No. 17 Arizona State (8-2, 6-1 in Pac-12) at No. 14 UCLA (8-2, 5-2 in Pac-12)
Kickoff: 4:00 P.M. PST/5:00 MST/ 7:00 EST
Location: The Rose Bowl
Point Spread: Arizona State (-2)
TV: FOX (Gus Johnson, Charles Davis, Kristina Pink)
Radio: 620 KTAR AM (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst, Doug Franz)
Weather Forecast: 60 degrees, 20 percent chance of rain
Series History: The Bruins have dominated the all-time series against Arizona State compiling an overall record of 18-10-1 in 29 contests against the Sun Devils. Arizona State has lost in each of its last two trips to Pasadena and the Sun Devils also dropped a 45-43 heartbreaker at Sun Devil Stadium last season. According to Jeremy Hawkes of Sun Devil media relations, Saturday's matchup will be the first time that UCLA and Arizona State have both been ranked when playing each other since 1986 when the No. 16 Sun Devils took down the No. 15 Bruins 16-9. Arizona State went on to win the Rose Bowl that season.
UCLA's Season to Date: The Bruins come into Saturday's matchup armed with the No. 14 ranking in the latest BCS standings. UCLA owns an 8-2 record and its only two losses have come at the hands of two Pac-12 North powers in Oregon and Stanford.
The Bruins opened the season with five consecutive victories including resounding wins against Nevada and Nebraska in nonconference affairs. After scoring 58 points in a win against Nevada, UCLA scored 38 unanswered points to close out a 41-21 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln.
After walloping New Mexico State, the Bruins survived a scare in Utah when they defeated the Utes 34-27 on the strength of six interceptions from the defense. Then, UCLA hosted the California Golden Bears and took care of business in a 37-10 final.
The Bruins hit their first speed bump of the season in a 24-10 loss to the Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto. The physicality took its toll on UCLA, but the Bruins came out strong in the first half against Oregon in their visit to Eugene the following week. After playing to a 14-14 tie at halftime, Oregon ran away with the game and outscored UCLA 28-0 in the second half.
The Bruins stood at 5-2 heading into a home game against Colorado and they improved to 6-2 with a 45-23 victory against the Buffaloes. UCLA was able to carry the momentum from the Colorado victory into Tucson as the Bruins took a 31-26 decision against the Arizona Wildcats.
Last Friday night, the Bruins returned home to host the Washington Huskies and came away with a 41-31 win to record their third straight victory. The Bruins are looking to improve to 9-2 and 7-2 in conference play with a win over Arizona State that would allow UCLA to control its own destiny in its quest for a third consecutive Pac-12 title game appearance.
Arizona State on Offense
Led by Marion Grice's 20 touchdowns, the Arizona State offense enters the week as the 9th best scoring offense in the country as it averages 42.3 points per game. Even with the success, the Sun Devils have still had difficulties getting the job done on the road where they're averaging just 34.5 points per game.
The UCLA defense is one of the fastest in the Pac-12 and that will force Arizona State to play at its highest level. The Sun Devils have struggled to pass the ball away from Sun Devil Stadium this season, but quarterback Taylor Kelly says he remains focused on the task at hand and he understands the significance of the matchup.
"When we travel down there to California, get after it," Kelly said of his mission on Saturday. "These guys are atop the Pac-12 South the past couple of years and they're a great football team so it's going to be a great battle."
Kelly has thrown half of his 10 interceptions on the road this season, even though just four of the Sun Devils' 10 games have taken place away from Tempe. Kelly believes some of the Sun Devils' road challenges this season have been due to inconsistent tempo, and he says he wants to attack UCLA this week by staying true to Arizona State's hurry-up principles.
"Their front seven is solid, they have a lot of speed," Kelly said of the Bruins. "Anthony Barr is a great football player and the same with a couple linebackers they have. We have to get the tempo going and do what we do."
Indeed, Barr is an exceptional talent and his 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks lead the Bruins this season. If the Sun Devils hope to neutralize Barr, Kelly will need to get his passes off quickly and put the ball in the hands of Marion Grice, D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong.
