• UCLA returns home to face Arizona State in the Rose Bowl Saturday at 4:30 for its Pac-12 home opener, with the game being televised by FOX.
• The Bruins (4-0, 1-0) moved up to #7 in the AP and #10 in the Coaches Poll after their victory over Arizona in Tucsion, 56-30.
• The Sun Devils fell to 2-2 and 0-1 in conference after a pretty dismal loss to USC, 42-14.
• UCLA leads the all-time series between the two schools in football, 19-11-1. The two teams are 4-4 in the last eight match-ups. When the series started in 1976, UCLA initially went 9-1-1 against the Sun Devils.
• Last year UCLA ran over ASU in Tempe, 62-27. In 2013, ASU beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl, 38-33, but UCLA beat ASU in Tempe in 2012, 45-43, on a last-second 33-yard field goal by Ka’imi Fairbairn.
• The road team has won the last three games in the series, and five of the last eight.
• ASU is 15-21-1 all-time in Pac-12 road openers.
• If UCLA beats ASU, it will be the first time the Sun Devils have started the first five games of the season with a losing record since 2010, and the first time under coach Todd Graham.
• The win against Arizona was UCLA’s fifth straight over a ranked opponent. The last time UCLA had a longer streak against ranked opponents was in 1997-1998.
• With UCLA being ranked in the Top 10 of the AP Poll, it marks the third straight year the Bruins had made an appearance in the top 10 of the poll. It hasn’t done that since 1989.
• Todd Graham (50) is in his 4th season in Tempe, posting a 30-14 record in that time. He put together two 10-win seasons in a row in 2013 and 2014, which hasn’t happened at ASU since 1972 (Coach Frank Kush posted four in a row, in an era when teams played one less game for the season). Graham’s 30 victories in four seasons is only the third time an ASU coach has accomplished that. In 2013, in just his second year, he led ASU to the Pac-12 South Championship, and was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Graham is known for very aggressive, attacking style of defense – along with a flat-top haircut and a penchant for hyperbole about his team and players.
• Of the coaches hired for the 2012 season, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer has the best record at 41-3, with UCLA’s Jim Mora second at 33-11, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin third at 32-11 and Todd Graham fourth at 30-14. Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez is fifth at 29-15.
• UCLA and ASU are among 12 schools in the FBS to be coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons. The others: Alabama, Baylor, Clemson, Florida State, Marshall, Michigan State, Missouri, Northern Illinois, Ohio State, and Oregon.
• UCLA’s former wide receiver, Devin Lucien, transferred to Arizona State in the off-season as a graduate transfer. UCLA graciously released him to a fellow Pac-12 South school, which they didn’t have to do.
• With its win against Arizona, UCLA is 12-1 in the month of September under Jim Mora.
• UCLA receiver Jordan Payton has a caught a pass in a team-best 20 straight games. After catching seven passes against Arizona, he is now tied for sixth (142 catches) on the all-time UCLA career reception list.
• ASU’s D.J. Foster has caught a pass in 44 straight games, which is the longest active streak in the FBS.
• With its loss against USC last week, ASU is up against it in terms of the Pac-12 South conference race, having to face both UCLA and Utah on the road.
• UCLA is favored by 13 ½ points.
• The weather forecast is for a high of 89 degrees on Saturday in Pasadena, and pretty close to that at game time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ASU’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
Arizona State fields a pretty typical Todd Graham defense with tons of blitzing and a slight related propensity to give up big plays. The issue for the Sun Devils this year is that, despite blitzing more than just about any other college football team, ASU really hasn’t caused a commensurate level of disruption for opposing offenses.
The Sun Devils have recorded nine sacks, which might sound like a lot until you consider that UCLA, which is not really a blitz-happy defense, has recorded eight. ASU has recorded four interceptions and has forced and recovered two fumbles this year, and those two numbers are also fine, but given that the Sun Devils have played Cal Poly and New Mexico in addition their two real opponents, they’d obviously like to have forced more turnovers at this point in the season.
By many yardage metrics, ASU is mediocre defensively. The Sun Devils give up 5.1 yards per play, which is mostly due to an inability to prevent explosive plays in the passing game (again, when a defense blitzes as much as ASU does, it exposes the secondary to big plays). The run defense has been OK, giving up 3.5 yards per carry (35th in the country) and almost completely shutting down USC’s running attack last week. For comparison, after last week’s rush defense meltdown against Arizona, UCLA is 78th in the country with 4.5 yards allowed per carry.
