ASU Game Preview

At least a few games this year have been labeled the biggest game of the year, and the Arizona State game this Saturday gets that label again. While ASU's offense is scary, its defense might give UCLA's offense the edge it needs...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- The Arizona State Sun Devils come to the Rose Bowl Saturday for a kick-off at 4:00 p.m. The game will be televised regionally by ABC Sports, with Terry Gannon and Jamal Anderson calling the action.

-- ASU is 5-4 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-10.  They started off the season strong, beating Temple (63-16) in their first game, and then losing a heartbreaker to then #5-ranked LSU (35-31).  They then beat Northwestern (52-21) and Oregon State (42-24) and moved up to #14 in the AP Poll before facing USC in their fifth game of the season.  In that game, the Sun Devils went up 21-3 and were out-playing the Trojans, until USC staged a comeback and ultimately pulled out the game, 38-28. ASU then dropped its next two games, to Oregon (31-17) and Stanford (445-35), and it looked like the season could be in a tailspin. But ASU has bounced back for two wins in its last two weeks, against Washington (44-20) and Washington State (27-24).

-- UCLA, after losing to Arizona last week, is now #14 in both the AP Poll and USA Today/ESPN Poll.

-- UCLA leads the all-time series, 13-7-1. Last year, the Bruins lost in Tempe, 48-42, which was the first time the Bruins had lost to ASU since 1999.  In that game, UCLA was ahead 42-31 with about 7 minutes left to play when ASU came back to win.  UCLA has won the last two meetings at the Rose Bowl.

-- Arizona State is coached by Dirk Koetter, who is in his fifth season in Tempe.  He is 31-27 at ASU, and 57-37 overall as a head coaching, having coached at Boise State before coming to ASU.  He also functions as the Sun Devils' offensive coordinator, and is known for his quick-step passing attack.  Most ASU fans have been moderately pleased with Koetter, but after the three losses in a row mid-season this year, some hot-seat talk cropped up in ASU circles.

-- Under Koetter, ASU was ranked in 18 straight weeks in the top 25 when it ended after it lost to Oregon this season. That marks the longest streak for ASU being ranked since the mid-1980s. 

-- Arizona State has averaged 31.4 points per game under Koetter, while this year they're averaging 37.7 points per game. Last year the Sun Devils averaged 29.8, with their season high of 48 points coming against UCLA.

-- It will be the last regular season home game for fifteen Bruins, among them these starters: QB Drew Olson, TE Marcedes Lewis, LB Spencer Havner, LB Justin London, S Jarrad Page, C Mike McCloskey, OT Ed Blanton, OG Robert Cleary, LB Wesley Walker, and CB Marcus Cassel.  Also seeing their last home game as a Bruin are QB Brian Callahan, DE Marko Dragovic, QB David Koral, DE Kyle Morgan,  and TE Matt Raney.   London and McCloskey are not expected to play due to injury.

-- Spencer Havner moved into third place on the UCLA career tackle list after last week's game against Arizona. Havner now has 379 tackles, surpassing UCLA great Kenny Easley, with 374.  Jerry Robinson is the current record holder with 468 career tackles.

-- UCLA has won five straight games in the Rose Bowl this season. It's only won six straight games in a season one time, in 1987, since it started playing its home games in the Rose Bowl in 1982.

-- Roman Phifer, the All-American UCLA linebacker from the late 1980s will be the game team's honorary captain.  Phifer played for the Rams, Jets and Patriots in his pro career, and retired after last year's Super Bowl victory by the Patriots.

-- Arizona is playing for its bowl eligibility, needing one more win to get to the six it needs to be bowl eligible.  It also still faces Arizona November 25th.

-- Eight of ASU's seniors are from California.

-- UCLA's lost last week against Arizona, 52-14, set a dubious record. It's the worst loss in UCLA history by a ranked Bruin team to an unranked team.

-- UCLA's late-season record is also fairly dubious, which has earned it a reputation of late-season collapsing.  In the seasons 1998 to 2004, UCLA has lost the last game in six of seven seasons.  It has a record of 10-19 in November, December and January in those seasons.  Under Dorrell, it is an amazing 1-9 in post-October games.

