When Todd Graham arrived at Arizona State in Dec. of 2011, the new Sun Devil football coach announced some pretty lofty goals. Graham talked about winning national championships, restoring character to the program and bringing home conference titles.
This Saturday, Graham will have the opportunity to get one giant step closer to one of his primary goals. When the Sun Devils battle the UCLA Bruins, they'll play for the chance to win the Pac-12 South crown and compete in the conference championship game two weeks later.
The Sun Devils hold a one-game edge over the Bruins in the Pac-12 South standings, and a win this week would clinch the division with a week left in the regular season. Graham has led the Sun Devils to back-to-back eight-win seasons, but he's nowhere near satisfied.
For the better part of two years, Graham has preached about taking advantage of the opportunity the Sun Devils will have Saturday. And it's finally here. All that stands in the Sun Devils' way is the defending South division champion, the UCLA Bruins. Do the Sun Devils have what it takes to win the crown this week? Let's meet the Bruins.
The First Look
Season to Date
The UCLA Bruins are ranked three spots ahead of the Sun Devils in the latest BCS rankings and they share an identical record. The Bruins' resume is among the best in the country for a two-loss team, as their only defeats have come in back-to-back road games against the Oregon Ducks and the Stanford Cardinal.
The Bruins opened the season with five consecutive victories that included wins against Nevada and Utah. However, the Bruins' most impressive win in the early-season was a 41-21 comeback victory against Nebraska in Lincoln. That week, UCLA suffered a devastating loss when walk-on wide receiver Nick Pasquale was hit by a car and killed.
UCLA played with heavy hearts and after spotting the Huskers a 21-3 lead, the Bruins unleashed their attack and pushed forward with 38 unanswered points to snag the victory.
The Bruins' defense forced six interceptions the following week against Utah in a 34-27 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium to improve to 4-0 and then defeated California in a 37-10 final at the Rose Bowl a week later.
At 5-0, the Bruins invaded Palo Alto with the chance to knock off a highly touted Stanford team, but the offense struggled mightily throughout a 24-10 loss. After losing to Stanford, the Bruins were forced to hit the road again and this time, they took on the Oregon Ducks in Eugene. The Bruins hung with the Ducks throughout the first half, but the rigors of the Stanford game appeared to catch up with UCLA in the second half as the Ducks ran away with a 42-14 win.
After falling to 5-2, the Bruins regrouped and appear to be hitting their stride once again. UCLA didn't look like the dominant team it once was in a 45-23 win over Colorado or a 31-26 decision over Arizona, but through the first half of last week's Washington game, the Bruins looked every bit the Pac-12 South favorite.
Washington made the game tight at the end last week, but the outcome was never really in question as UCLA cruised to a 41-31 win in Pasadena. Now, at 8-2, the Bruins will look for another nine-win season under head coach Jim Mora, Jr. who isn't ready to surrender the Pac-12 South title just yet.
Saturday's matchup should be among the most tightly contested Pac-12 games we've seen this season, as it pits two eager and evenly matched opponents in a battle with serious hardware on the line.
Head Coach: Jim Mora, Jr.
Record (At UCLA and overall): 17-7, 11-5 in Pac-12 play
UCLA on Offense
The UCLA Bruins are led by one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in Ariz. native Brett Hundley. Hundley ripped the hearts out of Sun Devil fans last year when he drove the Bruins down the field in the closing minute at Sun Devil Stadium to set up a game-winning field goal that clinched a 45-43 UCLA victory.
This year, Hundley began the season with Heisman aspirations. Though those hopes won't be realized, he's still an elite Pac-12 quarterback with the potential to do serious damage against any defense. Hundley has thrown for 2,384 yards and 20 touchdowns this season and also rushed for 502 yards and an additional seven scores.
Hundley is completing passes at nearly an identical clip to last year (roughly 67 percent), but the difference in his game this season is his decision making. Hundley is much smarter in the pocket this season and he's been willing to move the chains with his feet more often. After picking up just 355 rushing yards last season, Hundley easily surpassed that total this season and it's because of his ability to avoid sacks.
The redshirt sophomore took 52 sacks last year and has been sacked just 22 times through 10 games this season, which is remarkable considering the youth on the Bruins' offensive line. Hundley's mobility also gives his receivers extra time to create separation, and they've certainly taken advantage of that.
Coming into this season, the Bruins offense had a lot of question marks in the backfield and at wide receiver, but veteran wideout Shaquelle Evans has eased those concerns along the way. Evans led the team with 60 catches last year, and the redshirt senior leads UCLA with 524 receiving yards and seven touchdowns this year.
