1. With Manny Wilkins questionable to doubtful for this game, per Arizona State head coach Todd Graham, what's the ceiling and floor for redshirt freshman Brady White in what would be his first career start? How is he different than Wilkins and how does the offense change with him in the backfield?
During Wednesday's practice Wilkins was a non-participant during the portion of practice observed by reporters. Following the session, first-year ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said he was confident in White and looking forward to seeing him perform against the Bruins. He also said that White is prepared and ASU won't change its offense. All indications are that White will get the start. Both quarterbacks were Elite-11 members and highly regarded in their respective recruiting classes.
Entering this season Wilkins had one more year of college practices but neither had played in a game. Wilkins is quicker and more athletic and throws the ball with more velocity than White. Wilkins has a tendency to tuck the ball and become a runner more quickly. White extends plays to throw the ball as a preference and may scan the field a bit more. That's a good thing in the long-run but he's probably more sack prone than Wilkins. He also threw more jeopardy balls in camp. White has more classical quarterback mechanics and can make all the throws, but doesn't drive the ball like Wilkins.
In this game we'll still see all the run-pass option play concepts ASU likes to run, which includes an option for the quarterback to keep the ball. White can move and gain yardage with his feet when flushed. Overall, the play calling will be more dictated by what UCLA does defensively than any difference between the two quarterbacks, but the key thing for White is to have awareness of zone coverage defenders and not throw interceptions.
2. Graham hasn't been sending the blitz this season as much as he had before. How much different is this defense? Are the Sun Devils bringing pressure in other ways? Who are some playmakers UCLA fans should know heading into Saturday?
It's not a huge difference and opposing teams' fans might not even really notice it. But yes, ASU's blitzing a little less -- particularly the six man pressures -- and playing a bit more zone behind it, usually Cover 3 and Cover 4. Overall though, this is still a very pressure-oriented defense. It's a one-gap approach to football with aggressive slants along the defensive line and overload pressures from either the field or boundary side.
The goal is to get into the offensive backfield not just against the pass, but also against the run,and to make plays against the running back from the backside or by getting an opponent to run into the teeth of the blitz. The downside to this is more exposure to game breaking runs through the interior gaps when it's blocked well and quick hitting.
Part of it is the Air Raid style opponents ASU's played thus far like Cal and Texas Tech, but the Sun Devils are No. 1 in the Pac-12 against the run and dead last against the pass -- not just in the conference, but nationally, at 396 yards allowed per game.
ASU's good to solid defensive starters are senior SAM Salamo Fiso, senior Spur Laiu Moeakiola, sophomore Devil backer/end Joseph Wicker, senior tackle Viliami Latu, junior tackle Tashon Smallwood, sophomore field safety Armand Perry and sophomore boundary cornerback Kareem Orr. Junior WILL Christian Sam is the team's second-leading tackler but not played since the opener due to a high ankle sprain. Junior D.J. Calhoun has been in his place and is also a starter-caliber player in the Pac-12. Fiso and Moeakiola set the defense and make it go with Fiso the top run stopper and Moeakiola a do-everything hybrid safety-linebacker. Wicker is the top edge player. Viliami Latu is the most physical lineman, Smallwood is the most versatile tackle. Perry is very good against the run for a safety and assignment sound. Orr is a physical corner who has good technique and coverage skills.
ASU's weaker positions on defense are the end spot opposite Wicker, the field side cornerback position where converted running back De'Chavon Hayes has started, and at Bandit safety, where three different players have started and four played in the game against USC alone. Bandit and field corner are where a number of the breakdowns and missed tackles have occurred.
3. ASU went undefeated in September before stumbling against USC last week. How does that performance line up with your expectation for this team the rest of the way?
My preseason forecast for ASU was 6-6 with 7-5 the second most likely result. I still think that will be the case, though I expected a 3-1 start, not a 4-0 start. ASU's secondary issues will likely persist through the season, quarterback play will be no better than average in the league, and a young and developing offensive line still has a lot of room for growth ahead of it. ASU doesn't have great pass rushers and isn't conference championship caliber on either side of the football. That said, there's clearly a lot of parity in the Pac-12 South and just about anything can happen other than Arizona winning the division.
4. Kalen Ballage has only one touchdown in 36 touches since that monster eight-score performance against Texas Tech in Week 2, including just 15 total yards from scrimmage against the Trojans. What's happened there?
Texas Tech has a terrible defense and ASU used a Wildcat-like package near the goal line that it calls the "Sparky" formation in which Ballage gets the direct snap. Six of his touchdowns in that game came via this formation and a lot of his success was a combination of good fortune, good athleticism and bad defense. Ballage is very good athlete and fast with good size at 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds. He's at his best on outside and stretch zone runs, really anything that is more sweeping and allows him to see the hole and use his build up speed to get to the second level. He's not going to be your every down plugger between the tackles, particularly not when ASU has a returning 1,000 yard rusher in junior Demario Richard. Both guys are very capable and will split the reps but Richard has tended to get the ball more.
5. These two programs have been involved in some interesting matchups in recent years, particularly with the road team having success. How do you see this one playing out and what's your score prediction?
The road team has won four straight and some of these outcomes have been very different than what was anticipated going in. ASU's either rebounded and had great games against UCLA or looked fine before the matchup in other games only to fall apart against the Bruins. In each of the last four seasons, the Sun Devils have played very good football in the game immediately following their worst loss. Is that a fluke? Will that happen again? Does it say something about the program's resilience? Saturday is another chance to find out. But in White's first start as a quarterback and with ASU's secondary struggles, my pick is UCLA wins 34-23.