-- The Sun Devils have yet to beat a Pac-10 team from California on the road with Koetter as their head coach, going 0-9 the last five years.

ARIZONA STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Do I really have to write this section of the preview?

Can just some stats suffice?

ASU is third in the nation in total offense, averaging 518 yards per game.

ASU is second in the nation in passing offense at 381 yards per game.

UCLA is 96th in the country in total defense, allowing 426 yards per game.

UCLA is 113th in the nation (out of 117 D-IA teams) in rushing defense, allowing 223 yards per game (after watching UCLA on Saturday against Arizona, it makes you really curious about the other four teams that are allowing more rushing yards).

In a nutshell, this should be ugly.

Any team, at this point, can run the ball on UCLA. UCLA's defense immediately makes offenses effective running teams. 

But now, against ASU, you'll have a team that can run (because of UCLA's offense) with a team that throws the ball better than every school in the nation but two.

ASU's freshman QB, Rudy Carpenter.

UCLA's has a chance to continue a new tradition. Last week it made Arizona's freshman quarterback, Will Tuitama, look like a veteran. UCLA can do it again this week when it faces Arizona's redshirt freshman quarterback, Rudy Carpenter (6-2, 200). Carpenter, of course, is the quarterback from Westlake Village Westlake that committed to UCLA two years ago but couldn't get past UCLA's admissions. 

All you ever hear about are college coaches saying that college quarterbacks take a few years to learn the system and be effective.  Well, Carpenter's learning curve was apparently abnormally succinct.  In his first two starts, the last two games, Carpenter has thrown for an average of 391 yards per game and a total of five touchdowns. 

So, even though he couldn't get past UCLA's academic admissions, it seems Carpenter is definitely smart enough to pick up on ASU's offense pretty quickly.

Carpenter is pretty athletic, has good mobility, and a quick release on the ball, which has helped him succeed in Arizona's quick-strike offense.  Arizona throws quite a bit out of the shotgun, or on short drops, and it definitely facilitates the learning curve for young, inexperienced quarterbacks.

It's a system that, seemingly, you could plug in just about anyone at quarterback and they'd do pretty well. Carpenter replaces junior Sam Keller, who had surgery on the injured thumb of his throwing hand a couple of weeks ago and is out for the season. Keller, who is possibly a little better than average quarterback, was very effective in Arizona's offense. Andrew Walter, who graduated last season and was a good quarterback but not incredible, set many ASU and Pac-10 records throwing the ball in Koetter's system.

The poor UCLA defense. The only thing it could hold up with some pride was its passing defense, which is #1 in the Pac-10, giving up 202 yards per game.  It's a passing defense that you couldn't say got shredded by Arizona last week, since Arizona was content to run for 315 yards. But it still gave up some considerable cushion on Arizona's receivers. Tuitama completed his first seven throws to wide-open Wildcats, like they were just playing catch. Arizona averages just 230 yards per game through the air and they were seemingly able to do anything they wanted passing the ball last week. What happens when that same UCLA defense faces a team gaining close to 400 yards per game through the air?

Well, first off, ASU, despite its prolific passing game, would have to be dense not to run the ball. They were actually dense last season, if you remember. Against a UCLA defense that was even worse against the run a season ago, Arizona came out passing, and then only ran for 121 yards against the Bruins (They did throw for 415 yards and win the game, but that's immaterial to this point).

If the Sun Devils and Koetter don't run the ball, it'd be almost a crime against ASU.  You'd have to think that the game was rigged. It would be like turning down free money.

ASU, actually, isn't a great running team, but any means, but they're adequate. Their converted wide receiver, sophomore Rudy Burgess (5-11, 181) has speed but goes down pretty easily, at least against other defenses.  Freshman Keegan Herring (5-10, 180) doesn't start but has taken over the heavy lifting among the ASU running backs, averaging 6.1 yards per carry on the season.  He's the scatback type, with some lateral shiftiness that makes would-be tacklers whiff.

