ASU Preview

It's really all or nothing for UCLA when it faces Arizona State Saturday. A win in Tempe gives it a chance to salvage a winning season, while a loss makes it unlikely. Standing in the way is an ASU team coming off its best performance of the season...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA travels to Tempe to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils at 7:15 PDT, Saturday night.  Fox Sports Net Prime Ticket will telecast the game.

-- Arizona State is 6-4 overall and 3-4 in the Pac-10, tied with UCLA.  The Sun Devils have lost to California, Oregon, USC and then at Oregon State. They're coming off a big win against Washington State at home last week, 47-14.

-- Arizona State and UCLA are battling for a berth in a bowl game, with ASU already bowl eligible with six wins.

-- The Bruins lead the all-time series, 14-7-1, which dates back to 1976.  UCLA has won three of the last four meetings, including last year's match-up in the Rose Bowl, 45-35.  UCLA, however, hasn't beaten the Sun Devils in Tempe since 1994.

-- ASU is coached by Dirk Koetter, who has a 39-32 record in his six seasons in Tempe.  He's his own offensive coordinator, and is known for his wide open spread offense.

-- In terms of its season, this game is just about all-or-nothing for UCLA.  If it wins, it gets its sixth win, making it bowl eligible. Even with a potential loss against USC Dec. 2nd, a win against ASU would go a long way to getting UCLA ahead of both ASU and Arizona in the Pac-10 standings, probably securing sixth place and a better chance at being picked for the Hawaii Bowl. Without a win against USC, it makes a bowl game - and a winning record for the season - unlikely.  UCLA would have to then beat USC, be picked over ASU (which would have to lose to Arizona) or Washington State for the Hawaii Bowl, and then win the bowl game to finish with a winning record.

ARIZONA STATE'S OFFENSE V.  UCLA'S DEFENSE

Wouldn't you know it. An offense that was touted to be one of the best in the Pac-10, which has been up and down most of the season, finally puts it together the week before it plays UCLA.

Arizona State racked up 562  yards against Washington State last week, with quarterback Rudy Carpenter (6-2, 207) throwing for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

Carpenter easily had his best game of the season, and it wasn't coincidental that, in the WSU game, the quarterback had a decent amount of time to make decisions and throw the ball. He made some great plays, especially on some deep balls, and he created plays with his feet.  Carpenter's performances this year have almost been dependent completely on 1) if ASU is playing at home and 2) what kind of pressure he's seeing.

Having a big game himself was potential All-American tight end, junior Zach Miller (6-5, 259), getting six key catches. Miller is probably the best tight end in the Pac-10 and leads ASU with 37 catches and 384 yards on the season. UCLA has had a problem with covering big receivers and tight ends this season and Miller presents a considerable challenge.

In ASU's spread, it will commonly use many receivers, the problem is the Sun Devils have lost so many.  Junior Rudy Burgess (5-10, 180) has been out with an ankle sprain; senior Terry Richardson (6-1, 200) has missed the last four games with a strained knee ligament, and senior Jamaal Lewis (6-4, 229) has been suspended.  All of them could return this week.  In their absense, sophomore Mike Jones (6-3, 208) and redshirt freshman Brandon Smith (6-1, 188) have been filling in, and had long receptions against WSU.  Junior H-back Brent Miller (6-5, 238) is like a second tight end in the pattern and benefits when Miller is bracketed.

ASU's Ryan Torain.
ASU's offense, however, has been anchored all season by junior tailback Ryan Torain (6-0, 218), who is fourth in the Pac-10 in rushing at 85.3 yards per game.  While ASU has alwasy been considered a pass-happy team under Koetter, this year it became more ground-oriented, second in the Pac-10 in rushing at 167 per game, with Torain leading the way.  Torain is also dangerous catching balls out of the backfield in ASU's offense. There's also sophomore Keegan Herring (5-10, 186), who's a bit faster and averaging 6.1 yards per carry. 

ASU's O-line has held together despite losing probably its best two linemen earlier in the season to injury. Both senior tackle Andrew Carnahan, who might have been all Pac-10, and guard Stephen Berg were lost to ACL knee injuries.  But amazingly, ASU's offensive line hasn't really missed a beat, still opening holes in the running game, with huge sophomore guard Paul Fanaika (6-6, 355) paving the way. It probably has been a little more susceptible to a pass rush, though, after the loss to Carnahan.

UCLA's defense put in a good performance last week, based mostly on good pressure on the quarterback and sound coverage. UCLA's two pass-rush-happy defensive ends, Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, generally have rushed the passer well against spread offenses this season and they'll challenge ASU's inexperienced tackles.  UCLA will need another strong performance from its defensive line, like the one budding star defensive tackle Brigham Harwell put in against Oregon State. Injuries could be an issue for UCLA, with middle linebacker Christian Taylor still not 100%, and weakside linebacker Aaron Whittington probably seeing just limited time on Saturday. 

