QB Josh Rosen and C Scott Quessenberry (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Game Week: UCLA vs. ASU Full Preview

Oct. 6 -- The Sun Devils are a lot like UCLA's opponent last week -- a potentially explosive offense with a very suspect defense...

Facts and Factors

• UCLA travels to Tempe to take on Arizona State Saturday, Oct. 8th, at 7:30 PST.  The game will be televised by ESPN2 with Allen Bestwick and Mike Belotti in the booth and Kris Budden on the sideline.

• UCLA is 3-2, 1-1 in the Pac-12, while ASU is 4-1 and also 1-1 in the Pac-12.

• Arizona State started the season 4-0 and there was a notion about the Sun Devils being worthy of a national ranking, until falling to Earth last week when they were pretty soundly beaten by USC, 41-20.   USC led the game 41-6 to start the fourth quarter.  Three of ASU’s victories came against Northern Arizona, Texas Tech and UTSA, who have a combined record of 5-8. 

• UCLA’s two losses came against two teams, Texas A&M and Stanford, currently ranked in the top 25. Last week both were ranked in the top ten.   

•  UCLA leads the all-time series against the Sun  Devils, 19-12-1, but since 1992 the series is 11-10 in favor of ASU. 

•  In each of the last four games in the series, the road team has won.

•  UCLA won two years ago in Tempe in one of Jim Mora’s best victories of his UCLA tenure, trouncing the Sun Devils 62-27, the second biggest margin of victory in the series (the biggest being UCLA’s win in 1994, 59-23, which was also in Tempe).  In last year's game, Ishmael Adams returned a kickoff 100 yards and an interception 95 yards for another score as the Bruins put up the most points by a visitor in the 55-year history of Sun Devil Stadium.

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• Last year, #7-ranked UCLA lost in the Rose Bowl to then un-ranked ASU, 38-23. 

• This is the first time since 2012 that neither UCLA nor ASU is ranked heading into the game.  UCLA has been ranked in the three most-recent games with Jim Mora at the helm, and was ranked ahead of ASU in all of those three years. 

•  UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen is making his mark on the UCLA record books, now seventh in completions (405), eighth in passing yardage (5,183), and ninth in touchdown passes (31) and total offense (5,158). Rosen posted the ninth 300-yard passing game of his career against Arizona last week, one behind Brett Hundley for second in UCLA history.

• UCLA hasn’t let up a rushing touchdown in its last two games, the last being in the 3rd quarter of the BYU game.

•  Todd Graham (51) is in his 5th season in Tempe, posting a 38-20 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 his first 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.  Being in his fifth year at ASU marks the longest time he’s spent as a head coach at any program, spending one year at Rice, four years at Tulsa and one year at Pittsburgh before coming to Tempe.  Being from Texas, Graham’s name sometimes pops up in connection with open head coaching jobs in that state.  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.

• Last season, when ASU finished 6-7, it was only the second losing season Graham has ever posted in 11 years of being a head coach (going 5-7 in his third year at Tulsa in 2009). 

• Graham makes $3.1 million per year, which ranks him in the lower-half of Pac-12 coaching salaries (7th). Jim Mora’s $3.45 million per year ranks him third (behind Washington’s Todd Petersen’s $3.6 million and the $3.8 million it is speculated that Clay Helton makes at USC). 

• Graham and Mora were part of the 2012 Class of New Pac-12 coaches, both currently in their fifth seasons with their respective programs.  They are 2-2 against each other, with this Saturday being the current rubber game of their head-to-head match-up. 

• Both teams statistically are pretty much mirror images of each other. UCLA’s offense is ranked 9th and ASU’s 5th in the Pac-12, while UCLA’s defense is ranked 4th and ASU’s dead last, 12th. 

Rendering of Sun Devil Stadium after completed renovation
 

• Sun Devil Stadium has a seating capacity of 56,232 and uses natural grass for its playing surface, at least currently.  The stadium is in the middle of a multi-phase renovation that started in 2015 and will finish in 2017 (the phases being done mostly in the off-season). It will cost $300 million, and will include the rebuilding and updating of different parts of the bowl, a new video board, a new 360-degree concourse,  some improved seats (with backs), installation of turf, and a new athletic facility.