Where ASU has taken some big hits is in its offensive line. Arizona has just two of its original starting five offensive linemen that began the season. It's started five different lineups in nine games. Last week they started three second-string sophomores and a junior, and had a walk-on get some reps, and it's the primary cause behind the Sun Devils' inability to run the ball consistently. This week, though, ASU could be getting back two of its best offensive linemen - one of the best centers in the Pac-10 in senior Grayling Love (6-3, 296) and starting veteran guard Stephen Berg (6-6, 309). 

UCLA's Brigham Harwell.

Against UCLA, you still have to think the just-adequate ASU running game is good for close to 150 yards on the ground. Just enough to loosen up the passing lanes.

Arizona's offensive strength, though, lies in its passing weapons.  It has perhaps one of the best wide receivers in the country in senior Derek Hagan (6-2, 202).  You could write about Hagan's accomplishments for a few paragraphs. He's just seven receptions away from setting the Pac-10 career reception mark. He's only the third player in Pac-10 history to record at least 240 catches and 3,500 yards for his career. His streak of catching a pass in 38 straight games is the longest active one in the country.  With 61 catches and 969 yards so far on the season Hagan ranks among the best in the nation in many receiving categories.  He's big and strong and a great athlete, and tends to wrestle balls away from defenders.

But that's just the beginning when it comes to Sun Devil weapons. Burgess is utilized in the offense often times as a receiver, and he's a very effective one, with 43 catches on the season. He'll catch the ball out of the backfield, in the slot or split out wide.  Perhaps one of the scariest weapons is junior receiver Terry Richardson (6-1, 187) who has very good speed and good strength and runs through tacklers after the catch.  Heck, Arizona's fourth best true receiver, senior Moey Mutz (6-2, 177) has 20 catches on the year, and he's expected back after missing last week.

Then there are the tight ends, which are a blur of different bodies that ASU lines up at tight end and H-back.  Sophomore Zach Miller (6-5, 262) is very talented, and has 30 catches on the year, more than any UCLA wide receiver, but he could be out for this game due to injury.  But watch out for sophomore Brent Miller (6-5, 235) who is the guy commonly wide open while opposing defenses are stretching to cover Hagan, Richardson and Zach Miller.  Athletic junior H-back Jamaal Lewis (6-4, 221) could also return this week after sitting out because of injury.

UCLA's defense has to get some better play from its front seven if it even slightly hopes to contain Arizona State's offense. The breakdowns consistently are in the interior defensive line, where UCLA only has youngsters, like true sophomore Brigham Harwell and true freshman Chase Moline.  But the breakdowns were well spread around last week against Arizona, and UCLA will be without senior linebacker Justin London, according to reports from UCLA Wednesday, which means true freshman John Hale will man the middle linebacker spot. 

So, while UCLA's defensive front is under-manned due to injury, thinness and experience, ASU will do what it does best, and that's pick apart a secondary with its passing game.  UCLA's secondary blew more assignments seemingly last week than they have all season.  Back-up corners Rodney Van and Michael Norris were out of position constantly, while safeties Jarrad Page and Dennis Keyes were taking undisciplined bad angles on ball carriers.  Arizona State's passing game isn't going to be as polite as Arizona's was last week; it will stick the dagger in early and often.

Advantage: Duh. 

UCLA's defense has to be mentally on it heels after last week.  It gave up an astounding 519 yards to Arizona, a team with a pretty poor offense.  And now it faces a daunting Arizona State offense whose strength, its passing game, looks to be able to tear down the only defensive strength UCLA had, defending the pass.

A key component to ASU's effectiveness is getting the ball off quickly in its passing game, with the Sun Devils giving up the least amount of sacks in the Pac-10 this season.  It also is critical for Carpenter that he has time to throw.  UCLA's pass rush hasn't been very good this season, and particularly poor in the last couple of games.  UCLA needs to be able to blitz, often and with many defenders, for its pass rush - and seemingly its defense - to be effective. Last week it seemed like the UCLA defensive philosophy was to bend and not break, and not be too aggressive and potentially give up the big play. Well, it bent and broke. Perhaps this week it will try to throw more blitzers at Carpenter and risk giving up the big play, which it's giving up anyway.  UCLA's defense has attained some marginal effectiveness this season when it mixed in a tackle for loss among giving up plays for big yardage. Last week it lacked even the tackles for loss.