Advantage: Even.  What was very impressive about ASU's offense was how well they did last week against Washington State while missing so much talent at receiver.  The real factor that many fail to consider about ASU is just how good they are at running the ball, and despite losing their two veteran offensive linemen, they've continued to open holes for Terain and Herring.  Carpenter will more than likely be chased by Davis and Hickman, and by UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker sending other rushers in to harrass him, so much will depend on whether Carpenter can get through it - and around it - to make plays. If it looks early like UCLA is getting to him, and getting sacks, it could disrupt ASU's offense for the night.  If Carpenter looks poised, it could be a long night for UCLA's secondary.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ARIZONA STATE'S DEFENSE

The ASU defense could be the surprise of the Pac-10. After a dismal defensive season a year ago, the Sun Devils have put together a very good defensive unit for 2006, and they seem to be getting better. Last week it limited Washington State to just 192 total yards, an offense, you might remember, that shredded UCLA's defense two weeks ago.

Sun Devil safety Josh Barrett.
They've been doing it primarily by defending the pass very well, taking away opponents' ability to throw down the field, keeping receivers in front of them and making sound tackles.  ASU's pass defense s third in the Pac-10, giving up an average of just 186 yards per game.

The defensive secondary is led by junior safety Josh Barrett (6-2, 227) who is having a potential all-Pac-10 season, leading the team in tackles with 55. ASU followers have always thought he'd be good once he got healthy and it's been this season.  It's also helped that his running mate, the other safety, senior Zach Cantanese (6-2, 230) has been healthy. These are two big, strong, play-making safeties.

ASU has generally been pleased with the performance from its linebackers, mostly becaue it was such a question heading into the season. The unit is led by big senior Beau Manutai (6-1, 253) and Will 'backer, senior Derron Ware (6-4, 217), who leads the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (6.0).

Up front, redshirt freshman Dexter Davis (6-2, 243) has made a name for himself at defensive end, while on the other side is veteran, senior Kyle Caldwell (6-3, 272).

Caldwell, if you remember, chose ASU over UCLA. The Sun Devils also have former UCLA commit Mike Nixon (6-2, 226) as a 23-year-old freshman linebacker.

Something to consider: ASU's defense tends to get stronger as the game progresses, alowing only 8.5 points and just 131 yard in the second half this year. It's probably a testament to ASU's defensive staff making good second-half adjustments.

UCLA's offense had a good second half against Oregon State last week, and they'll try to build on that this week. While quarterback Patrick Cowan had a good second half, and running back Chris Markey was solid, the improved performance of the UCLA offense is probably more directly attributed to the offensive line playing better.  Receiver Marcus Everett has emerged as the one guy who can consistently get open, and Brandon Breazell has disappeared.

Advantage: ASU.  UCLA's offensive performance in the second half of the OSU game isn't enough to say it's turned the corner.  ASU's defense, however, has been solid all season. They don't necessarily have big stars but they play good team defense, and don't make many mental mistakes.

It will be interesting to see if Cowan falters whether UCLA's offensive brain trust will opt for Ben Olson, who is still not 100% on his injured knee, but good enough to play.  It would be even more interesting for Bruin fans if that potential scenario doesn't even present itself, and Cowan has a good enough game that it doesn't warrant UCLA sitting him. 

On special teams, ASU has decent kickers, with junior Jonathan Johnson (6-1, 205) doing the punting and senior Jesse Ainsworth (6-3, 216) the place-kicking duties. If Burgess and Richardson return, they give ASU potent punt and kick-off returners. In fact, the latest word is the Richardson might be lmited to just returning kicks on Saturday.  Richardson is averaging 33 yards per kick-off return and returned one for a touchdown.

Prediction:

It's a pretty even game on paper.  ASU's offense is ranked 40th in the country while UCLA's defense is 39th.  UCLA's offense is 67th, while ASU's defense is 45th.

UCLA's offense averages 334 yards per game, while ASU's defense gives up on average 314.  ASU's offense averages 369 yards, and UCLA's defense 306. 

UCLA's offense scores, on average, 23.5 points per game; ASU's defense gives up 24.7. 

Probably the biggest discrepancy in the stats is with ASU's offense, scoring on average 28.4, and UCLA's defense allowing just 19.4. 

And that's probably indicative of why the match-up between ASU's offense and UCLA's defense might decide this game. If ASU's offense can re-produce its performance from last week, it's going to win. But, if UCLA's defense can re-produce its performance from last week, the Bruins probably prevail.

There are some factors that are a bit foreboding for the Bruins. ASU really has played to expectation this year, except for one game, on the road against OSU.  Other than that, it's won and lost the games you would expect.  It's 4-1 at home, with its only loss coming against Oregon.  Conversely, UCLA has yet to win a road game yet this season, and traditionally doesn't play well in Tempe. 

It really comes down to whether you think that UCLA really turned a corner last week against Oregon State, or if that might have been the last big effort of the season it could muster.  The Bruins most of the time under Dorrell come prepared mentally and play hard, but it could be that the 5-5 season and the four-game skid have taken its mental toll, enough so that UCLA doesn't hold up on the road against a now-confident Arizona State team, coming off its best performance of the season.

Arizona State 27
UCLA 23

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