The Sun Devils have enough team speed offensively to keep the Bruins on their heels, and the performances from each of the team's top three playmakers last week were encouraging. Grice ran for 119 yards and two scores, Foster found the end zone on a rushing touchdown for the first time this season, and Strong topped 100 yards receiving for the first time since the Colorado game back on Oct. 12.
In Kelly's first season as a starter, he lacked the veteran presence that he brings to the field this year. Kelly has overcome rough patches in his play to put his team in position to win games all season long. Against Utah, Kelly guided the Sun Devils' back to a 20-19 victory when he found Richard Smith for a touchdown. The poise and focus he displayed in the fourth quarter of the Utah win was something that Sun Devil fans hadn't seen from their quarterback early on in his career. Now, he believes the early season schedule and his experience in big games is finally paying off.
"I think I'm better prepared just being in those bigger time games with the stage at its point and guys going out there and playing the game that they love," Kelly said.
Playing against UCLA in the Rose Bowl is certainly one of those "bigger time games." In fact, Kelly said the atmosphere of Saturday's game will be the most exciting atmosphere he's experienced as a Sun Devil.
"Probably the top," Kelly said. "Playing in the Rose Bowl, it's one of the best stadiums, best atmospheres out there."
This isn't Kelly's first go-around at the Rose Bowl, either. In 2011, Kelly made the pilgrimage to Pasadena when the Sun Devils dropped a 29-28 battle. Though the loss stung, Kelly says he's prepared for the environment he'll play in on Saturday and he's looking forward to the challenge.
"When I got to experience that my redshirt freshman year, not playing just backing up Brock (Osweiler), seeing them play and being in the atmosphere is one of a kind," Kelly said.
If simply being in the Rose Bowl is one of a kind, one can only imagine how Kelly would feel if he clinches the Pac-12 South title in it on Saturday.
Arizona State on Defense
While the Sun Devils are putting up an impressive 42.3 points per game, the Bruins aren't far behind them as UCLA ranks third in the Pac-12 and 23rd in the nation at 37.0 points per game.
When you think of UCLA, you think of Brett Hundley. The redshirt sophomore is the Bruins' best offensive player and that means through the air and on the ground. Hundley is the most dynamic quarterback the Sun Devils will face during the regular season and they have to be prepared to contend with his potent combination of speed and strength.
"The quarterback is really their best player," Sun Devil defensive tackle Davon Coleman said. "He's really mobile so we have to focus and lock in on him."
For the Sun Devil defense, the game plan focuses squarely on containing Hundley. Arizona State wants to keep Hundley in the pocket, so the onus falls on interior rushers Will Sutton and Davon Coleman to step up and make plays when the outside pressure gets to Hundley.
Coleman said that Hundley's ability to scramble is a major concern for any UCLA opponent, but the Sun Devils have an advantage because they pride themselves on being a disciplined defense. When Hundley tries to escape, there should be a Sun Devil ready to clog up a running lane.
"Stay within our plan. Just be technically sound in our rushing lanes, that's what we really have to do," Coleman said.
UCLA has started three freshmen on its offensive line this season, and the Sun Devils have one of the most experienced defensive lines in the conference. The Bruins have done an outstanding job keeping Hundley's jersey clean, but outside of Stanford and Oregon (two games UCLA lost), the Bruins haven't faced a defensive line quite like the Sun Devils'.
"We bang a lot in practice and we definitely have that physical mentality," Coleman said.
The physicality is something that UCLA hasn't mastered yet this season and with a lot of youth up front, the Bruins will look to bolster their protection by keeping a tight end in and leaking running backs out late once the line of scrimmage has been secured.
This week, it's pivotal that the Arizona State secondary stays with the Bruin receivers when Hundley extends plays with his feet. Veterans Osahon Irabor and Alden Darby are excellent at sticking with coverage, and it's important that Robert Nelson and Damarious Randall follow their lead. In recent weeks, Nelson and Randall have made game-changing plays and they can help clinch the Pac-12 South title with a disciplined approach this week.