Batten down the hatches, folks.  Unless UCLA comes out with a drastically different scheme and philosophy, it should be a tough day for UCLA's defense.  UCLA's coaches keep emphasizing fundamentals - tackling, pursuit, aggressiveness, etc. - but UCLA's going to need to spring some surprises on Arizona State to just be able to slow them down a couple of times.  Before the Arizona game, that's all the UCLA offense needed, was for UCLA's defense to create a few stops against the opposing offense, for it to win the game.  UCLA will have to do more than return to fundamentals to get a few stops on ASU's offense. 

To get a hint at what could happen in this matchup you might look to Arizona State's game against Northwestern, a team similar to UCLA, especially defensively. Northwestern is currently giving up 494 yards per game and is 101st in rushing defense in the nation.  ASU set a school record with 773 yards of total offense on its way to scoring 52 points. It ran for 290 yards and passed for 493.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ARIZONA STATE'S DEFENSE

This is where this game will be won or lost.  Can UCLA's offense return to the potent version it showed in winning 8 games, or will it be - well - impotent like it was last week against Arizona? 

Arizona State's defense could be critical in allowing UCLA to return to its potent ways.

ASU's Dale Robinson.

ASU's defense isn't very good, second to last in the Pac-10, giving up 450 yards per game. In fact, they're not good at rush defense themselves, second to the worst in the Pac-10 next to UCLA, giving up 187 yards per game. 

You'd think that UCLA would try to see if it could run the ball against ASU, which has struggled in a similar way to UCLA against the run.  Running the ball against ASU tends to get you big holes through the middle and not many tacklers on the outside. 

Arizona State's defensive front just hasn't been very good so far this year, due to injury and an overall lack of talent. Their most talented DL is junior defensive end Kyle Caldwell (6-3, 270), who has good quickness, but he's supposedly nicked up.  Junior defensive tackle Jordan Hill (6-2, 282) had a good game a week ago against Washington State, and ASU is hoping he keeps his improved playing going this week.  

ASU has juggled its linebackers, trying to find a good way for the puzzle pieces to fit. All of them fit around, though, senior middle linebacker Dale Robinson (6-1, 232) who is one of the best linebackers in the conference this year, currently second in the Pac-10 in tackles (88).  Robinson is a very good athlete, who pursues the ball well, and is good in pass coverage. You might remember that he had the interception against Drew Olson a year ago that preserved ASU's win over UCLA in Tempe.  Senior weak inside linebacker Jamar Williams (6-1, 236) is a good one.

The Sun Devils have also juggled their defensive secondary, looking for a more productive combination there, too.  They think they've found their cover corner in senior R.J. Oliver (5-9, 178).  Junior Zach Cantanese (6-2, 226) is having a very productive season at safety, and is a ball hawk.  But on the other side of the field, ASU hasn't been able to find a combination they're confident in.  Senior Mike Davis Jr. (6-3, 180) has been starting the last several games at cornerback. Former cornerback, senior Josh Golden (5-10, 184), has been moved to the other safety position to try to shore that up.

Arizona State's defense is one UCLA's offense matches up well against and should be able to exploit. UCLA's offense struggles when it has to rely too heavily on its short passing game and not get production from its running game.  UCLA is without its best offensive lineman, center Mike McCloskey, but it still should be able to run against ASU (but didn't we say that last week against Arizona?). 

Maurice Drew hasn't been able to find running room early since the very beginning of the season. As the season wears on, it looks more and more like opposing defenses have scouted out UCLA too well, particularly its running game, knowing where Drew is going to be and when he's getting the ball handed to him.  It will be interesting to see if UCLA mixes up its running plays a bit this week, and tries more pitches and counters to get Drew into some open field.  It's not just about execution, seemingly, but it's about exploiting the advantage that the offense has over the defense - the element of surprise.

UCLA's Ed Blanton.

A key to UCLA's passing game is some improved pass protection from a week ago. Offensive tackles Ed Blanton and Brian Abraham got worked by Arizona's smaller, quicker defensive linemen, and Arizona State's are similar in size and speed. 

