Arizona State Preview

UCLA travels to Tempe, Arizona, to take on the 21st-ranked Sun Devils. After last week's matchup against Cal, anything looks better. In fact, because of ASU's vulnerabilities, UCLA has a good chance to knock off the Sun Devils Saturday...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA travels to Tempe to take on Arizona State Saturday.  The game will kickoff at 12:30, and be televised by ABC as a regional telecast. Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts will provide the commentating.

-- UCLA is 4-2 and 2-1 in the Pac-10, while Arizona State is 5-1 and 2-1.

-- The all-time series is 13-6-1, with the advantage to UCLA. UCLA has won the last three meetings, including a 20-13 win last season at the Rose Bowl.  It's the first time the two teams have met in Tempe since 1999.  UCLA actually holds a 6-2 advantage in games played at Sun Devils Stadium. 

-- Arizona State is currently ranked 21st in this week's AP poll and 23rd in the ESPN/USA Today poll.

-- ASU won its first five games of the season, beating, in order: UTEP, 41-9; Northwestern, 30-21; then-#16 Iowa, 44-7; Oregon State, 27-14, and Oregon, 28-13. The Sun Devils then lost to #1-ranked USC last week, 45-7.

-- In that game, ASU was dominated pretty thoroughly by the Trojans, with USC holding a 42-7 lead at halftime. ASU had only 13 first downs, 24 yards rushing and 243 total yards on the day.

-- ASU is coached by Dirk Koetter, who is in his fourth year as the Sun Devil's head man. Koetter is 0-3 against UCLA.  His record at ASU is 22-21, and 48-31 overall as a head coach, having been the head coach at Boise State before taking the Sun Devil job. Koetter acts as his own offensive coordinator, and is known for his penchant for passing. 

-- ASU has won its last four home games, dating back to last year.

-- ASU's offense has been very efficient inside the redzone this year. They have converted over 90% of their trips within the opponent's 20-yard line into scores, leading the Pac-10.

-- ASU senior quarterback Andrew Walter (6-5, 235) became the school's all-time leading passer last week against USC, overtaking former ASU great, Jake Plummer. In his ASU career, he has passed for 8,897 yards, which gets him currently ranked ninth all-time in the Pac-10.  He's also the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes (70), completions and attempts.  He is only 8 touchdown passes short of surpassing Stanford's John Elway for the all-time Pac-10 leader.

-- UCLA's Drew Olson has thrown eight touchdown passes in two games, tying the UCLA record for most TD passes in a two-game span. Wayne Cook also achieved the feat in 1993.  The record for three games is 11 touchdowns, held by Cook.

-- The 378 yards and 28 points UCLA put up against Cal last week were season highs against the Bear defense for the year. 

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ARIZONA STATE'S DEFENSE

After analyzing the matchup last week against California, anything would look quite a bit better.

And ASU definitely does.  The Sun Devils' defense is fifth in the Pac-10 statistically.  While it looks stingy on the ground, giving up just 106 yards per game (3rd in the conference), it ranks 9th in pass defense, allowing 221 yards per game.

ASU linebacker Jamar Williams.

Ah, finally a vulnerability. It had seemed, after last week's analysis, that opposing teams didn't have any.

ASU changed its defense this season, going from the 4-2-5 back to the 4-3, and with three linebackers, it has made the impact you would expect. The Sun Devils have drastically improved their run defense, while their pass defense has suffered.

The three linebackers, in fact, are having huge years.  Junior SAM linebacker Dale Robinson (6-1, 236), a JC transfer, has come in and had a huge immediate impact.  He leads the team in tackles (56), tackles for loss (7.5) and is tied for sacks (3.5).  The two other linebackers are second and third on ASU's tackle list for the season respectively.  Senior middle linebacker Justin Burks (6-1, 237) is in his second year of starting, as is junior Jamar Williams (6-1, 243), but they're not suffering from a second-year slump.  If Robinson doesn't have a huge game, then Burks or Williams will.  They are responsible collectively for 35% of ASU's tackles.

