UCLA's Defense vs. Arizona State's Offense
Up until the USC game, Arizona State's offense was looking like one of the best units in the Pac-12. Despite losing offensive coordinator Mike Norvell in the offseason, the Sun Devils underwent a pretty seamless transition to new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. They're running a somewhat similar spread, if a little more run-heavy than the version the Sun Devils ran last year, and the results were very good through four games. ASU scored 30+ points in every game, and went over 50 twice, while generating very solid yardage totals both on the ground and through the air.
The caveat, of course, is that two of the bigger offensive explosions came against two teams with absolutely garbage defenses, California and Texas Tech. The Sun Devils actually had to go against a team with a top 25 defense on Saturday when they faced USC, and the results weren't pretty poor, even before Manny Wilkins (6'3, 197) got hurt. ASU managed just 303 yards of offense on 70 plays, and were particularly ineffective on the ground. Wilkins, whose lowest rushing total before the game had been 47 yards, had -9 yards, as sacks, for the first time, outweighed what he was able to do with his legs.
And then Wilkins got hurt, so, even if you were thinking the issues ASU had against USC were a one-time aberration, now there's a big question mark surrounding the ASU offense. So much in the first four games was built around his ability to run the ball effectively. Wilkins is listed as doubtful for this weekend (ankle), but even if he were to play, we can't imagine that he would be 100% effective running the ball. In his absence, redshirt freshman Brady White (6'2, 202) would likely get the start, and we've been fans of his for a long time. He throws accurately, has a nice arm, and plays with poise. The issue for ASU's offense is that White is not much of a dual threat. He's a decent enough athlete to perhaps keep teams a little honest in the run game, but teams aren't going to have to game plan to stop him the way they would for Wilkins.
There's still plenty of talent on this ASU offense, though, and we're of the mind that the USC game was an aberration in the sense that you probably shouldn't expect the run game to be that weak continuously. The Sun Devils have a very good tandem of running backs in juniors Demario Richard (5'10, 219) and Kalen Ballage (6'2, 227). Both were held down by USC on Saturday, to the point where third-stringer redshirt freshman Nick Ralston (6'0, 215) actually led the team in rushing, thanks to his performance in junk time, but we'd anticipate that both will bounce back this week. Both Richard and Ballage run with great power, with Ballage having a little bit more speed and Richard being a little bit more decisive between the tackles.
The receiving corps for ASU also has some good talent. Redshirt senior Tim White (5'11, 175) is the leader of the group and has been a steady contributor this year. White has real explosive playmaking ability (he's the team's punt and kick returner as well), but hasn't quite had the major breakout game in the pass game yet. True freshman N'Keal Harry (6'4, 220) is a really exciting player to watch. We loved what we saw out of him when he was a prospect last year in all the passing leagues around L.A., and he has immediately translated to the college level with his excellent combination of size and speed. He's going to be ASU's next big-time receiver, and he already has 20 catches for 215 yards this season. Rounding out the rotation are redshirt junior Cameron Smith (6'0, 203) and redshirt sophomore Jalen Harvey (6'1, 195). Both have contributed big plays this year, and each is averaging over 15 yards per catch. Ballage is also a significant factor in the passing game, as he has 14 catches through the first five games.
The offensive line has been mostly fine this year, which is a big step up from where people thought it would be entering the season. The Sun Devils had to replace four starters, so it's completely understandable that there would be some issues, but, again, USC was about the first game where ASU was ineffective rushing the ball. The lone returning starter is redshirt senior left tackle Evan Goodman (6'4, 300), who provides a steady presence on the edge, but other than that, there's a host of new faces. The guard spots are manned by redshirt sophomore Sam Jones (6'5, 297) on the left side and redshirt senior Stephon McCray (6'3, 319) on the right. Jones did start three games last year as an injury fill-in, so he's not completely green. McCray, who's a very good run blocker, saw time in all 12 games last season. He actually began the year at center before right tackle Zach Robertson (6'5, 325) got hurt, but moved to guard to make room for junior A.J. McCollum (6'1, 305), a JC transfer. At right tackle, redshirt sophomore Quinn Bailey (6'5, 311) will get the nod, and Bailey started the year at guard before moving out to tackle after the Robertson injury.
UCLA's defense is quietly rounding into arguably the best defense of the Jim Mora era, if you're judging these things from a statistical perspective. Right now, according to the S&P+, UCLA's defense is a top-20 unit, and that certainly holds up when considering the last three games where the Bruins shut down BYU, Stanford, and Arizona in quick succession.
While UCLA is bringing a little more pressure than they did last year, the big change from the first two games has been the overall health of the defensive line. Takkarist McKinley and Eddie Vanderdoes each missed some time in the first two games, and there was a massive drop-off when they were out of the game. They've each been healthy enough to play full games for the last three, and the results speak for themselves. With those two in the lineup, UCLA doesn't need to overcommit to the box, and doesn't need to send significant help to get pressure on the quarterback. As we predicted before the season, McKinley has really broken out this year, and has definitely provided a one-man pass rush at times. Vanderdoes, for his part, might be one of the premier run-stuffing interior linemen in the country.
That combo up front has made life a lot easier for UCLA's linebackers as well. Kenny Young is playing the best football of his UCLA career, and was arguably UCLA's defensive MVP on Saturday against Arizona. Jayon Brown has also looked so much more effective over the last three games as well.
UCLA's secondary has been the consistent piece all season, and they too have looked even better with the more stable defensive front. The cornerbacks, Fabian Moreau and Nathan Meadors, have been excellent this season for the most part. Safety play hasn't quite been at that level, but UCLA is getting very solid contributions from its second unit of Adarius Pickett and Tahaan Goodman. Pickett continues to eat into the playing time of starters Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood, and it's great to have that kind of competition. Hopefully, Pickett's play continues at a high enough level for him to continue to earn more playing time, as he gives UCLA a physical element on the back line that they haven't had.
If Wilkins were healthy, we'd be inclined to make this an Even matchup, but as it stands, it's hard to know what to expect from ASU, and how the Sun Devils will compensate for not having a runner at quarterback. The ASU offense didn't look great when White came into the game against USC on Saturday, but it's also hard to judge based on that, since they probably weren't expecting to have to run their offense through White in that game.
ASU has time to prepare for using White this weekend, so you'd have to expect they'll be a little more effective than they were against USC. Even still, not having the running threat at quarterback changes the dynamics of this ASU offense, and makes it a little easier to defend from a UCLA perspective.
The Bruins have been very good defensively over the last three games, and with Young's improved play, there isn't a really significant weakness for teams to focus on. Much of this game is probably going to hinge on the interior rushing attack for ASU vs. the stout interior run defense for UCLA. If the Sun Devils can establish Richard and Ballage, that could help to loosen up the secondary a bit for White to hit some throws to Tim White and Harry. Conversely, if UCLA is able to stop the run, and we think the Bruins have a decent chance without the real threat of a running quarterback, it could be another very long day for the ASU offense.