Arizona State Game Preview

UCLA returns home after two demoralizing weeks on the road, only to have to face #9-ranked Arizona State, which could be a group of pissed-off Sun Devils coming off their first loss of their season last week to Oregon. ASU, on paper, has a clear advantage, and does UCLA have anything left in its tank?

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- The Arizona State Sun Devils come to the Rose Bowl Saturday to take on the UCLA Bruins. The game will be televised by ABC at 12:30, with Dan Fouts, Tim Brant and Todd Harris calling the action.

-- The Sun Devils are 8-1 overall and 5-1 in the Pac-10, and ranked 9th in the country. 

-- They suffered their first loss of the season last week when they lost to Oregon, 35-23.

-- They had previously beaten San Jose State, Colorado, San Diego State, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington State, Washington and Cal. 

-- UCLA is 5-4 and 4-2.

-- The series between UCLA and Arizona State goes back to 1976, with UCLA having a 15-7-1 edge. 

-- UCLA has won the last two meetings with the two schools, and four of the last five.  Last year, the Bruins prevailed, 24-12, in Tempe, with the Bruin defense holding ASU to without a touchdown.

-- Arizona State is coach by Dennis Erickson, who is in his first season in Tempe. Erickson is in his 18th season as a head coach, having been at Idaho (twice), Wyoming, Washington State, Miami (where he won two national championships), Oregon State, and also served as head coach of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.   While the two national championships at Miami are quite an accomplishment, another would be turning around an Oregon State program, coaching them to their first winning season in 29 years in 1999, adn then an 11-1 record in 2000.  Erickson is 11th on the active career coaching list with 156 victories.

-- Arizona State's 8-0 record was its best start since 1996.

-- UCLA has defeated its last two top ten opponents, beating Cal (#9 at the time) this season, and then-#2 USC last December.

-- Arizona State and UCLA are both 7-3 in their last 10 Pac-10 conference games.

00 UCLA is 23-6 at home during the Karl Dorrell era.

-- The Bruins are 21-1 under Dorrell when they score at least 30 points, and 19-2 when they hold their opponent under 20 points.

-- The Bruins, despite a disappointing season, are still in the Pac-10 race. In fact, if UCLA won its last three games it would earn a share of the Pac-10 title and would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl (UCLA would finish with two losses and would have defeated the other teams that could finish with two losses).

-- There is currently, of course, a great deal of distraction around the UCLA program, with Karl Dorrell being on the hot seat.  The 2007 season was supposed to be "the" year, with UCLA returning 20 of 22 starters, going into the season ranked 14th and expected to contend for a BCS bowl game.  The general thought is that Dorrell would have to finish off the season with some considerable - and unexpected success - to salvage his job.

ARIZONA STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

If you're looking for any kind of chink in the armor of ASU's offense, I guess you could say they haven't been quite as effective when playing on the road.  On the road they're averaging just 29 points per game, while at home they're putting up an average of 38 points.

That's about it.

The Sun Devils have the second-best offense in the Pac-10 behind Oregon's, averaging 434 yards per game. They've done it with an excellent passing game coming out of a spread, and a solid running game.

Even last week against, Oregon, in Eugene, the offense wasn't to blame for the team's first loss, rolling up 489 total yards.

Oregon was just too good.

So, it's probably the biggest challenge yet of the season for UCLA's defense (which we'll be able to say against in two weeks when UCLA faces Oregon).  There really hasn't been a defense that stopped the Devils yet this year. Perhaps the best defense ASU has faced yet this season is that of Oregon State, which is currently ranked #2 in the Pac-10. The Devils scored 44 points and racked up 514 total yards on the Beavers.

Given where UCLA's defense is right now, kind of back on its heels, hurt by injury, facing ASU's defense is not exactly the panacea.

In fact, it's exactly what the doctor for the UCLA secondary didn't order.  UCLA's passing defense took a big hit last week, allowing Arizona to throw for the most yards against them this season (341).  In fact, in the last two weeks UCLA's defense has allowed the most yards by an opponent all season through the air (Arizona) and on the ground (Washington State, 274).

