ASU Preview

The Sun Devils come to the Rose Bowl trying to stop a four-game losing streak and keep hopes of a non-losing season alive. Their defense is formidable, but the offense is struggling, which makes for a close game against UCLA...

FACTS AND FACTORS

-- The Arizona State Sun Devils come to the Rose Bowl Saturday to take on UCLA at 1:00 p.m.

-- The game will be telecast on FSN (Prime Ticket in Los Angeles) nationally, with Barry Thompkins and Petros Papadakis in the booth calling the action.

-- Arizona State is 4-6 overall and 2-5 in the Pac-10.

-- They've beaten Idaho State, Louisiana-Monroe, Washington State and Washington, and lost to Georgia, Oregon State, Stanford, Cal, USC and Oregon.

-- The four teams ASU has beaten are a combined 11-40 on the season. One of those teams (Idaho State) is 1-10 as a FCS team (Division 1-AA).

-- The Sun Devils are on a four-game losing streak.

-- Last week, ASU lost to Oregon in Eugene, 44-21.

-- The only road game ASU has won was in Pullman against Washington State, 27-14.

-- UCLA owns a 15-9-1 advantage in the all-time series between the two programs, which goes back to 1976. UCLA is 9-5-1 in games played in Los Angeles, and 7-5-1 in games played at the Rose Bowl. UCLA has won three of the last four played in Pasadena.

-- Last year, ASU beat the Bruins in Tempe, 34-9. The Sun Devils managed only 122 yards of total offense, but scored four defensive touchdowns.

-- ASU is coached by Dennis Erickson, who is in his third year as the Sun Devil head man. He's 19-16 at ASU, and 167-81-1 overall in 21 years as a college football head coach. In 2007, in Erickson's first year at ASU, he led the Sun Devils to a 10-3 record and a share of the Pac-10 championship. Last season he finished 5-7 and 4-5. Erickson started at Idaho, then built a name for himself by turning around Washington State in the late ‘80s, then winning two national championships at Miami before going to the NFL to coach the Seattle Seahawks. He then returned to college football to coach Oregon State in 1999-2002, leading the Beavers to their first winning season in 30 years, then moved on the San Francisco 49ers for two seasons before being hired again by Idaho, and then by Arizona State. He's the only person in history to coach three different Pac-10 teams. Erickson is commonly mentioned as one of the best coaches in college football in the last 25 years and considered an offensive innovator.

-- ASU fans went gaga over Erickson in 2007, became frustrated last season and are now in free fall this season.

-- The Sun Devils have won just two of their past nine road games, a span that goes back to last season. Those two victories were against Washington State (1-9) this year, and Washington (0-12) last season.

-- 25 different ASU players have made their debuts so far this season, and 16 have made their first career starts.

-- Over the past two seasons, 18 true freshmen have seen game action for ASU (a school-record 10 last season and 8 so far this season).

-- ASU has 14 players who are out with season-ending injuries.

-- ASU, at 4-5, must win its last two games, against UCLA and Arizona, to pull out a .500 record and be bowl eligible.

-- It is senior day for UCLA Saturday, with it being the last home game for 18 Bruin seniors: DL Chinonso Anyanwu, WR Terrence Austin, DE Korey Bosworth, LB Kyle Bosworth, LB Reggie Carter, QB Kevin Craft, OL Nick Ekbatani, WR Gavin Ketchum, RB Chane Moline, TE Ryan Moya, TE Logan Paulsen, QB Osaar Rasshan, RB Craig Sheppard, DT Jerzy Siewierski, FB Trevor Theriot, CB Alterraun Verner DT Jess Ward and S Aaron Ware.

-- Saturday calls for good football weather – 68 degrees and partly cloudy – in Pasadena.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ARIZONA STATE'S DEFENSE

Arizona State's defense is certainly the best one UCLA has faced in quite a while. They're ranked the 15th best overall defense in the country, allowing just 301 yards per game for the season.

There is another side to the story, however. In its last five games the ASU defense has given up an average of 380 yards per game, which, if you just took those five games, would get them ranked 77th in the country.

