ASU Preview & Expectations

The Sun Devils want to disrupt UCLA's Homecoming Saturday, bringing an offense and a quarterback to the Rose Bowl that are hot. It's a critical game for the Bruins, standing between them and some real credibility...

A rare sense of giddiness swept over BRO on Monday. Amazing what a format change on the message boards can do.

That, along with Matt Moore being named the starting QB for the ASU game, has razor blades and box cutters being taken from under lock and key for the first time in weeks among BRO households, and not just because the family is flying to Europe. Let's hope the bonhomie lasts longer than the typical time between media questions to some Bruin FBer about transferring. Who will be the first writer to pose the question to Paul Mociler? Place your bets.

Karl Dorrell announced on Monday that Matt Moore is "physically and mentally 100%," and ready to resume his starting role. Dorrell indicated that it was a "matter of time" before Moore returned to the line-up after the injury to his leg, but that the coaching staff "wanted to make sure he was fully capable" before giving him the reins. Dorrell indicated that Moore performs best when he gets the starter's practice repetitions during the week, and combined with getting adjusted to his knee brace and the "nature of the [Cal] game" (i.e., the tight score and the pass rush), the staff decided it was "not comfortable" to insert him into last week's game.

With Moore taking over after a six-week hiatus, Dorrell indicated that he would take a more active role in monitoring the play calling: "I have a play caller. With Matt Moore back in the saddle, I'll oversee" the play calling to ensure Moore is given plays with high probability of success.

Dorrell was blunt when he said he was "not satisfied with how the offense is playing. We are not consistent." He also said UCLA would try to have a "better mixture" regarding running vs. passing plays, and that they are "striving to create more balance" in the offense.

The Arizona State Sun Devils seem like a team one step away from being a legitimate contender. They punk weak sisters, but get sent away with their tails between their legs when they face up the big boys.

For example, the Sun Devils dropped 59 points and 497 yards on an Oregon team saddled with Nick Aliotti's bend-then-break defensive schemes and smurf-like CBs. Burdened with the tired, passé West Coast offense of Mike Bellotti operated under a QB-by-committee tandem (9 of 26, 127 yards). Reeling from a two-game losing streak in which the Ducks gave up 55 to WSU and then got beat by Utah.

And that's really the only good game ASU has had.

Sure, they racked up 598 yards against North Carolina. But UNC is a basketball school. Please. And it took a last-second TD toss from Andrew Walter to Skyler Fulton to win the game anyway, 33-31. How do you run 37 more plays and hold the ball for more than 11.5 minutes more than UNC and only win by two points? (I guess 16 penalties for 153 yards probably had something to do with it.)

Against USC (good team), ASU faded badly down the stretch after leading 17-10 in the 3rd quarter, eventually losing 37-17. ASU has allowed only 11 sacks all year, but USC accounted for five of them in one game.

Iowa (good team) basically shut out ASU on offense, only allowing 184 total yards and a safety on defense en route to a 21-2 win. Oregon State (pretty good team) thumped ASU 45-17, with Walter going 17 of 42 with 3 INTs and 2 TDs, one in garbage time.

Here's a telling stat: in the first five games of the year, ASU was only 18 of 74 on 3rd down conversions (24%).

Derek Hagan (Getty Images).
But that number has been brought up thanks to an 11-of-15 day against good, ol' Nick Aliotti's D. It seems like yesterday that the Bruins were allowing every 3rd down to be converted. Gotta love Bellotti's eye for coaching talent.

The reason that ASU is so hot-and-cold is Andrew Walter. Walter's mechanics often desert him: fall away passes, short-arm throws that are released from under his chin, and sloppy footwork are some of the vices that appear when he's put under pressure. Walter is huge at 6-5, but because he holds the ball low and short-arms it instead of holding the ball up by his cheek and coming over the top, he's only really effective when he has a clear passing lane before him. If Walter had Aaron Rodgers' technique, or, more accurately, Jeff Tedford's coaching, he'd probably be the #1 pick in the NFL draft in April. But he doesn't, and that's ASU's Achilles' Heel.

Another key reason why ASU has been hot lately has been the emergence of receiver Derek Hagan, the true SO from Palmdale. Hagan plays much bigger than his listed 6-1, 192, and also much faster. In the last three games, he's posted 8 catches for 170 yards vs. USC, 7 for 108 and 1 TD vs. Oregon, and 11 for 185 yards and 1 TD vs. UNC. He's extremely good after the catch, especially on outs/curls to the left side where he gets the ball in his right arm. After Shaun McDonald left early for the NFL, ASU struggled this year to find a replacement, but no longer. Hagan is the big play receiver, and Skyler Fulton has become the possession receiver.

