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Game Week: ASU's O vs. UCLA's D

Sept. 30 -- ASU's offense hasn't quite gelled yet with Mike Bercovici at the helm...

ASU’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense

Arizona State has certainly disappointed to start the year. A dark horse pick to make the College Football Playoff by some pundits, the Sun Devils stand at 2-2, and have struggled at times against even teams like Cal Poly and New Mexico.

Many of the issues start on the offensive side of the ball. Longtime starter Taylor Kelly exhausted his eligibility following the 2014 season, and redshirt senior Mike Bercovici (6’2, 210), who actually played considerably last season when Kelly got hurt, has stepped into his place. Many people were expecting the transition to be relatively seamless, with Bercovici perhaps not being the runner that Kelly was, but providing more in the passing game with a stronger arm.

So far, it just hasn’t gone that way. Bercovici hasn’t run the ball a lot, so that part is true, but he also hasn’t been as effective through the air as the Sun Devils need him to be. He’s connecting on just under 60% of his passes and has thrown seven touchdowns against two interceptions, but those numbers tend to hide his streakiness and inconsistency working through his progressions. He racked up six of those touchdowns against Cal Poly and New Mexico, which means he’s thrown for just one touchdown against the two best opponents he’s faced (Texas A&M and USC), and has completed just 56% of his passes against those two teams.

Part of it is that, simply put, Bercovici hasn’t played very well this year, but one does have to account for the lack of elite receiving targets as well. Last year, Kelly and Bercovici both had the benefit of throwing to Jaelen Strong, the king of the back shoulder catch. Now, Strong is in the NFL, and ASU has had difficulty finding an adequate replacement. Junior Cameron Smith was expected to shoulder some of the load, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring. The Sun Devils just don’t have that big target down the field that can take pressure off the dink-and-dunk bread and butter that is most of ASU’s offense.

WR D.J. Foster (USA Today)

Senior D.J. Foster (6’0, 195) is the best playmaker in the receiving corps, and he certainly should be a familiar name to UCLA fans by now. He’s now playing mostly at receiver after splitting time the last couple of years between the backfield and the slot, and so far, he’s done a nice job of being a solid outlet for Bercovici. He’ll still get some carries, but a lot of them will come on what are ostensibly swing passes and sweeps. Still, he doesn’t really provide that downfield threat that this offense grew accustomed to with Strong over the last couple of years. Right now, probably the best bet for that position is redshirt senior Devin Lucien (6’2, 195). Lucien, of course, was on the UCLA football team from 2011 to 2014 and never really progressed up the receiving rotation as much as he would have liked. He’s found a home at ASU, and has quickly become one of Bercovici’s favored downfield targets. Lucien got a little nicked up two weeks ago, hurting his hamstring against New Mexico, and he could still be nursing that injury this weekend. We’d have to imagine he’ll be motivated to play against his former teammates, however. With Lucien limited last week, redshirt senior Gary Chambers (6’4, 215) became the focal point of the passing game, and he rewarded Bercovici with a productive night, recording five catches for 103 yards. He can present a bit of a mismatch downfield, and could cause some issues for UCLA’s secondary, especially Ishmael Adams. Redshirt junior Kody Kohl (6’3, 231) also gives Bercovici another big, reliable target that’s not a real threat to make big plays downfield. The guy everyone hopes will turn into a really reliable downfield threat is redshirt sophomore Ellis Jefferson (6’5, 212). He has the most Strong-like size and set of skills, but the light just hasn’t come on for him in a consistent way.

The strength of the offense is the running game, and if ASU fans have one complaint so far this season, it’s that offensive coordinator Mike Norvell hasn’t elected to run the ball enough. ASU has a good tandem of running backs in sophomore Demario Richard (5’10, 220) and sophomore Kalen Ballage (6’3, 230). Richard is averaging a very solid 6.1 yards per carry, and has also been effective catching the ball out of the backfield, with ten catches for 185 yards this season. He’s a strong, compact runner with good quickness. Ballage had mono at the start of the season and just made it back to the field last week against USC. He’s a big, strong, athletic runner, who can also catch the ball pretty well. Both players are tough to tackle, with good size and strength. With the passing games’ continued issues last week, you can expect a healthy dose of Ballage and Richard going forward.