• This weekend is fall break for ASU students so a big student turn-out is not expected.  The ASU student section was a big factor in rattling Cal quarterback Davis Webb. ASU is trying to fill seats with $10 guest passes and groups.  

•  The betting line opened with UCLA -4 and has moved to -10. 

• The weather forecast calls for a high of 91 degrees in Tempe on Saturday, with a game-time temperature in the mid-80s. 

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. 

WR N'Keal Harry (USA Today)

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.

LB Kenny Young (Photo by Steve Cheng)

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.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

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.

UCLA's Offense vs. ASU's Defense

Much like UCLA's opponent last week, ASU's defense is just as bad as its offense is good. If anything, ASU might be a little bit worse. The Sun Devils, to their credit, have probably faced more explosive offenses than Arizona has faced, in that they've faced Texas Tech (arguably the best offense in the country) and Cal (certainly a top 25 offense in its own right). Even still, ASU made a just OK USC offense look pretty darn good last week, so there are certainly some issues to work out.

The defense has certainly looked a little different this year. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is now calling the plays, rather than Todd Graham, and there's been a noticeable trend away from blitzing as much as they did the last four years. ASU brought more pressure last week than they probably have this year, but overall, the defense isn't quite as blitz-happy as previous defenses at ASU. Last week against USC, despite blitzing a pretty good amount, ASU didn't get home for a single sack.

The stats are just ugly. ASU is giving up an average of 6.7 yards per play, which includes a decent enough 3.9 yards per rush attempt and an absolutely abysmal, worst-in-the-Pac-12 8.9 yards per pass attempt. From a sack rate perspective, the Sun Devils have taken a major step back from last year, recording a sack on only 5.2% of defensive plays versus nearly 8% a year ago.

DL Joseph Wicker (USA Today)

Like we said, though, the run defense has been decent, and credit has to go to a solid defensive front for ASU. The interior of the defense is very solid, if a little nicked up. Senior nose tackle Viliami Latu (6'2, 296), who started his career at ASU way back in the day as a linebacker, has really helped shore up the interior for the Sun Devils, but he's been nursing a knee injury for a few weeks. He played last week against USC with a large brace on his knee, and for this week, he's listed as an "OR" in the depth chart alongside redshirt freshman nose George Lea (6'2, 284). Latu being able to go would significantly help the ASU run defense. Alongside Latu or Lea, junior Tashon Smallwood (6'1, 274) will line up at the other defensive tackle spot (called the Tiger position for...reasons). He's been solid against the run, but ASU would love to get a little more disruption out of him at that spot (he has just two quarterback hurries this year and just 1.5 tackles for loss). Since it's a 3-4 defense, for the most part, ASU has just one true defensive end, and that's sophomore Joseph Wicker (6'3, 263). Wicker is going to go down as a pretty significant miss for UCLA in the recruiting process, as he has developed into a very good player for the Sun Devils. He leads ASU in tackles for loss with 5, and has pretty good skills as both an interior and an edge rusher. His best fit would probably be a 4-3, since he's the kind of guy you'd love to see lined up at three-tech on passing downs because he can be such a difficult matchup for interior linemen. 

Junior Devil 'backer Koron Crump (6'3, 218) more often than not lines up close to the line of scrimmage and effectively acts as a rush end (this is the position that mostly closely aligns with the position Anthony Barr used to play for UCLA). He leads the team in sacks with three and has four total tackles for loss. Obviously, at his size, he presents some significant matchup problems for opposing tackles. When ASU wants to go a little stouter with more of a true four-down look, they'll bring in redshirt junior Alani Latu (6'2, 254) who certainly brings more size to the table. We don't have the snap breakdowns, but judging by their statistical production, the two players are more or less splitting time.

So, the defensive front isn't really the problem. It's a solid unit and ASU's rushing defense has been good enough. It'd be ideal if ASU were getting a little more sack production out of its front four, but as it stands, half of the Sun Devils' 11 sacks have come from the defensive front, which is a decent enough split.