To be fair, those games have been against some pretty good offenses – Oregon, Cal and Stanford -- but it's also been against USC and Washington, who haven't been greatly productive offensively, at least recently.

ASU's defense definitely fattened up on Washington State, Idaho State and Louisiana-Monroe.

This is not to say, again, that ASU doesn't have a good defense. But the rankings and numbers might be slightly misleading.

Vontaze Burfict.
Last week against Oregon it gave up 388 yards, and 268 of those on the ground.

Now, of course, UCLA's offense isn't anything like Oregon's, but it's about in the same league with Washington's, and they gained 378 yards against the Sun Devils.

If you throw out the road game against Washington State, like you have to do, there's also a trend that ASU's defense is considerably better in Tempe than it is on the road.

So, you could make a case for a couple of trends: ASU's defense hasn't been as good in the second half of its season or on the road. There might be an element here that the defense has been exposed for not being as good as it seemed early on; the young defense could also be wearing down and just not as effective away from Sun Devil Stadium.

Up front defensively, ASU has a talented group.

Senior defensive end Dexter Davis (6-2, 255) is one of the best pass rushers in ASU history, third all-time on its career sack list. After two, 10-sack, back-to-back seasons, though, he has just 2.5 so far this year, mostly because he's been seeing a lot of double teams.

As you might expect, the rest of the line has compensated in terms of sacks and pressuring the quarterback. Sophomore defensive tackle Lawrence Guy (6-5, 293) is considered one of the best, young players at his position in the Pac-10. Junior DT Saia Falahola (6-1, 298) leads the team in tackles for loss (7.5); he was nicked up a bit against Oregon last week, but is thought to be okay. Sophomore d-end James Brooks (6-5, 278) is a solid one.

ASU might have the best group of linebackers in the Pac-10. It's anchored by senior weaksider Mike Nixon (6-3, 224), the 26-year-old who originally committed to UCLA but then took a shot at minor league baseball before returning to college football and ASU. He leads the team with 59 tackles.

Then, there is perhaps the most talented young player in the league regardless of position in true freshman middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict (6-3, 245). Burfict has 57 tackles on the season and is a punishing hitter. He also has a penchant for personal fouls, getting three in one game.

Senior veteran Travis Goethel (6-3, 237) is on the strongside, and even though he could be overlooked for post-season honors because of his comrades he's just about as deserving, with 41 tackles and 7 tackles for loss.

If there is a chink in the defensive armor it could be ASU's secondary.

Cornerback Omar Bolden is out for the season with a knee injury, and he was supposed to be their lockdown corner. The other corner starter, Terell Carr, has returned to practice after being arrested on suspicion of assault, disorderly conduct and driving with a suspended license. A decision on whether ASU will allow him to play Saturday has not been made.

Stepping into the void is senior Pierre Singfield (5-11, 196), a career back-up, and redshirt freshman Deveron Carr (5-11, 184) is kind of like ASU's Sheldon Price, thrown in for a trial-by-fire. The first guy now coming off the bench at corner, sophomore Josh Jordan (6-1, 173), is nicked up.

Chane Moline.
Senior safety Ryan McFoy (6-1, 209) has been steady, while sophomore free safety Clint Floyd (5-1, 198) is still learning the ropes after being thrown in last season as a true freshman.

ASU plays a lot of zone, to try to make up for the inexperience and inability to stay with receivers one-on-one, but that has created a lot of soft spots in ASU's pass coverage.

UCLA's offense has taken some steps up in spots and some steps back in others. Quarterback Kevin Prince has been very effective over the course of his last 7 quarters, obviously gaining confidence and seeing the field much better. It's not coincidental that the wide receivers have stepped up, like Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree.

The running back situation, though, is an issue. The starter this season, Johnathan Franklin, has fumble-it is, and he's been replaced on the depth chart by Derrick Coleman, who doesn't have the explosion to be a big-play threat. Milton Knox, who does have explosion, has been getting on the field in the Wilcat, and been moderately effective. Senior Chane Moline, who has been the starter at fullback this season, stepped into the tailback void last week and performed well, gaining yards carrying the ball and catching it out of the backfield. He will probably see more opportunities this week against ASU.