Going into the season, the biggest concern on defense for ASU was the defensive line, since they were replacing three starters, from a line that wasn't actually very good from a season ago.  ASU has struggled to recruit impact DLs consistently in recent years. 

But the ASU defensive line has stepped up and proven itself with a very good first half of the season.  Senior defensive tackle Jimmy Verdon (6-4, 280) is solid. Having been a linebacker before putting on 40 pounds, he has pretty good quickness and ability to shed a block.  But the three other new starters have really made the difference. Star sophomore defensive end Kyle Caldwell (6-3, 256) has proven he's everything that was advertised as a highly-touted prospect out of high school. While he still makes some mistakes due to inexperience, his talent has led him to 3.5 sacks and the ability to get into the backfield very commonly.  A great surprise has been at the other defensive end spot, senior Ishmael Thrower (6-1, 245), who is undersized but quick, and sophomore tackle Jordan Hill (6-2, 274), who is another that has developed an uncanny knack for getting into an offense's backfield.

This ASU front seven is strong against the run, but also is very good at pressuring opposing quarterbacks.  They're second in the Pac-10 as a team in sacks with 20, with three players tied with 3.5 sacks each.  The defense, as conceived by defensive coordinator Brent Guy, likes to put pressure on the quarterback from many different spots on the field and spread the wealth.

While the front seven have really performed beyond expectation so far this year for ASU, it probably would have been too much to ask the Defensive Gods for the secondary to do so as well.  But alas, you can't have all of your prayers answered.  ASU was thought to have one of the best cornerback combos in the conference, but lost two-year senior starter R.J. Oliver to injury before the season. The ASU cornerbacks weren't very big anyway, but losing possibly your best cover guy really emphasized, then, that ASU's corners weren't only small but inexperienced.  Senior Chris McKenzie (5-9, 176) has tried to pick up the slack, but Oliver was replaced by another Lilliputian corner in junior Josh Golden (5-10, 176).  ASU has had problems keeping with big, talented receivers this year as a result. Last week, USC's 6-5 receiver Dwayne Jarrett had his way with the ASU secondary, as did USC's tight ends.  ASU senior safety Riccardo Stewart (5-10, 215) is good, but he's also not exactly huge physically.  In fact, with the other starting safety, senior Emmanuel Franklin (5-11, 196), ASU doesn't start a player in its defensive secondary over 6-0.

UCLA receiver Craig Bragg.

So, in other words, if ever there was a time for UCLA's offense to shift from being a run-establishing-the-pass orientation to a pass-establishing-the-run emphasis, this would be the week.  UCLA's passing offense has been exceptional in the last two weeks, putting up the most passing yards on Cal's stellar defense yet this season.  UCLA quarterback Drew Olson has had his best back-to-back games of his career, easily, throwing for 8 touchdowns in the last two games and close to 600 yards.  UCLA matches up really well in its passing game against ASU, with big receivers in Tab Perry (6-3), Junior Taylor (6-2), Craig Bragg (6-2) and Joe Cowan (6-4).  It also has probably the most advantageous height matchup in the conference with athletic 6-6 tight end Marcedes Lewis.  While Bragg is returning from a shoulder injury and might not play much, UCLA has plenty of receiving weapons it can use to exploit the advantage it has over ASU's defensive secondary.

The question isn't whether UCLA will pass the ball. It will. So really the question is how long will it dedicate itself intently on running the ball before it decides to go to the air.  Last week it took the offense five series before it threw two consecutive passes.  Against Cal it might be more understandable - that the UCLA brain trust thought UCLA very well could have as good a chance of running the ball against Cal as it did passing. But this week it's pretty clear: UCLA will have to throw the ball and, preferably, early and often if it wants to not get in an early hole.