ASU’s defensive line is probably better than it was a year ago, which is probably the biggest reason that the run defense has been pretty good this year. The tandem up front of redshirt senior nose tackle Demetrius Cherry (6’6, 300) and sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood (6’1, 280) has improved a good deal from a year ago and have become significantly better at occupying blockers to create tackling opportunities for the linebackers. The biggest playmaker in the starting group, though, is true freshman defensive end Joseph Wicker (6’3, 275). Wicker, if you’ll remember, was also interested in UCLA before committing to ASU on Signing Day, and he’s proving to be a big miss for the Bruins. He’s already leading ASU’s defensive line in sacks with two so far this season, and he has already shown off his explosive first step and good strength. Junior defensive tackle Viliami Latu (6’2, 290) has also improved from a year ago, and he has shown some playmaking ability as well as an interior pass-rusher. At defensive end, redshirt junior Edmond Boateng (6’4, 265) is still listed as a co-starter with Wicker, but with the way Wicker has played, that’ll probably change shortly.
The linebackers, as a group, have also been pretty solid against the run. Redshirt junior SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso (6’0, 230) and fellow SAM backer, sophomore Christian Sam (6’1, 240) have been the two biggest playmakers in the linebacker corps. Combined this season, they’ve made 11 tackles for loss and four sacks, with Sam probably the best blitzer on the team. Laiu Moeakiola (6’1, 215), the redshirt junior Spur linebacker, has also been good against the run, as has redshirt senior devil linebacker Antonio Longino (6’2, 230). As a group, though, they haven’t gotten to the quarterback as much as ASU defenses have in the past, and that’s helped to expose a secondary that lacks a little bit in terms of speed and athleticism.
Redshirt senior safety Jordan Simone (6’0, 195) was exposed a little bit last week against USC when the Trojans were able to match up one of their fast playmakers on him. Simone plays well against the run, but if he has to play in space against any kind of speed, he tends to struggle. The starting corners are solidly average to above-average by Pac-12 standards, though ASU could be without redshirt senior Lloyd Carrington (5’11, 192) who sat out part of the USC game last week with an undisclosed injury. Senior Kweishi Brown (5’11, 209) has been solid on the other side, but it isn’t a deep secondary that can take a lot of injuries. Already, starting sophomore free safety Armand Perry (6’1, 200) is once again expected to sit with an ankle injury. In his place, ASU will likely start true freshman Kareem Orr (5’11, 195), and if you want a glimpse of ASU’s limited depth in the secondary, Orr is in the three-deep at free safety and both corner spots. Orr is a talented player, but if ASU elects to blitz a ton on Saturday, he’s going to be put in some one-on-one situations against UCLA’s receivers, which could get interesting. If Carrington can’t go, it actually looks like redshirt junior running back De'Chavon Hayes (5’11, 190) could end up playing in the defensive backfield.
Overall, Todd Graham hasn’t gone too far away from what he’s done defensively in all his time at ASU. The interesting thing to watch going forward is how much he can keep up the present plan of basically blitzing on nearly 70% of downs. With the ASU offense sputtering pretty regularly, a boom-or-bust approach on defense seems like it could lead to the Sun Devils getting blown out in a hurry in some games, much like last Saturday against USC.
UCLA’s offense, after sputtering at times against BYU, looked great against Arizona last week, and much of that was due to Josh Rosen bouncing back from a miserable game against the Cougars. Rosen wasn’t quite at Virginia levels of perfection against Arizona, but he wasn’t too far off. He avoided big mistakes, hit a few big throws, and generally made great decisions both in the run game and the pass game. If UCLA can consistently get those sorts of performances from Rosen, the offense could be among the nation’s elite this year.
What makes the offense potentially elite really starts with the offensive line. The group, as a whole, has been very good this season, and arguably UCLA’s best offensive line since the late 90s. Caleb Benenoch, the right tackle, has emerged as one of the best run-blocking tackles in the Pac-12, while the entire group has given up just two sacks, both against Arizona last week. Rosen has largely had a clean pocket to run through, and aside from a handful of runs on Saturday, Paul Perkins and the running backs have been given some good holes in the run game.
Perkins has been excellent all year, and some of his most impressive running came last week against the Wildcats. It seemed like he was in the game every time the offensive line had a slight issue blocking, and each time, Perkins would be hit in the backfield, spin away, and somehow come up with three or four yards. His ability to consistently get positive yardage is huge, especially with a true freshman quarterback who would be best served not facing 3rd and long after 3rd and long all game long.
Jordan Payton played through an ailing ankle last week and put together probably his best receiving performance of the season. He has become so good at creating separation downfield and using his excellent body control to make plays. Rosen and Payton have clearly developed a connection on the field, and it’s easy to see the trust building between the two players.
Yes, UCLA was gifted with some short fields last week, but the offense was incredibly efficient, and aside from a couple of drives at the beginning of the second half, the Bruins moved the ball easily against Arizona’s defense. The Bruins will no doubt face tougher defenses this season in the Pac-12 slate, but it was still a very impressive offensive performance.