ASU has a decent OL that has mostly good moments with a USC-style rushing attack. ASU has a great stable of running backs, maybe the deepest in the Pac-10, which helps. The #1 RB is Hakim Hill, a 220 lb. bowling ball who runs very hard and very up the field. If Hill's power isn't enough, ASU can bring in Loren Wade from Serra HS, who runs 215 and Mike Williams from Mayfair HS in Lakewood, who goes 211. For a change of pace, ASU has Cornell Candidate (Trung's speedy brother at 5-9, 200) and Randy Hill (6-2, 205, 4.45). All of these guys can play. Williams and Candidate seem to be the guys who are the odd men out of the rotation these days.

On the defensive side, ASU runs a 4-2-5 alignment, which means safeties are moved around to be integral parts of the run and pass defense. The guys to watch are safeties Jason Shivers and Riccardo Stewart, who each have 3 INTs and are 2nd and 3rd in the Pac-10 in tackles/game, respectively, behind Brandon Chillar, at 9.5 and 9.1/game.

Along the DL, DE Jimmy Verdon from Pomona has 3 sacks to lead ASU, but at 6-4 and 283, he plays a lot softer than he looks. DT Brian Montesanto also has 3 sacks, and at 6-5 and only 258 might be one of the smallest interior DL in the Pac-10. It might be Montesanto's quicks and guile vs. Eyoseph Efseaff, Robert Chai, and Mociler/Kevin Brown's power in the trenches.

Brian Montesanto (AP).
Speaking of Kevin Brown, Matt Moore wasn't the only surprise that Karl Dorrell pulled out of his hat this week. The move of Brown, the powerful 6-2, 298-pound true FR from Long Beach Poly, to RG for the rest of the year is a bold move that probably would never have been considered in the previous regime. If Brown can contribute to the running game with only a week and a half of background, 1) it will qualify as one of the best performances under duress by a Bruin this year, and 2) it raises a host of interesting questions about playing time for big-time incoming FR/JC next year.

Of course, the speculation is that Dorrell wouldn't endanger the D unless Rodney Leisle is fit to play, and that proved to be true as Dorrell announced Thursday that Leisle would play. It proves once again that the posters on the BRO message board are one step ahead in their speculation, or they just have too much time on their hands.

If the Bruins can succeed in a night game with Ryan Boschetti manning the "playmaker" spot at DT, C.J. Niusulu finally getting a chance for some serious PT at the NT spot, and Asi Faoa (recovering from a high ankle sprain himself) alternating in at DT while The Boss moves back to his customary NT spot, Dorrell and staff will be more than happy to make the trade-off in exchange for getting the running game going.

The other notable absence for UCLA will be CB Matt Ware, who will be missing game #2. Ware will probably be missed this week more than last, given ASU's ability to get the ball to Derek Hagan, a pocket Reggie Williams clone.

Offense:

I'd love to see Matt Moore ride to the rescue of UCLA's season. But weren't we at this place seven weeks ago?

Excited and unsure about what to expect from the Bruins' new toy: the power-running/horizontal passing O of Denver/Oakland? Back then, visions of throwing (and completing) quick outs and slants on 1st down to set up a 2nd down where the D would have to respect a play-action fake danced through our thick, little skulls like thoughts of Dow 36,000. Irrational exuberance, if you will.

But is it such a fantastical notion? After being reminded that his Bruins ran the ball 83% of the time on 1st down against Cal, a visibly pained Dorrell, in between grimaces, fell just-this-short of vowing to personally address the balance between runs and passes. Except for 3rd and long, he was quick to add. No imprecision allowed now that serious Pac-10 play is heating up.

So I'm dreaming big. Wish #1: I wish that UCLA's play-calling and formations keeps ASU's D off-balance at least some of the time. Use the shotgun…and hand the ball off for once. Throw the ball five or six times in a row. Heck, I won't even gripe if you go 3 and out passing every down a couple of times in the first half. Anybody can throw the ball five or six times in a row. You only have to catch one third of the passes to move the chains. C'mon, relax, let your hair down. (D'oh!) There's enough variation in the passing offense to run pass after pass without the D knowing what to expect. (The same can't be said about the two-play rushing attack.) And JoePa knows there are the athletes at WR/TE/RB to pull it off, now that they're catching the ball consistently (mostly). Tell ya what, if UCLA throws the ball a lot this game, we'll let them run the fecal matter out of the ball when you're up at the Farm, where nobody will notice the smell. Ok, if they're really good in the first half, maybe we'll let them run the ball in the second half. Just don't send the faithful out for potty breaks at half time with more opportunities to gossip and whine about inept play calling.

Wish #2: Matt Moore hits the backs. They run everybody off deep and then Moore uses his height to find and checkdown to Tyler Ebell. It's a gimme of 5 to 8 yards, and it shortens the LBs' drops, giving Moore deep-ins later. Send the split end deep, and then send FB Manuel White between the OG and OT and into the flat, where a LB will probably fail to cover him. That's an easy 10 to 15. Yes, Matt, you have mad game, every #1 option looks wide open, but cross ‘em up once in a while.