Luckily, though, Arizona State's defensive secondary is quite a bit more vulnerable than Arizona's, which could be one of the best in the conference.  Watch for Drew Olson to go to the Marcedes Lewis well as often as he can, trying to exploit Arizona State's weakness up the middle in pass coverage. The Bruins would love to get Lewis matched up on the 5-10 Golden, who is new at safety and playing out of position. 

Drew Olson has earned a reputation for being a clutch quarterback this season, being able to pull out games in the waning minutes. Let's see if he's up for pulling out the season. How he performs and executes in this game, especially early on, will be a big key to this game.

UCLA will also have to show some more inspired play calling and offensive scheming if it hopes to loosen up Arizona State's defense and not allow them to key on Drew and Lewis all day. 

Advantage: UCLA.  It's a good match-up for UCLA, as we stated. UCLA needs to get its running game going and get some easy yards on the ground, and ASU has a poor rushing defense.  If UCLA can run the ball against ASU, that's a sign there's hope (for the game and the season). If early on UCLA struggles to open holes and Drew is seeing four Sun Devils in his face when he's handed the ball, you can expect UCLA's offense to be scrambling again, perhaps going to the no-huddle, to get moving.  When that happens, like last week, it puts far too much pressure on Olson and the passing game. Olson's been able to produce an uncanny amount of times when the pressure's been on him this season, but it all caught up with him and the UCLA offense last week.

ASU has solid special teams, with a good kicker/punter in Jesse Ainsworth (6-3, 215) and a one of the best kick-off/punt returners in the conference in receiver Terry Richardson. Richardson is very good at busting a few holes with his strength and then exploding down the field with his speed. 

Prediction:

It seems UCLA has had a few "games of the year" so far this season, and this is the Game of the Year Du Jour.   While that label tends to get old, there are quite a few elements to this game that make it a reasonable one.  UCLA has been labeled as a late-season collapser, which you could say has been earned more or less over the last 7 seasons.  To counteract that label being pinned to the 2005 season, UCLA needs to probably win this game against Arizona State and play up to expectation in its bowl game (that means either losing or upsetting a team ranked higher or holding serve against a lesser opponent).  If UCLA does, in fact, "collapse" in 2005, it could very well erase much of the goodwill and positive feeling it established from starting the season 8-0.  This game, then, is critical to UCLA getting the collapsing monkey off its back and riding the good vibrations of the 8-0 start. 

The funny thing about this game is that while Arizona State was ranked during the season and is generally considered a better team than Arizona, ASU is probably the easier head-to-head opponent for UCLA.  Yes, ASU has a very good offense, but being considerably better than Arizona's offense isn't that much of a factor here. I mean, we're conceding that Arizona State's probably destined to score a great deal of points on UCLA's offense but, bottom line, there won't be that much difference between the overall production of Arizona's offense and Arizona State's offense against UCLA. Heck, there just isn't that signficant a difference between allowing, say, 500 yards and 50 points, and 600 yards and 60 points.  UCLA is going to have to out-score ASU either way.

But there is a difference when it comes to Arizona's and Arizona State's defenses.  The way UCLA has won games this year is by its offense owning the game, and ASU's defense provides UCLA a far better opportunity to do that than did Arizona's. 

ASU isn't the team it was early in the season when it played LSU and USC tough.  It's been slowed by injury, on both sides of the ball, and the program deflated quite a bit after it lost to USC. Beating Washington and Washington State in the last two weeks has buoyed ASU a bit, but those wins came against probably the two worst teams in the conference that are both spiraling themselves.

This game will be determined by UCLA's offense. If it can produce some yards and points early on, expect something along the lines of the Oregon State game.  If it can't, it could easily mean a replay of California or Washington State - or (shudder) Arizona.  But UCLA's offense being able to be productive, and keeping its defense off the field and only expecting it to make a couple of stops in four quarters is how UCLA wins this game.

Also, all season long, we've been hailing this UCLA team as one with great heart and character, for the way it perservered and stayed in every game.  Coming off of last weeks' devastating loss against Arizona, this game will prove whether that label was well-deserved. 

UCLA  48
ASU  44


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