a good bet that Norvell will have added a few wrinkles schematically to play more to Bercovici’s strengths. This game will likely be Jeff Ulbrich’s first big challenge as a defensive coordinator, and he’ll probably need to show a bit more creativity in responding to ASU’s than he’s shown through the first three games.

We think ASU, even with Bercovici, should be able to keep the game close, exploiting UCLA’s tendency to over-pursue in the run game and thinness in the secondary. If Bercovici can hit a few throws early down the sideline to Strong, it could do wonders for his confidence and make this game a dogfight.

In the end, though, we think UCLA’s offense with Hundley should be able to score consistently against ASU’s troubled defense, while the ASU offense is bound to stall on occasion without Kelly at the helm. It’ll no doubt be a raucous crowd on Thursday night, and ASU will certainly have a home-field temperature even heading into the evening, but ultimately we think UCLA will simply have too much firepower for the Sun Devils.

UCLA 35
Arizona State 27


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