Wish #3: I wish that Moore plays a calm, cool and collected game. His two series against Arizona were played with an almost reckless attitude: throwing deep indiscriminately, throwing into coverage. In general, it was either the result of trying very hard to make spectacular plays because he knew his time was short, or it was a kind of subconscious rebellion against the situation. Whatever, it is now time to play with the clearest of heads. Ball security, avoidance of sacks, no intentional groundings, no throws beyond the LOS: UCLA needs a cagey game from Moore. Drew Olson had almost seven games to mature in the role. I'd love to see Moore pick up where Olson left off, as unlikely as that may be to expect.

Wish #4: That Moore gets to play the entire game, unless a blowout occurs. Just for luck, loosen that left shoe.

My fear is that there is more amiss with UCLA's O than just the QB position.

Dorrell maintains that the gameplan doesn't vary that much depending upon who the QB is. If that's so, will we see a difference in play calling? Will Moore do better in a run-run-pass sequence than Olson did? Will the OL and backs do a better job of picking up blitzes with Moore than with Olson? Yes, there were times Olson seemed to hold the ball too long. Not every time, but sometimes. Have we seen enough of Moore to know that he's not prone to the same mistakes about the same amount of time?

The fear is that the faces may change, but the results will remain the same.

A 60/40 split of run to pass. Lots of fullback lead plays that will draw defenders like money draws honeys. Passes on obvious downs, allowing ASU to blitz and guess right much of the time. Combined with lots of eight in the box from ASU's 4-2-5 D, with S Brett Hudson (6-2, 223), S Riccardo Stewart (5-10, 210) and/or FS Jason Shivers (6-0, 192) cheating up to provide a 5-3 or a 4-4 defensive front, and UCLA's offensive production could look like the game against Colorado, another 4-2-5 team.

Matt Moore (Getty Images).
I expect Matt Moore to be pretty nervous to start the game. He'll have all day to sit around and think about the game. The injury may be in the back of his head. There will be a big crowd because of the 7 p.m. start time and the renewed sense of curiosity about Bruin football with Moore at the controls. The Bruins are undefeated in Pac-10 play, and can do no worse than tie for the Pac-10 championship if they win out and enter the USC game that way. And Drew Olson was 4-0 as the QB in the last four games. Hopefully, Moore will get immersed in preparation and lose track of all that is riding on the game.

I expect Moore will attempt to "guide" a few throws, with the ball sailing high as a result, but he'll recover. I also expect ASU to come after him big-time, to see if he can handle the pressure.

After seven games, although Moore is a wildcard, the other offensive performers are relatively known quantities.

The OL hasn't progressed in recent weeks to the point that they can get any back three yards any time UCLA needs it. There are still lots of times where one chink in the wall will appear that will allow a defender to make a play, or the OL just won't get any push on the defensive front. Of course, when there is an unaccounted for defender making the tackle at the LOS, then the play calling/checking off becomes the issue.

I expect Tyler Ebell to get first crack at ASU, which may not bode well for UCLA's running game, in a superstitious way. My perception is that UCLA overall has run the ball better when the first few, critical carries are given to the Manster. Remember, it's Thunder and Lightning, not the other way around. In any event, Dorrell has been clear that UCLA doesn't have a "featured" back that is going to carry the ball 30 times a game. Ideally, White and Ebell will each get around 15 carries, with Maurice Drew getting another 10.

I expect Craig Bragg, Junior Taylor and Marcedes Lewis to have strong performances. ASU is not a defensive powerhouse, and opportunities for plays downfield will be there if UCLA can keep Moore upright and Steve Axman/Dorrell pull the trigger and let UCLA throw the rock. I'm thinking 6+ plays of 20+ yards.

Bottom line, I expect UCLA to produce between 350 and 375 yards of total offense, 225+ through the air and 125+ on the ground, while allowing 2 or 3 sacks. Tyler will get his first 100-yard game of the season. Unfortunately, about 50% of UCLA's offensive plays will be "wasted" (ie, go for 2 or less yards without producing a TD or 1st down) as the play calling is still a little too predictable to keep ASU's D off-balance.

Defense:

I'd love to see UCLA swarm all over Andrew Walter and completely disrupt his game by putting him on the ground early. The "Baby Bull" DL, using their Doc Kreis-honed strength and power, hunt as a pack, taking turns collapsing the pocket/getting the sack. For UCLA to win, I think 5+ sacks are going to be needed and numerous flushes from the pocket. Walter is not especially mobile (don't expect him to evade sack after sack like Aaron Rodgers), and doesn't like contact, so the more UCLA can put the hurt on him, the better.