The strength of the offensive line is probably the interior run-blocking. Senior center Nick Kelly (6’3, 295), redshirt senior left guard Christian Westerman (6’4, 300), and redshirt senior right guard Vi Teofilo (6’4, 315) have all been fairly effective opening up holes for Richard so far this season and have been pretty solid in pass protection as well. The tackles, on the other hand, got a rude awakening to the 2015 season, having to go against probably the best pass-rushing tandem in college football in Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. Redshirt junior left tackle Evan Goodman (6’4, 310) and redshirt senior right tackle William McGehee (6’6, 314) both were abused in that game. They’ve since looked a little better, but it’s still a concern. As a group, the offensive line has given up 14 sacks, and that’s just not a good number, especially when factoring in that ASU has also played two cupcake opponents.

UCLA’s defense has suffered some huge losses in terms of personnel since the season began, with starting defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, starting cornerback Fabian Moreau, and starting linebacker Myles Jack all going down with season-ending injuries. Just last week, linebacker Jayon Brown, who stepped into Jack’s place in the starting lineup, went down with some form of lower back injury. There’s no update on his status for this weekend, but without Jack and potentially without Brown, suddenly UCLA doesn’t look particularly athletic or deep at the linebacker spot.
Ken Clark (Steve Cheng, BRO)

Up front, UCLA still had Kenneth Clark, who had a very good game last week against Arizona. Much is being put on his plate, though, with Vanderdoes gone and the linebackers weakened, and he’s having make more plays at the line of scrimmage than he’s had to in the past. He had probably six or seven tackles last week where he trailed the play and made the tackle from behind. The rest of the defensive line has been solid, but UCLA has definitely taken a hit in the run defense with Vanderdoes out.

That run defense looked really bad against Arizona last week. The Wildcats ran for 353 yards on a variety of zone reads, scrambles, and hand-offs, and UCLA looked consistently flummoxed with how to defend against the run for most of the game. The inside linebackers in particular struggled to get in proper position to defend against the zone read game, and then didn’t have the speed to recover. It’s truly a concern going forward — does UCLA have the athleticism at linebacker to effectively stop the run in the Pac-12?

On the positive side, UCLA discovered a fundamental issue in its defense and still won a Pac-12 road game against the No. 16 team in the country by 26 points. With a week to figure things out, hopefully UCLA has a better plan for ASU, which could show off a good rushing attack this weekend.

ADVANTAGE: Even

UCLA’s rush defense was a serious concern against Arizona, and we’re not sure how the fundamental problem — lack of experience and elite athleticism at inside linebacker — gets solved in a week. Arizona State is a good running team, and that could cause UCLA some issues.

Now, you might say that Bercovici isn’t much of a runner, and you’d be correct. The thing about the Arizona game is that Anu Solomon was also not a runner, and he managed to rack up 47 yards on seven carries, albeit a few of those runs were on unplanned scrambles. Given how much UCLA struggled to defend the zone read against Arizona, we’d be stunned if Arizona State didn’t go to that well at least a few times on Saturday.

So, that’s the negative — ASU will almost certainly be able to run the ball against UCLA, unless Clark and the defensive line just play completely lights out against the interior of ASU’s line.

On the other side, it’s hard to envision Bercovici having a great passing game against UCLA. First, his receiving targets are mostly average — when the second-leading receiver is a guy who couldn’t really break into UCLA’s receiver rotation, that’s not a great sign. Second, UCLA’s ends — Deon Hollins and Takkarist McKinley — should be able to take advantage of ASU’s tackles and put some pressure on Bercovici. Under pressure, Bercovici can panic a little bit, and we could see him throw an interception or two on Saturday.

Arizona State is going to score some points, because it’s difficult to imagine UCLA suddenly fixing everything about the run defense, but we’ll bet that Bercovici makes some mistakes in the passing game under pressure from UCLA’s defensive ends that either stalls Arizona State drives or gives UCLA great field position on offense.

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