Yes, ASU's front seven puts great pressure on the quarterback, but UCLA's offensive line has been the best in the conference this season in protecting its quarterback, allowing only 7 sacks in six games.  The offensive line has been tweaked a bit for this game, with true freshman Shannon Tevaga being inserted into the lineup in place of Robert Cleary. Tevaga will take over the strongside guard position and Steven Vieira will move to Cleary's weakside guard spot. The move was made to help shore up UCLA's blocking, mostly its run blocking, that has, in the last two games, been a shadow of the self it was in the first four. 

But, really, the reason UCLA's run game has slowed down so considerably in the last couple of games is that it's actually playing against decent defenses, and its stubbornness in running the ball has made it a bit predictable.   Now, here again, is a defense that is good against the run.

What will the UCLA offense do?

Advantage:  UCLA.  The Bruins offense, even with its dogged persistence in running the ball, still gained great yardage last week against the Cal defense, which is the #1 defense in the conference.  ASU's defense has gotten it done by stopping opponents' running game, but they haven't actually faced a team that runs the ball as well as UCLA.  Not even USC.  So, combine the fact that ASU is facing its best running team yet to date, and the fact that the UCLA passing offense has really taken off in the last two weeks, it tips the scales toward UCLA in this matchup.  ASU will probably limit UCLA's running game and not let Maurice Drew run wild. Actually, you can probably expect to see more of Manuel White moving the pile in the small space UCLA will have against ASU's front seven.  Plus, Drew has a slightly banged up knee that swelled up a bit in practice this week, which could limit him. UCLA just has too many weapons catching the ball, and even though his return is being discounted, don't be surprised to see Craig Bragg have an impact on the game.

ARIZONA STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Thankfully, for UCLA, this is quite a better matchup also than last week.

Arizona State's offense has been particularly one-dimensional. And the one dimension that ASU's offense is lacking is the toughest aspect UCLA has had defending.  Of course, we're talking about the running game, and it's potentially a welcome relief for UCLA.

While UCLA is abysmal in defending the run, giving up 256 yards a game on the ground, it's facing the second-worst running offense in the conference.  ASU is averaging just 102 yards per game rushing.  It's had problems with its offensive line, mostly due to injuries, and has questions at running back. 

ASU's offense, too, is geared toward passing the ball.  Dirk Koetter is a pass-happy type of coach.  It's turned a just better-than-average quarterback in senior Andrew Walter (6-5, 235) into ASU's all-time passing leader in a number of categories. Walter is good, make no mistake. But throwing in Koetter's offense has turned an immobile QB who throws off his back foot a great deal of the time into the most productive quarterback in the Pac-10.  Walter is accurate, and smart (he's already graduated, actually), and understands the offense really well. 

He also has some talented receivers as targets.  Junior Derek Hagan (6-2, 201) is having an All-Conference season, having 40 receptions for 535 yards and five touchdowns.  He's big, has good hands and is elusive after the catch.  Sophomore Terry Richardson (6-1, 185) is ASU's other big threat on the outside, and is a great complement to Hagan. 

ASU tight end Zach Miller.

What has, though, really added the dimension to take ASU's passing game into the next realm has been heralded freshman tight end Zach Miller (6-4, 250).  Miller is on his way to the Freshman All-American team and might not last in college football very long, at this rate.  Last week against USC, Miller was easily the standout on offense, catching 8 passes for 102 yards. In that game, he looked like the only player for ASU on offense who could play with USC.  In UCLA's practice this week, you could hear UCLA coaches repeatedly reminding UCLA's defense about #86.

So, it's not a mystery that ASU is going to throw the ball. ASU's offense has thrown the ball more than it's passed this season.  It definitely employs the philosophy of establishing the pass first. And that philosophy, along with the problems in its running game, have really made a mess of ASU's rushing attack.

First, the offensive line has been banged up a bit this season.  Starting center, senior Drew Hodgdon (6-3, 285), didn't start the first four games of the season.  Junior Grayling Love (6-3, 290), a second team all-conference pick a year ago, has moved from right guard back to left tackle, where he was a year ago, to cover up injuries.  ASU has gone with five different starting lineups on the offensive line in five of six games so far this season.