While Hot Rod doesn't have as many sacks as Dave Ball does, he creates so many sacks with his bull rush. Hot Rod is not drawing the double-team like last year. So once the QB starts to feel The Great Leisle force the OG into the QB's lap, the feet start dancing, the QB moves up or over, which the OT's can't see, and suddenly one of the Ball Brothers breaks away and hauls down another catch. The Great Leisle really is the reason behind UCLA's success this year getting to the passer.

Karl Dorrell promised that the cushion the CBs have been providing will be re-considered this week. Fortunately, the Bruin CBs haven't come close to getting burned deep this year on go routes, and avoiding the big play is the basis of many defensive philosophies. However, I'd love to see UCLA find a way to have it both ways: guess right on a gamble early in the game to dissuade ASU from quick hitching UCLA to death on 1st down up and down the field.

Matt Moore (Getty Images).
If the DL can collapse the pocket and the CBs can take away the cheap stuff short without giving up the bomb down the sideline, the great set of UCLA LBs will have another field day making plays in the backfield and in the passing game. I'd love to see Larry Kerr continue to send two LBs at a time on zone blitzes, even dropping a DE into an out zone, not just a curl zone. Kerr blitzed more in the Cal game than in any other game this year, I believe.

ASU is certainly one of the most dangerously balanced teams UCLA has faced so far this year. Oklahoma was more skilled in the passing game, but ASU can move the ball, run or pass, all game long if they get rolling. This game should be a very good indication of how solid the UCLA D is when they're matched with a quality opponent that has their attention.

I'd love to see UCLA win the turnover battle, getting 4 while only giving up 2. Also, shut down ASU on 3rd down (less than 35%), and get 5+ sacks. I'd still love to see UCLA do more single substitutions along the DL and individually mix in guys like Asi Faoa, C.J. Niusulu and Junior Lemau'u with the 1st string DL to keep everybody fresher, especially with Hot Rod's stamina a mystery. And it's time for explosive talent like Nnamdi Ohaeri to make some big plays.

My fear is that Andrew Walter can throw the ball a lot farther than UCLA anticipates. If ASU calls a go route, and Walter gets time, safeties Ben Emanuel or Jarrad Page will probably take angles that are too shallow for a guy with Walter's arm, after playing against QBs with not as much wing. The result could be some big, ugly plays.

And once ASU gets ahead, they could keep the UCLA D off-balance with runs, screens, draws, and their pretty proficient intermediate passing game.

The key, of course, is the pass protection. If ASU can keep Walter off his butt, they have a chance to win this game. If UCLA's DL doesn't overpower the ASU OL like they've done to almost everybody else, it could be a long night. (Good thing we get an extra hour!)

I expect UCLA's D to have a great game.

All things considered, ASU is a team whose talent and style are red meat for UCLA: They have an immobile QB who underperforms with adversity. ASU throws the ball a lot, and with a lot of 5- and 7-step drops. Most of their running plays are from a two-back set, so the FB tells the LBs where to go. The RBs are strong, but not too strong; fast, but not too fast; and quick, but not too quick. Plus, there are so many of them, that none of them will really establish a groove and hurt UCLA over and over.

Once again, I expect the LBs to be critical this week. Brandon Chillar, Justin London and Spencer Havner will once again use the fine table set for them by the DL to make solid, sure tackles all game long.

I expect ASU to test the interior passing zones more than Cal did, always fun for UCLA with Havner's pass defense skills.

I expect UCLA to hold ASU to about 325 yards and 17 points.

Special Teams:

Once again, I expect solid performance from the UCLA special teams.

After the Oklahoma debacle, the coverage teams have been money. On kick-off coverage, Nnamdi Ohaeri is the first one down the field every time. Look for him to jar loose a fumble here soon. Eric McNeal is right there with him, as is Ben Lorier. More often than not, those three are your playmakers on kick-off.

Chris Kluwe should have a good night placing kicks with the night air, although his distance might suffer. His punt last week out of the end zone was critical to UCLA's fortunes, because it stymied Cal's momentum and regained field position for UCLA.

And who knew Justin Medlock would turn out to be such money in his first season? Place kicking was easily one of the biggest question marks heading into the season, and it's nice to see at least one unknown factor develop into a team strength in short order.

As always, after getting close against CU, a blocked punt could be a tremendous momentum changer, and game decider. Hopefully, we'll see the block put on and everything go right from a Bruin perspective.

Overall:

My fear is that the UCLA O has new faces but remains the same, the UCLA D suffers a let down after weeks of high performance, and Walter hits enough long TD passes to give ASU the victory, 28-14.

I'd love to see UCLA give Moore the chance to pass the ball, and the Bruins finally put together four quarters of football hitting on all three phases of the game, en route to a big 45-24 win.

All things considered, I expect the Bruins to win comfortably if not artistically, 31-21.


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