Not good.

And you'd have to think UCLA's passing defense will, once again, be back on its heels against Arizona State. We said that UCLA's defense tends to dominate offenses with inexperienced quarterbacks and generally get torched by those with experienced quarterbacks. The last two weeks have held up that theory, with UCLA getting worked by Washington State's Alex Brink and Arizona's Willie Tuitama.

Now, stepping up to the plate this week is a quarterback who you could easily argue is having a better season than either Brink or Tuitama - Rudy Carpenter (JR, 6-2 199). In fact, if you go by statistics, there are only eight quarterbacks around the nation having better seasons, with Carpenter ranked ninth in the nation in passing efficiency (156).  Carpenter is a playmaker; he doesn't have a great arm and he isn't necessarily speedy - but he throws the ball well enough and moves well enough, to combine with a natural headiness that allows him to make plays.  
Receiver Michael Jones.


Carpenter doesn't necessarily have All-Americans catching his throws, but a deep crew of pretty good receivers.  Chris McGaha (SO, 6-1, 189) is probably ASU's most reliable guy, with good hands, and leads ASU with 32 receptions.  The big-play threat has mostly been Michael Jones (JR, 6-4, 208) who is the much bigger option, but he's also been very good at getting behind the defense.  A deep threat, too, is Kyle Williams (SO, 5-10, 185) who has good quickness, and the senior making plays out of the slot is Rudy Burgess (SR, 5-10 188).   Then throw in ASU's two active tight ends, Brent Miller (SR, 6-5, 245) and Tyrice Thompson (SR, 6-5, 230), who have 29 catches between them and Carpenter has many guys to look for downfield.

In the backfield is Keegan Herring (JR, 5-10, 186) who has taken over for Ryan Torain, who is out for the rest of the season with a severely sprained foot.  Torain, who is an NFL prospect at 6-1 and 213, is missed but Herring, the old, reliable stand-by, has done very well in his place, running for 659 yards in nine games, while he's only started three, averaging 6 yards per carry.  With Torain, ASU's running game was a power one, with Torain running through people, but Herring chooses to side-step them. Dimitri Nance (SO, 5-10, 204), who has spent some time on the bench this year injured, also gets 8-10 carries a game to give Herring some relief.

ASU's offensive line has been pretty good so far this season, even though there are some around the program that believe Carpenter has been on the ground too much and is also running for his life too often.  The OL has allowed 37 sacks on the year, which is the worst in the conference except for Stanford.  They returned five starters from a season ago, but they've had to juggle them a bit to make up for injuries. In fact, this week right guard Paul Fanaika (JR, 6-6, 359) has been held out of contact with a sprained ankle, but he's expected to play.  Starting left guard Shawn Lauvao (SO, 6-3, 307) has done some time at right guard this week in practice.  Mike Pollak (Grad, 6-4, 292) is the anchor at center.

The UCLA D will have to put some pressure on Carpenter, and defensive end Bruce Davis is coming off perhaps his most productive game of the year, last week pressuring Tuitama frequently and getting three big sacks.  The problem, though, is that UCLA hasn't gotten much pressure on the quarterback from just about anyone else on the team. Last year, Davis was so effective because UCLA had Justin Hickman on the other side of the line, but UCLA isn't getting that kind of production from Tom Blake or Korey Bosworth (with starter Nikola Dragovic still out). 

We'll probably, see, though, at least a few times when Carpenter is scrambling with Davis running after him.

UCLA's defense will have to do quite a bit better in defending the pass than it did last week if it remotely hopes to keep ASU out of the end zone.  Last week, Trey Brown, UCLA's veteran cornerback, got consistently burned;  Even though he's supposed to be UCLA's lockdown corner, it doesn't appear that many opposing offensive coaches are afraid of throwing his way.  Pass coverage has never been the strong suit of UCLA's safeties, Dennis Keyes and Chris Horton

Advantage: ASU.  It will have to be a completely unpredictable showing for it to go any other way.  Perhaps ASU will be off its game.  Maybe Carpenter won't look as sharp on the road, with the pressure of playing in front of his hometown crowd (If you remember, UCLA recruited him out of Westlake High School). 