It's worse at running back for ASU. Loren Wade, ASU's starter for the first three games, is suspended and will not play. Second-stringer Randy Hill is out with a knee injury.  For the last two weeks, junior Hakim Hill (6-0, 219) has started, but he's playing with a cast on a broken forearm.  Behind Hill is walk-on redshirt freshman Preston Jones (5-8, 173).  ASU used redshirt freshman receiver Rudy Burgess (5-11, 175) at tailback last week, and Koetter said he could see more time this week. 

It's truly a matchup of bad on bad.  ASU is averaging 2.9 yards per rush. UCLA is 116th out of 117 Division 1-A teams in rushing defense. 

UCLA's linebackers.

UCLA's defense, once again, will get some players back healthy - or healthier. Defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu sat out the Cal game with a mysterious ailment that made his ankles swell, but he's been cleared and practiced this week. Middle linebacker Justin London played most of the game against Cal, and he said his high ankle sprain is feeling better this week. 

Perhaps the biggest boost to UCLA's struggling front seven is the emergence of true freshmen defensive end Brigham Harwell. Harwell, who had athroscopic surgery on his knee during fall camp, is just now getting closer to 100%.  His clear talent was obvious last week against Cal.

UCLA's three starting linebackers - London, Wesley Walker and Spencer Havner - will have to have a better game than they did against the Bears.  If there was ever an opponent that you might believe UCLA's defense could at least limit on the ground, it would be this opponent.

UCLA's passing defense, though, had some questions arise last week. Cornerback Marcus Cassel was pulled in the Cal game for true freshman Rodney Van. Dorrell has said that Cassel will start but if he gets beat too easily by ASU's good receivers, you can probably expect UCLA to go back to Van.  Van also had some big snafus against Cal, so even though you're going with a youngster who is more talented, he is thoroughly inexperienced and essentially you get the same result. 

Advantage:  Arizona State.  Even without a running game, ASU has the edge. Even running with a banged-up offensive line and a converted wide receiver at tailback, they're going to gain decent yards on the ground against UCLA.  Couple that with ASU's passing game, which couldn't be stopped by two of the better pass defenses in the conference (Oregon and Oregon State), and UCLA's now questionable ability to defend the pass, you'd have to think ASU will have a productive day through the air.  If there is a good matchup for UCLA's defense, though, it could be ASU.  So, expect ASU to get some points (if you take out the USC game, they're averaging 34 points per game), but also expect UCLA's bend-and-not-break thing to actually be effective. UCLA will try to limit ASU's receivers from making big plays and try to force ASU to gain yards on the ground. 

Prediction:  It's a pretty even matchup overall.  Arizona State, in its first three games of the season, looked like a legit top 15 team, especially in its win against Iowa.  In its last three games, though, with its running game going south, ASU has struggled offensively. It's averaged only 258 total offensive yards and 20 points in those three games.  ASU's offense has gone one-dimensional, out of necessity, which has allowed defenses to tee off on Walter and put more pressure on him. While, of course, there is no way to compare USC's pass rush with UCLA's, the Trojan were in a constant state of harassment of Walter.  While Walter will have quite a bit more time against UCLA, he'll also be looking out at a nickel alignment quite a bit, with double teams on his receivers. It's essentially the opposite of the stacked box against the run. And it's ironic - with UCLA, the worst running defense in the conference, inviting ASU to run. 

ASU, coming off the big loss against USC, will want to right their ship. But it could very well be that ASU got the wind taken out of its sails against the Trojans.  UCLA fared much better against a team comparable to USC in Cal (if not better). Even though they lost, the Cal game has seemed to provide the UCLA program some optimism.  This could very well be a situation where two ships are passing each other in the night, one on its way up and one about to collapse.  But when those two ships intersect, it could be very competitive.

UCLA 31
Arizona State 27


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