Sophomore wideout Devin Fuller has also become a go-to target for Hundley as his 40 catches are a team-high. Fuller's breakout game came against Stanford in last year's Pac-12 championship game when he had seven catches, and UCLA likes to use him in the slot (linebackers beware).
The biggest issue in the offseason for the Bruins was finding someone to replace All-Pac-12 running back Johnathan Franklin who amassed 1,700 rushing yards last season. UCLA still hasn't found a true No. 1 back to shoulder the load, but the Bruins rank 33rd nationally in rushing offense because of a running back by-committee approach.
Freshman Paul Perkins, another Ariz. native, has taken the lion's share of the carries this year and he's put together a solid 4.3 yards per carry average. Redshirt junior Jordan James began the season as the top running back on the depth chart, but he's seen just 80 carries this year even though his 5.9 yards per carry average is far superior to Perkins'.
If UCLA had its druthers, freshman Myles Jack would see more playing time in the backfield. The two-way star has come on strong of late because the coaching staff has allowed him to play both linebacker and running back in recent weeks. In the past two weeks, Jack has scored five touchdowns on 19 carries including a 66-yard score against Arizona.
Up front, the Bruins boast one of the youngest offensive lines in the country. UCLA has started three freshmen on its offensive line this year including Caleb Benenoch, Alex Redmond and Scott Quessenberry.
The Bruins have been forced to shift players along the front due to an ankle injury hampering Torian White and an MCL injury to tackle Simon Goines. Goines appears to be in better condition now, but the Bruins have proven they have seven to eight linemen with the ability to start in the Pac-12.
The mainstay along the offensive front is junior Xavier Su'a-Filo who earned All-American considerations last season. Su'a-Filo has started at both guard and tackle this year because of the injuries and he's one of the best pass-blockers in the country.
Overall, the Bruins have made improvements up front this season, but UCLA is still a year away from having an experienced and veteran group in the huddle. Still, the raw talent combined with Brett Hundley's ability to make plays means this offense will be a handful for the Sun Devil defense.
UCLA on Defense
The Bruins' defense has its fair share of tremendously talented players, but UCLA is far from the most complete defense in the Pac-12.
Led by All-American and Nagurski front-runner Anthony Barr, the Bruins' pass rush is a force to be reckoned with. Barr could have been a top-five pick in last year's NFL draft, and he's a more polished, more explosive version of Arizona State's Carl Bradford. Barr's 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks are easily team-highs, and it's even more impressive because Barr faces consistent double teams at his outside linebacker spot.
The inside linebackers in the Bruins' 3-4 look are also some of the best in the conference as Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt are the team's top two tacklers. With the pressure that Barr brings, neither inside guy is asked to blitz frequently, but they both have a nose for the football and are excellent in filling inside running lanes.
With three fantastic linebackers, it's hard to imagine the Bruins having a fourth to really complete the scheme. But wait...it's true freshman Myles Jack playing opposite Barr at the left outside linebacker spot. Jack has racked up 67 tackles and five tackles for loss already this season and he even had five tackles against Washington in a game where he took 13 carries on the offensive side of the ball.
The Bruins' linebacking corps is among the most athletic in the country, and it's surprising that UCLA is allowing an average of just under 170 rushing yards per game. The Bruins have a solid core of veterans playing as down linemen, but the likes of Cassius Marsh and Keenan Graham haven't been as effective as the coaching staff envisioned in the offseason.
As such, UCLA has rotated youngsters like sophomore Ellis McCarthy in at nose tackle and freshman Eddie Vanderdoes in at defensive end. With a game of mix and match being played on the defensive front, the linebackers are often asked to compensate and make even more plays than most backers in a 3-4 scheme are expected to make.
UCLA's struggles against the run haven't carried over to the pass defense as the pressure from Barr and company has turned the secondary into a largely efficient group. The Bruins are allowing just 225 passing yards per game and Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly hasn't thrown for 200 yards in the past two weeks.
The Bruins don't start a single senior in the defensive backfield, yet they haven't had issues with getting beat downfield this year. Safeties Anthony Jefferson and Randall Goforth are assets against the run as well as the pass and sophomore cornerback Ishmael Adams leads UCLA with four interceptions.
Highly touted freshman Priest Willis was expected to be a difference-maker in his debut season in Pasadena, but the Marcos de Niza grad from Tempe only has seven tackles to his credit this year.
The Bruins will challenge the Sun Devils in a variety of ways and though they don't have one of the nation's marquee defenses, it's a group that has quietly put together a solid year. UCLA may not rank in the top 20 in most defensive categories, but Arizona State has not seen the type of athletes and toughness it will see from the Bruins since the Stanford game earlier this season.