Todd Graham has reiterated that the Bruins won't give up the Pac-12 South crown easily. The defending division champions are willing to do whatever it takes to climb atop the division race, and that includes moving a linebacker to the offensive side of the ball.
With the ground game struggling, Bruins coach Jim Mora, Jr. decided to insert freshman Myles Jack into the lineup at running back. While Jack still holds down his spot at outside linebacker, the two-way star has been a revelation in the backfield in racking up 179 yards and five touchdowns in just two games on offense.
For the Sun Devils to have success against Jack, edge players like Gannon Conway and Anthony Jones need to force Jack back into the heart of the defense. Jack's pad level is extraordinary for a bruising back, and the Sun Devils know they'll need to gang tackle him to bring him down.
Davon Coleman knows a thing or two about switching positions. The defensive lineman started the year at defensive end, has played fullback and caught a touchdown pass in goal line situations, and now plays on the interior of the defensive line. If the Sun Devils want to stop Jack and Hundley, they'll rely heavily on the play of their jack-of-all-trades.
"It's more physical, definitely, that's a given," Coleman said of playing defensive tackle as opposed to end. "But pass rush wise, I think it's easier almost than running around the corner. It's just running straight ahead, I really like it."
Hopefully for the Sun Devils, Coleman will feel the same sort of energy and passion for playing on the inside after Arizona State takes on UCLA. If his feelings remain positive, it's likely because he'll have played a critical role in disrupting the flow of the Bruins offense.
Either way, Coleman is ready for the challenge ahead of him. Like his quarterback, he's waited his entire career to play in a game of this magnitude and he's ready to take advantage of the opportunity ahead of him.
"That's going to be exciting," Coleman said. "A crazy atmosphere, fans going wild, it's just something you want to play for. It sounds so surreal to be in that position."
The Final Analysis
As good as the Sun Devils are at home, the Bruins might be the only Pac-12 team with more impressive numbers in front of their local crowd. UCLA is 5-0 at the Rose Bowl this season and the Bruins are averaging an astounding 48 points per game in Pasadena.
For the Sun Devils to have a shot at dethroning the Bruins, they will have to make a number of adjustments based on the way they have performed over the past two weeks. Arizona State hasn't had the same crisp offensive drives over the past two weeks, and it's not because of a lack of ingenuity from offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. Taylor Kelly has missed throws, the offensive line has missed blocks, and the Sun Devils are not extending drives on third down.
Remarkably, after two lackluster performances, Arizona State is still one of the nation's best offensive teams which shows how spoiled Sun Devil nation has become under the leadership of Todd Graham. Graham says his players no longer believe they can win, they expect to win. Quite frankly, the same goes for the fan base. Sun Devil fans are genuinely surprised when their team doesn't come out on top.
This week, the Sun Devils might see their streak of five straight victories come to an end. Brett Hundley is one of only a handful of players in the country who can put up an electrifying performance against any defense and will his team to victory. Though we haven't seen Hundley have a truly dominant effort or a "Heisman moment," he's demonstrated the capabilities throughout his career.
Where the Sun Devils will also face issues this week is the play of UCLA's defensive front. While the Bruins don't have three interior linemen that match Stanford or Notre Dame's three-man fronts, the Bruins make up for it with an exceptional linebacking corps. Anthony Barr and Myles Jack deserve the hype they get because of their ability to control the edge. Barr and Jack aren't just special as pass rushers, they'll make the All-Conference list for their ability to attack outside running plays and force running backs into the heart of the Bruins defense.
For the Sun Devils to have success on offense, it's likely going to take an outstanding game from two receivers and a gritty effort from Marion Grice. Grice can be counted on to produce on a weekly basis, but the Sun Devils will need some combination of Jaelen Strong and another outside threat to step up for big days. If the Bruins' secondary is forced to stay honest in the play-action game and someone like Richard Smith or D.J. Foster can attack in the intermediate passing game, then Arizona State will move the football.
Ultimately, the Bruins' offense has yet to be stopped at home and the Sun Devils' offense has been vulnerable at times on the road, so there's no reason to bet against UCLA on Saturday.
Prediction: UCLA 33, ASU 24