It wasn't exactly how either team pictured this game coming into this week, but alas it's finally here. No. 15 Arizona State and No. 11 UCLA face off Thursday night in Tempe in a game that has seen the winner head to the Pac-12 Championship game in each of the past two seasons. History will also be made with two ranked opponents facing off at Sun Devil Stadium in the regular season for the first time since 2007.
Let's talk about the one thing everyone wants to know about first; Brett Hundley's elbow. Taylor Kelly definitely won't play, but all signs point to the Bruins' feature quarterback getting the start. While Jim Mora won't say much, Hundley has been practicing with a sling on his elbow and he is "tracking to play" according to Chris Foster of the LA Times.
UCLA this season
It has been a far from optimal start for the Bruins to say the least. The Bruins' offense didn't score a touchdown until the third quarter against Virginia and the defense scored 21 points in the second quarter. UCLA turned the ball over twice in the game, but were able to hold the Cavaliers to three points in the fourth quarter to win the game. While the Bruins never actually trailed, it was Virginia's consistent knocking at the door which put a solid scare into the Bruins in week one.
What many wrote off as a first game jitters and a speed bump for UCLA in the first game reared its ugly head as a potentially persistent issue against Memphis. The Tigers actually led 7-6 and tied the game at 35 when Fritz Etienne returned an interception for a touchdown to cap off 14 unanswered points. With 10:52 left, Hundley connected with Thomas Duarte on a 33-yard touchdown to give the Bruins the lead 42-35. The defense once again came to the rescue holding Memphis scoreless the rest of the game to hold on for the win.
It only got more difficult the following week when UCLA played the University of Texas at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. Backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel (Yes, Rick's son) came in after Hundley injured his elbow in the first quarter. He went on to complete 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. After Texas took the 17-13 lead on an 8-yard Tyrone Swoops pass to John Harris with 5:13 to play in the game, Neuhelisel completed the game winning 33-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Payton with three minutes left. It was Jerry's World at Jerry's world, as many headlines played with his name in the newspapers Sunday morning.
Noel Mazzone, good to see you again. He was the Sun Devils' offensive coordinator in 2010-11 under Dennis Erickson. As I learned here, he recruited Mike Bercovici to come to Arizona State in the first place which could play to a disadvantage for the Sun Devils, but I doubt Bercovici is the same player that was when recruited three years ago. There are still hints of what Mazzone brought to Arizona State in the UCLA offense now with all of the field getting used. The notable departure from the Bruins' offense is Myles Jack, who has moved almost exclusively to defense. Paul Perkins has stepped up in his place, carrying the ball 63 times for 304 yards and two touchdowns while also catching nine balls for 80 yards.
Jack and Perkins hit the Sun Devils where it hurt last season in Pasadena, racking up 126 yards on the ground with two touchdowns combined. Perkins is the feature back now, but Hundley can also run the ball. Arizona State stopped Hundley on the ground last season, giving up just 5 yards on 17 carries to the junior. The maroon and gold (or in Thursday night's case "the black") will need to contain him again to find success.
Another positive note for Arizona State is that Shaq Evans left for the NFL draft. He caught six balls for 80 yards and a touchdown against the Sun Devils last season, but there are very capable replacements stepping up. Junior Jordan Payton and sophomore Thomas Duarte have been Hundley's targets of choice this season. Payton has brought in 19 catches for 266 yards and a touchdown so far this season.
The Bruins offensive line had a lot of returners with some experience starting this season, but they've underwhelmed to this point. Against Virginia, Hundley was sacked five times and they gave up 11 tackles for loss. The following week against Memphis it was four sacks and six tackles for loss. The Bruins only gave up three sacks against Texas, but senior left tackle Malcom Bunche was injured and may not play against the Sun Devils. Redshirt freshman Conor McDermott would be up next, but the Bruins offensive line definitely seems to have its fair share of holes so far this season and it will be key for Arizona State to exploit them.
The UCLA linebackers are a force to be reckoned with and as noted above, this defense has won them three games by keeping them around. It starts with senior Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack in the Bruins' 3-4 defense. These two players have assured a softer drop in production trying to replace Anthony Barr. Kendricks leads the team with 37 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. Jack is not far behind with 26 tackles. Freshman Kenny Young has also stepped up with 10 tackles. The Sun Devils will not only need to pick up blitzes, but also get to the second level quicker in blocking for D.J. Foster. Both Kendricks and Jack can fly to the ball, picking up blocks will be huge.
The defensive line is anchored by sophomores Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark along with senior Owa Odighizuwa. Clark has been the biggest force in the middle with 16 tackles while Venderdoes leads the team in tackles for loss with three. While young, it's also much of the same group from last season outside Odighizuwa who missed last season with a hip injury.
The biggest news out of this weekend came from the dinged up UCLA secondary. Junior safety Randall Goforth, who had seven tackles through two games and didn't play against Texas, has been lost for the season to surgery with a separated shoulder. Sophomore Tahaan Goodman started in his place against the Longhorns. Senior Anthony Jefferson, who usually starts opposite of Goforth, also sat out against Texas with a sprained ankle. Although freshman Jaleel Wadood did well in his place, Jefferson is expected to play against Arizona State. Regardless, it's good news for Bercovici that the Bruins secondary will be coming in at less than 100 percent.
The corner spot has a lot of experience too. Junior Ismael Adams is UCLA's best corner and should get the first chance at covering Jaelen Strong Thursday. Junior Fabian Moreau is next up with 13 tackles this season. It hasn't seemed to effect them so far, but UCLA also had turnover at the defensive coordinator spot. Lou Spanos left to become Tennessee Titans linebackers coach and Mora promoted Jeff Ulbrich from within, moving him from linebackers coach to full defensive coordinator.
Adams has also handled the kickoff and punt return duties for the Bruins this season. He is averaging 15.4 yards on seven punt returns and 19.7 yards on seven kick returns. The Sun Devils are very familiar with Ka'imi Fairbairn. This season he is 2 of 3 on field goals and has had eight touchbacks in 16 attempts. Matt Mengel has handled most of the punting duties but has had his fair share of issues, booting the ball 17 times for an average of only 37.1 yards.