UCLA's OL still has a hole at right guard, with UCLA down to its fourth- and fifth-stringer competing to start at the spot this week, Darius Savage and Jake Dean. Both played last week against Washington State and did well – but again, it was Washington State, which doesn't prepare you much for ASU's defensive line.

Advantage: Arizona State. While ASU's defense has some doubts, as we raised, there's no denying the talent it has in its front seven. You have to go with the more known commodity – ASU's defense – than UCLA's offense, which still hasn't shown it can move the ball against a decent defense with a good pass rush. The Bruins will have to go to their offensive strength, which is throwing the ball (4th in the Pac-10 at 232 yards per game – ahead of Stanford, Cal and USC), but so much is going to rely on whether Prince will have the time to throw. ASU gets good pressure from its front four and it likes to blitz. This is the true test for UCLA's passing game.

You can probably expect UCLA to test ASU's corners, throwing in three-step drops to UCLA's receivers to get them matched up on-on-one against them. Throwing quickly and out wide would also get the ball away from ASU's quick-to-the-ball linebackers. UCLA will also probably use some naked boots to get Prince time to set up and throw. Hopefully he'll slide when he's scrambling to avoid the personal-foul-inflicting Burfict.

ASU has very good team speed on defense and really live up to the cliché of "flying to the ball." UCLA, to be successful, has to exploit that, so you might see some tailback screens and receiver bubble screens in the passing game, and more misdirection and counters in the running game.

As we said, this is the really the first true test of UCLA's new-found offense.

ARIZONA STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

The best way to describe ASU's offense is to remember UCLA's offense in the first 7 games of the season.

It has an anemic running game, with an out-of-sync passing game led by a young, inexperienced quarterback.

ASU's offense is 9th in the Pac-10 in average yards per game (339), eight in passing (217) and 7th in rushing (122).

A great deal of the ineffectiveness has to do with the quarterback situation. ASU began the season with senior Danny Sullivan (6-4, 242) as the starter, but he struggled. Sullivan isn't very athletic or consistent. Sun Devil fans were completely dismayed when Erickson stuck with him through the majority of the season, only to opt for his younger, more talented quarterbacks when Sullivan got injured.

Receiver Chris McGaha.
First there was true freshman Brock Osweiler (6-8, 237) who is a huge kid, that showed flashes of effectiveness against USC, which got him the start last week against Oregon. But Osweiler, even though he has talent, faltered, being a true freshman. Osweiller, then, hurt is shoulder.

Stepping in, then, was sophomore Sampson Szakacsy (6-4, 205), a colorful kid with a huge mane of hair sticking out from under his helmet, who also plays in a rock band (and is also the son of a Bruin). Szakacsy really sparked ASU's offense last week in the second half of the Oregon game, with his avoidability and penchant for throwing on the run. He has a nicked up elbow, and doesn't have great arm strength, but he made some nice plays against the Ducks, and that got the Sun Devil faithful fired up.

This week, Erickson hasn't said which of his quarterbacks will start. Osweiler looks like he's still too sore to play, and it appears to be down to Sullivan or Szakacsy, with the good money on Sazkacsy.

No matter who is the quarterback, Erickson's offense relies pretty heavily on the pass, working out of the gun most of the time. The offense isn't geared toward mounting a pound-it-out kind of running game, with most of the hand-offs coming out of the gun with zone blocking.

The offensive line has been through a lot this season, and the injuries continued last week when starting right guard and the guy most Sun Devil watchers consider the best up-and-comer on the OL, sophomore Matt Hustad, was lost for the season with a knee injury. Senior back-up Tom Njunge (6-5, 272) will take over. ASU's situation at right guard looks about the same as UCLA's right guard situation, with the Sun Devils having lost their first- and second-stringers to injury. Starting center, sophomore Garth Gerhart (6-1, 302), moved over to guard last week, and former starting center Thomas Altieri (6-1, 301) stepped in at center.

All in all, the OL, given all the injuries, has fared okay. It's been pretty poor in run blocking but has given ASU's quarterbacks a decent amount of time to throw.