Linebacker hasn't been a disaster either. There have certainly been some missed tackles this year, particularly against USC, but even then, the culprit was more the secondary than anything. Junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun (6'0, 228) is the leading tackler, and while he had one or two missed tackles against USC, he's been mostly solid this year. Redshirt senior Salamo Fiso (6'0, 240) missed the first three games of the year due to a violation of team rules, but returned to the lineup against Cal and was very effective in the 51-41 win over the Bears. Fiso's presence certainly helps the unit, as he was arguably ASU's best linebacker last year. Redshirt junior Marcus Ball (6'2, 223) and redshirt senior Carlos Mendoza (6'1, 230) have also been key cogs for the linebacker corps this year. Redshirt senior Laiu Moeakiola (6'1, 215) is probably more effectively categorized with the secondary since he plays so much in coverage, but he's a good athlete who has shown good coverage ability in the past. 

But this year the secondary has been pretty bad across the board, and that's where the issue for ASU's defense lies. The only full-season experience in the secondary comes from sophomore boundary corner Kareem Orr (5'11, 198) and redshirt sophomore free safety Armand Perry (6'0, 195), with the rest of the secondary varying degrees of unproven. Against USC, they were exposed badly, especially at the Bandit position, where there was basically a turnstile of players coming in and out of the game to try to find someone who could be effective. Junior J'Marcus Rhodes (6'0, 207) and freshman Kyle Williams (5'10, 178) are both listed as potential starters there, but there's major uncertainty at that position. The other corner is redshirt senior De'Chavon Hayes (5'11, 187), who also suffered from tackling issues last week. Somehow shoring up this secondary is going to be critical if ASU is going to do anything in the Pac-12 this year, because right now, this defense is statistically very bad almost strictly because of the abysmal pass defense.

UCLA's offense has certainly been the weaker of the two units for the Bruins, but the dichotomy is nowhere near as stark as it is between the offense and defense of ASU. There are a few big issues for UCLA's offense, but the primary one is the inability to run the ball. The Bruins have been stymied in pretty much every game this year when attempting to run between the tackles, and last week, against a pretty weak Arizona defensive front, UCLA was once again very ineffective trying to run the ball inside. The Bruins finished with over 100 yards rushing but under four yards per carry. Some of the issue is that running backs aren't hitting the holes well, but more of it is the really poor play from the interior of UCLA's offensive line. Scott Quessenberry in particular has had a rough start to the year after sitting out last year following shoulder surgeries. Kolton Miller will likely miss this game after suffering a leg injury against Arizona -- Andre James will likely take his place at right tackle.

Kenny Walker (Photo: Steve Cheng)

That isn't the only issue, though. Another one has been the inability of UCLA's receivers to consistently catch the ball, which seemed to spark some frustration for Jim Mora last week. There were, again, a handful of drops against Arizona, as there have been in every game this season. Eldridge Massington and Mossi Johnson both had back-breaking drops. So far, the reliable receivers have looked like Darren Andrews, (shockingly) Kenny Walker, and, to an extent, Ishmael Adams, though Adams could miss this week after suffering a shoulder injury against Arizona. Theo Howard got his first significant playing time against Arizona and rewarded the Bruins with a touchdown catch on an electric catch and run. Mora has said he'll receive more time going forward.

Josh Rosen has looked progressively better over the last few games after a rough start to the season. Against Arizona, he easily could have had 400+ yards and another touchdown if his receivers could hold onto the ball. As it was, he put up a pretty nice stat line (if with a relatively low completion percentage). With the way the running game is looking, his continued progression this year is key if UCLA is going to really contend for the conference title.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

It's not a huge advantage because we're not sure of the reliability of UCLA's offense, but this is not a good ASU defense by any stretch. The big key in this matchup is to keep in mind that ASU's run defense is actually OK -- there's no reason to sit and test whether the UCLA offense can run between the tackles on it, because the Bruins probably can't. Any rush defense that's better than average (and this ASU run defense probably qualifies) looks like it'll be equipped to shut down UCLA's interior rushing attack this year.

