For the third consecutive season the UCLA Bruins and Arizona State Sun Devils will square off with the Pac-12 South championship the main focus. It's the second-biggest conference game of the season, and Arizona State is hoping the third time's the charm.
In each of the previous two meetings, the Sun Devils entered the game with an edge in the talent category and a chance to finally take that next step. In both games, the Bruins would take advantage of Sun Devil mistakes and parlay victories into eventual South championships.
This year the game features two of the best underclassmen quarterbacks in the country, and given the amount of talent all over the field on both teams, it's safe to say that the signal-caller who has the best day is going to lead his team to a victory.
Matchup of the Week: Taylor Kelly vs. Brett Hundley
The two quarterbacks are most definitely different. Kelly is a smart player who reads defenses well and is deceptively quick. If I were comparing Kelly to an NFL quarterback, it would be Alex Smith.
Hundley, on the other hand, is a physical freak. He has a good arm and great speed, and ideal size for a quarterback. Hundley reminds me a lot of Donavan McNabb - the one who didn't eat at McDonald's everyday.
The key for Kelly is making quick decisions. The Sun Devil offense is predicated on two plays: the read-option and the back-shoulder fade to Jaelen Strong. When the Devils go away from these plays, they tend to get in trouble. Kelly continues to struggle going vertical to anyone other than Strong - that was especially on display against Oregon State - but he does a nice job working back underneath to D.J. Foster and, to a lesser extant, Chris Coyle.
Kelly can't make the mistakes he made against Oregon State in this one. He underthrew Rick Smith on a play that should have been a touchdown, but instead was picked off. On the next drive, he forced a ball into triple coverage that was also intercepted. Kelly could actually learn a bit from Hundley when he gets a look he doesn't like; Hundley is as good as anyone at making the first read, and if it's not there, starting to run. While running, he always looks for the underneath outlet valve, but if it's not available, he just gets the yards he can and goes down.
Kelly has been a great runner out of the option look, but he rarely takes advantage of his mobility in the pocket, and that's his biggest weakness. If Kelly is struggling finding open targets, or the running game can't get going, the mobility is going to have to come into play. UCLA has two great pass rushers in linebacker Anthony Barr, a surefire top 10 pick in April's draft, and defensive tackle Cassius Marsh. Keenan Graham has also developed into a nice rush specialist for the Bruins.
The key for Kelly will be his eyes. He needs to move the defenders with his eyes and then tuck-and-run when plays start to breakdown. Kelly also needs to have more faith in Strong, whom he went away from for no reason last week. Finally, this could be the game that Kelly gets running back Marion Grice involved in the pass game again. Forcing UCLA to play up and key on Grice as a pass catcher should open up the field for Strong and Foster to make bigger plays.
Hundley and the Bruins also rely on two key plays to make the offense go: the flood with a backside running back swing, and the receiver screen. The Sun Devils should be familiar with these plays, as current UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was Arizona State's play caller before Todd Graham and Mike Norvell arrived in Tempe.
The flood play is where Hundley makes most of his plays. He loves to go over the top on early downs, and Shaq Evans has the speed to outrun any of Arizona State's corners. Arizona State can take the vertical away by pressing Evans with top corner Osahon Irabor, disrupting the route long enough to force Hundley to look at a different option, and hopefully let Carl Bradford and Will Sutton hit the quarterback.
When Hundley doesn't get the vertical route, he usually comes back to the swing pass, but where he thrives is with his field vision. While Hundley comes back across the field to the swing, he finds the middle linebacker and identifies what coverage he is in. In this case, that linebacker will be Chris Young, and the Sun Devils are going to need their leading tackler to stay in the middle of the field.
The second Hundley sees space, he takes off running. He leads the Bruins in rushing attempts and touchdowns for a reason. So far, ASU has done a great job of limiting the mobile quarterbacks it has faced this season. But Hundley is different.
The screen is another play UCLA uses to set up the vertical route and Hundley's scrambling. If teams start sitting back in a three-deep zone, the Bruins pull out the screen and let the receivers pick up chunks of yardage. When the linebackers start shading over, Hundley will fake the screen and run a draw, and the Bruins offensive line is one of the more athletic in the Pac-12, despite their struggles in pass protection.
It will be pivotal that the Sun Devils contain Hundley and make running backs Paul Perkins and Myles Jack beat them. When Hundley gets hit, he struggles. He becomes more indecisive and throws more jump balls. The Sun Devil secondary has won more jump balls than not this season, and a big turnover will likely decide this game.
There you have it. They key for Arizona State is to win the quarterback battle. Limit Taylor Kelly's mistakes and force Brett Hundley into making one big one. If the Sun Devils follow this formula, their overall team depth should prevail over a hobbled UCLA team, and the Devils will have sealed a trip to the Pac-12 championship game.