Senior running back Dimitri Nance (5-10, 218) is one of those guys that has seemingly been playing college football for seven years. He was injured for a period this season, but is reportedly 100% now, and looked better against Oregon last week. Freshman Cameron Marshall (5-11, 210) has looked good in relief, being a one-cut-and-go type of runner.

Akeem Ayers.
The wide receivers, on a whole, have been disappointing this season. Gerell Robinson (6-4, 230), the sophomore, got plenty of pre-season hype but hasn't lived up to it, without a touchdown reception for the season. It's quite an accomplishment, actually that senior Chris McGaha (6-1, 199) is one of the top receivers in the league for receptions per game, given the lack of consistency out of the ASU quarterbacks. McGaha is a very good possession receiver that the ASU QBs rely on. The Sun Devils lack an outside threat, with senior Kyle Williams (5-10, 186) being the closest thing.

They don't go often to their tight ends, with only 11 receptions collectively among ASU TEs this season.

They do throw to their backs often, with Nance being the third leading receiver behind McGaha and Williams.

UCLA's defense might be the healthiest it's been in a couple of months. Starting DT Jerzy Siewierski is back after being out for a couple of weeks, and the starting cornerback at the beginning of the season, Aaron Hester, is now finally fully healthy after suffering a broken leg early in the season. Hester won't start, but he very well could see his first action in a long time, which helps with depth at the corner spot.

UCLA's D has been getting improved play from its linebackers in the last couple of games. Sophomore strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers had two interceptions last week, and is getting better at filling his gaps against the run. He was most effective rushing the passer when he lined up at defensive end last week, which enabled him to get two sacks.

Advantage: UCLA. ASU's offense is very limited, without a strong running game, and without a consistent ability to throw the ball over the top, so it makes it easy for opposing defenses to scheme against them, and send pressure at their quarterbacks.

UCLA should do exactly that. Pressure Szakacsy into mistakes, which he's prone to do, being so inexperienced. Run blitz to shut down the delayed running game out of the gun in the ASU backfield. Jump short routes looking for the pick.

It will be interesting to see if UCLA Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough is aggressive out of the gate or typically takes a half to adjust.

SPECIAL TEAMS

ASU Punter Trevor Hankins (6-3, 229) is one of the best in the conference. Place kicker Thomas Weber won the Lou Groza Award as a freshman but hasn't had a great sophomore season. He was out with a groin injury for a while, and so far this season hasn't hit a field goal longer than 29 yards.

Kyle Wiliams returns punts and does a solid job. True freshman Jamal Miles (5-10, 180) reeturns kicks and hasn't really threatened to break one all season.

The ASU kick-off and punt return coverage teams have been very good all season.

Prediction

Both teams are playing to avoid a losing season and still keep their bowl hopes alive, so the intangibles really aren't leaning either way.

ASU has played against two opponents in every game – the team they're facing and penalties. They have given up the most yards in penalties than any FBS team in the nation, surrendering an average of 87 yards per game. That's more than UCLA's top two leading rushers, Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman, gain per game combined.

Arizona State also turns over the ball pretty often, with 19 total turnovers on the season (which ties them with UCLA for second-most in the Pac-10). It's not surprising, given their quarterback situation, that they've given up 11 interceptions.

On the other hand, their defense is a turnover machine. They've forced 24 turnovers, most in the Pac-10. In fact, forcing turnovers has been what's kept them in many games this season.

And the Sun Devils have definitely stayed in most of their games. They lost to Georgia by 3, Cal by 2, and USC by 5.

While they've only scored an average of 23 points per game, they've only given up 21 points per game.

Which means you can expect them to be in this game no matter what.

You can also expect the game to not be very high-scoring. You have ASU's poor offense going up against a decent UCLA defense, and then UCLA's fledgling offense facing ASU's strong defense. And both teams tend to turn over the ball.

There are plenty of times in practice during the week when UCLA is working on its two-minute drill and you wonder why – say, when they're playing against Washington State that week. But this week, practicing the two-minute offense is time well spent. This game has all the makings of being a low-scoring affair with the two teams separated by very few points and it coming down to the last two minutes.

It sounds like a job for Kai Forbath.

UCLA 23
Arizona State 21


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