So, assuming UCLA doesn't come into this game quite as stubborn as the Bruins did last year, the Bruins should be able to identify the host of opportunities in the passing game. ASU hasn't been able to get home nearly as much as in years past on blitzes, so Rosen should be able to throw from a decently clean pocket much of the game. Again, ASU's secondary has been a major weakness for the Sun Devils, so UCLA's receivers, especially the quicker ones like Andrews, Walker, and Howard (and Adams if healthy), should be able to find open space. If the Sun Devils continue to tackle the way they did against USC, there could be major big play possibilities as well.

So, UCLA will have to protect Rosen long enough for him to deliver the ball and hope the receivers hold onto it. Again, this should be the kind of game where UCLA passes quite a bit more than it runs -- if the Bruins elect to run the ball a ton, that could keep ASU in the game longer than is really necessary. 

Special Teams

ASU has a very good sit of kickers in senior punter Matt Haack (6'1, 201) and senior place kicker Zane Gonzalez (6'1, 195), who has seemingly been at ASU since the Dirk Koetter era. Haack is averaging 45.28 yards per punt on 18 punts, with 7 downed inside the 20. Gonzalez has missed just one of his 14 attempts, and has made two kicks from 50+ yards, including a 54 yard attempt. He also has 31 touchbacks on 42 kickoffs. Both kickers are really good, and Gonzalez might be the best in the Pac-12 this year.

Tim White is potentially dangerous in both punt and kick returns. He's averaging a very healthy 13.22 yards per punt return with a long of 43, and is also averaging a solid 21 yards per kickoff return. He's due to break a big return at some point this season.

For UCLA's purposes, its freshman tandem of kickers has been decidedly fine this year, if unspectacular. Punter Austin Kent has been worlds better than UCLA's punting situation from the last two years. He was a little slow on his delivery last week, and had a punt nearly blocked, so that's something to correct. J.J. Molson is 7 of 10 this year on field goals, with misses from 48, 38, and 36. That's pretty solid for a freshman kicker, and hopefully he continues to improve.

The return game looked better last week, with a few different players getting shots to return kicks and punts. Randall GoforthAdarius Pickett, and Ishmael Adams all had solid returns, and hopefully they've corrected whatever the issues were through the first four games.

ADVANTAGE: Arizona State

Prediction

This is a weird game every year. The road team seems to always win, but this has become one of the more interesting rivalries in the Pac-12. Last year, UCLA unveiled its worst offensive game plan of the year as it elected to run into the teeth of what was, at the time, the Pac-12 best run defense for much of the first half, which put the Bruins in a deep hole from which they could not escape.

ASU hasn't exactly taken a step back this year, since last year was not good, but the Sun Devils haven't improved significantly on defense, and the offense is back to being a question mark without Wilkins. We don't know what to expect out of a Brady White-led ASU, but we know that Wilkins is a significantly better runner, and we're not expecting White to keep the ball and run it more than a few times to keep the defense honest.

If UCLA breaks out the game plan from last year, and tries to run between the tackles a ton, this game could end up being a mess. Given UCLA's deficiencies in that department, and ASU's relative strength, that's a matchup that the Sun Devils should win. Given what we saw out of UCLA last week, we're anticipating that Kennedy Polamalu will pass first to open things up, much the way he tried to do to start the game against Arizona. Arizona's secondary was better than ASU's, so the Bruins should have more success.

There's certainly a scenario where ASU wins this game -- if the Bruins try to maintain balance on offense, ASU could shut down the rushing side, which could lead to many stalled drives. Offensively, ASU has enough in its running game and has enough playmakers at receiver that the Sun Devils will generate some points even without Wilkins. But if ASU were to win, it would almost need to re-tool its entire scheme, and go to more of a ball-control style that keeps UCLA from having too many offensive drives, while grinding out drives on the offensive end. We're not sure it's equipped to do that, so we see UCLA holding serve in this very strange series.

UCLA 34
ASU 23


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