Before the season, we had this matchup specifically circled as one we were concerned about, since Rosen is a true freshman and this was the first game, we figured, where he’d be dealing with all-out pressure.
Of course, he’s now dealt with some form of basically every type of pressure through the first four games of the season and has emerged from that stretch relatively unscathed. In fact, the team that probably blitzed the least, BYU, did the best job of limiting Rosen.
Now, this is a different challenge altogether. Even if UNLV blitzed a ton, it’s a big difference between what the Running Rebels can do and what a Pac-12 team can do. From what we’ve seen, though, this ASU defense doesn’t seem as adept at getting to the quarterback as they have in the past, and UCLA’s offensive line should make that an even more difficult task. If Rosen is given some time to throw against the blitz, which we think is probably going to happen, we’re confident in his ability to deliver the ball accurately and have a pretty big game.
If we had to guess, ASU will gear the defense toward pressuring Rosen and stopping the run — basically, the Sun Devils are going to do what they’ve done in basically every game this season. We’d even bet that they do a nice job of limiting Paul Perkins — at least early on. To compensate, we could see UCLA doing some good work early in the screen and swing game against this aggressive defense, which could open up the running game later on in the game.
UCLA doesn’t quite have the playmakers that USC has on the edge, but the Bruins have some talented receivers and running backs, and there’s more than enough talent there to take advantage of ASU’s pressure and put together another 30+ point offensive performance.
ASU kicker Zane Gonzalez (6’1, 190) has been not so good this year, missing three of his six kicks, with misses from 28, 47, and 52 yards. He missed two kicks against USC last week, though both were long attempts. He’s been better on kickoffs, recording 14 touchbacks in 20 attempts, which is a pretty good percentage. Ka'imi Fairbairn, on the other hand, has been much better, making six of seven field goals, with his only miss from 50 yards. He has recorded 23 touchbacks on 29 kicks, and didn’t allow a kickoff return last week against Arizona. So, advantage at kicker goes to UCLA.
ASU punter Matt Haack (6’1, 199) has been good this year, recording a 43.8 punt average with seven of his 22 punts downed inside the 20 and seven of his punts traveling 50+ yards. UCLA punter Matt Mengel hasn’t been nearly as good, averaging just 38.9 yards per punt with five of his 15 punts downed inside the 20 and just two traveling 50+ yards. So, advantage here to the Sun Devils.
UCLA’s return game has been solid with Devin Fuller taking over for Ishmael Adams. Fuller has had a few big returns in each of the last two games to set up UCLA scoring drives and has shown good decision-making. It’ll be interesting, though, if UCLA tries to give Adams more work there, since he’s probably a little more explosive. ASU’s returner is primarily Hayes, though Tim White (5’11, 185) will also work at kickoff returner. Both are solid, with each having a 35+ yard return on kickoffs this year. UCLA is a little bit better in net kickoff coverage than ASU, but about the same in net punting, because Mengel just doesn’t kick the ball very far. So we’ll call this even.
Some might say we have this game a little backwards, since ASU’s offense has been pretty poor this year and ASU’s defense has probably been the strength of the team, but we’re looking at the way these two teams line up against each other, and we think ASU’s offense could find some favorable matchups against UCLA’s run defense. The Bruins are sorely lacking for speed at linebacker, with Myles Jack out and Jayon Brown’s health an unknown, and that could make for some long gains on runs to the edges of the defense.
So, we think ASU can score on UCLA’s defense because the Sun Devils should be able to run the ball, which might open things up a little more for Bercovici in the passing game. We don’t think he’s necessarily going to light the world on fire, since his receiving weapons aren’t great and UCLA should be able to pressure him some, but we could see ASU having a much more effective offensive showing than they’ve had in recent weeks.
On the other side, though, we think Rosen is much better equipped at this point in the season to deal with pressure than we would have thought at the beginning of the year. The Sun Devils are probably going to stack the box against the run and also blitz Rosen like crazy, and from what we’ve seen of the freshman, we think he’ll handle it well and dump the ball off to his playmakers. UCLA’s offensive line also seems much more capable of dealing with a pressure defense than it has in the past, which should even give Rosen some time for some longer completions.
Again, like last week, we think this could be a pretty high-scoring game. ASU has the capability to score some points against UCLA’s defense, but the Bruins have a more balanced offense with better talent across the board.
Ultimately, we think UCLA’s defense will do enough to pressure Bercovici into some mistakes which should stall some ASU drives, and that UCLA’s offense should be able to score with consistency against an ASU defense that will attempt to blitz Rosen like he’s a typical true freshman. He isn’t, and we could see him having a big game on Saturday.