There isn't too much else we can come up with to support the assertion that UCLA's defense will stop ASU's offense. 

ASU's spread, with Carpenter moving around and improvising to try to find the four or five ASU receivers in the pattern, is a scary proposition for UCLA's defense right now. UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker will have to stay with his nickel D, the same one that has been beaten up by Washington State and Arizona the last two weeks.  But, as we've said so many times in these previews, it seems a huge factor would be UCLA pressuring Carpenter, since ASU's pass protection has been particularly spotty and Carpenter has a habit of holding onto the ball too long. At this point in the UCLA season, what would UCLA have to lose if it threw a ton of blitzes at ASU?

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ARIZONA STATE'S DEFENSE

Arizona State's defense is what makes them the toughest team UCLA has faced so far this season. The Bruins have played some pretty good teams, but they've been unbalanced, with either one of its offensive or defensive units considerably better than the other.

That's not the case with ASU. While the Sun Devils have a great offense, you could easily make the case that their defense is as good, or better.

In fact, their defense is ranked #21 in the country, while their offense is #27.

They allow just 101 yards per game on the ground (16th in the country), and 219 through the air. They have a pass efficiency defense rating of 102, which is 13th in the country, and they're allowing just 17 points per game, which is 12th in the country.

Last week, you could say ASU had one of its worst defensive days, giving up 400 yards to Oregon and 200 on the ground, easily the most the Sun Devils have allowed rushing in a game so far this year.  On the other hand, ASU kept the vaunted Oregon offense well below their per-game averages (they average 510 yards per game). In fact, ASU hasn't allowed any offense yet this year to gain more yards than their per-game average.  They are the guys who are skewing each opposing offense's stats lower.

That doesn't bode well for UCLA, who is averaging 25 points and 370 yards per game, which gets them ranked 7th and 8th in the Pac-10 in those categories.  

The other issue that should keep UCLA below its averages is the fact that Osaar Rasshan is making his first career start at quarterback for the Bruins.  Rasshan, who is an exceptional athlete, made some plays last week in UCLA's loss to Arizona. He's a very effective and elusive scrambler, but doesn't throw the ball particularly well, or accurately.  His coming into the game last week might have put Arizona a little off-balance, but Arizona State should be well prepared for him. 

Rasshan is starting because UCLA is without its top two quarterbacks, Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson. And it's the same story at tailback; Chane Moline, the third-stringer, will start and be backed up by walk-on Craig Sheppard, due to UCLA's extensive injuries.  Chris Markey has been limited in practice and it's uncertain whether he'll play on Saturday and, if he does, he probably wouldn't be 100%.

That's a pretty big hit to your skill positions, against a very good defense.

The front seven for Arizona State were a bit of a question coming into the season, but they've definitely over-achieved.  The front seven have, in fact, had a few injury issues, mostly to back-ups, which has impacted its depth.  DT Saia Falahola was lost for the season with a ripped tricep muscle and DE Dane Guthrie is questionable this Saturday with a concussion.  The two starters at defensive end, Luis Vasquez (SR, 6-3, 247) and Dexter Davis (SO, 6-2, 247), really stepped up out of obscurity and have done a very good job for the Sun Devils, with ten sacks between the two of them.
Linebacker Robert James.


ASU's linebackers, which were thought to also be a bit of a mystery coming into the season, have also stepped up. Weakside linebacker Robert James (SR, 5-11, 229), who was plagued with injuries last season, leads the team in tackles with 78, and has four picks on the season.  They got a boost from JC transfer Morris Wooten (JR, 6-1, 237), who came in and immediately nailed down the middle linebacker spot.  Travis Goethel (SO, 6-3, 229) is at the Sam. But this week there is talk that there could be a shuffle among the linebacker group. Former UCLA commit, Nike Nixon (SO, 6-3, 232), who had been backing up at the Will, started in the middle the last two games after an injury to Wooten. Nixon did so well that, with Wooten returning, he might have earned a starting spot ahead of Goethel at the Sam.

For a second consecutive game, it's expected that starting free safety Jeremy Payton (JR, 6-1, 210) will be out, and Josh Barrett (Grad, 6-3, 231) will take his place. Barrett, the leading tackler for ASU last season, was actually supplanted at a starting spot by Payton and Troy Nolan (JR, 6-2, 204), who has been the biggest surprise for ASU's D. He surprised ASU followers in spring practice when he stepped up and won the spot and now has had a good year, leading the team with five interceptions. Omar Bolden (FR, 5-11, 200), a true freshman, won a starting cornerback spot midway through the season.

The ASU D has been good in the turnover department, collecting 14 interceptions so far this season. The big defensive play has certainly benefitted them, and the fact they didn't get any last week against Oregon was key in the loss.

Erickson, in his first year, has done a fine job with the Sun Devil defense, experimenting in the off-season with some position changes that paid off.  He has pieced together some no-names and added in some JC guys and has constructed one of the best defenses in the conference this season.

Advantage: Arizona State.  Only the truest Blue fan would think that UCLA's inept offense starting a green quarterback that doesn't throw the ball very well would have an advantage against ASU.   The Bruins will be hoping that Rasshan can spark the offense like he did in the second half against Arizona, but you'd have to think that Arizona State will be well-prepared for his scrambles.  With UCLA's depleted stock at running back, it'd also be surprising if the UCLA offense were effective on the ground against the solid ASU rush defense.

UCLA, hopefully, will have put in a new offensive package for Rasshan, one that suits his talents more, giving him the ability to run out of the gun and roll out more.  But it's still too much to expect him to make an offense that has struggled for most of the time it's been in place at UCLA to suddenly flourish.

Special teams features the showdown of two very good redshirt freshman place kickers. UCLA has Kai Forbath, who is 17 for 21, and is two for two from beyond 50 yards, so far this season. Arizona State has Thomas Weber, who is 18 of 19, and started the year making 17 straight field goals. He kicked the winning field goal against Washington State with under a minute left in the game. Weber also has been ASU's punter for the last four weeks, averaging 41 yards per punt, and was named the Pac-10 Special Teams Player of the Week in two consecutive weeks.

Prediction

The fact that UCLA is at home, where it's much better, will be just about UCLA's only edge.  That should be good for, say, a touchdown difference. But there isn't much else on paper to give you hope for the Bruins' chances on Saturday.

ASU definitely has shown some weakness against a strong pass rush, giving up those nine sacks against Oregon last week. Bruce Davis and Co., to give UCLA any kind of chance against ASU's offense, will have to get to Carpenter frequently.  If not, expect Carpenter to pick apart UCLA's back-on-their-heels defensive secondary. 

But, even if UCLA can limit ASU to a modest scoring total, how will the Bruins themselves put points in the board?  With a raw, third-string quarterback who everyone in the Arroyo Seco knows will want to tuck it and run every time he drops back, there isn't much mystery to defending against the already staid Bruin offense.

Plus, why is it that, this week, when Dorrell had a legitimate opportunity to keep its opposition guessing by not revealing who was going to be the starting quarterback, and making ASU have to prepare for two different quarterbacking styles, did the head coach give it up early in the week that Rasshan was starting? There have been so many times in Dorrell's tenure at UCLA that he's been coy over who might start; Why not be coy in a week when it would actually benefit you?

In terms of the intangibles, it will be interesting to see if ASU is pissed off after losing to Oregon last week, or deflated, and looking past UCLA to USC on the 22nd (Hey, maybe that's something else UCLA has going for it).   And, does UCLA have anything left in its tank?

Arizona State 34
UCLA 13

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