The game of the century is here! Alright, maybe not the game of the century, especially given the injury to Taylor Kelly, but there's no questioning the importance this game holds for Arizona State.
A Thursday night showdown with UCLA, in Tempe, in a battle of two of the fifteen best teams in America has everyone excited. Obviously the play of Mike Bercovici at quarterback is key for the Sun Devils, and a win would go a long way towards salvaging some optimism for the season. In fact, a great argument could be made that if the Sun Devils win this game, they'll become the favorite to win the Pac-12 South, even with a backup quarterback taking snaps.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, the game must be played, and aside from the aforementioned quarterback situation, there's one key that could really swing this game in the Sun Devils favor. Here is the week's Matchup of the Week:
Arizona State Rush Defense vs. UCLA Rushing Attack
Sure, the Sun Devils rush defense suffers statistically from playing a run-first, run-always team in New Mexico two weeks ago, but that's precisely part of the problem. Arizona State knew that Weber State and New Mexico would both want to, need to and honestly have to run the ball in order to stay competitive. The Sun Devils couldn't stop it.
Fast forward to the Colorado game. The Buffaloes are not a running team. They like to spread the ball out, throw it around and create space for their receivers to work. But somehow, a team that has lacked a solid rushing attack since Rashaan Salaam and Kordell Stewart were running the option in 1994, managed to gain over 200 yards and average over six yards per carry on the ground.
That is simply inexcusable.
The Bruins, meanwhile, have struggled to run the ball all season. Without a feature back, and with Myles Jack focusing on playing linebacker, only Paul Perkins has found success. Jordan James has looked decent in spurts, but never consistently, and quarterback Brett Hundley can't find running lanes despite constantly being on the run thanks to a worse-than-expected offensive line.
The key for the Sun Devils is to shut the Bruins down from the beginning. UCLA does not have playmakers that scare anyone at receiver. Jordan Payton is a possession receiver with great hands, but he lacks elite speed. Nobody else has emerged to help, with Devin Fuller and Devin Lucien somehow both averaging less than six yards per catch.
Scat back Steven Manfro is out for the season, and the read option game hasn't been there for the Bruins. The struggles on the ground are a big reason why UCLA has struggled to win a game this season. It's shocking that they're 3-0 entering this contest. UCLA hasn't outplayed a single opponent thus far, and somehow they're undefeated.
Shutting down the run game is the key to getting Arizona State out in front early and putting this game away. Bercovici needs reps on offense to get comfortable, so the defense can't afford to give up long drives. Furthermore, the talent just isn't there yet to have to deal with an elite quarterback like Hundley (don't kid yourselves listening to Jim Mora, Hundley is going to play).
When Hundley has time to move around and run with the ball, he's dangerous. The Sun Devils did a nice job shutting down this portion of his game last season, but that was clearly a different defense. Jaxon Hood needs to break out in this one. The entire game plan against the run starts with Hood up the middle.
The Bruins have been vulnerable up the middle of their offensive line all season. A strong performance from Hood would get both Hundley and Perkins running laterally. The one thing this Sun Devils defense can do in abundance is run with opposing teams, especially at linebacker. The athletic talent of Salamo Fiso and DJ Calhoun is unrivaled at the position in the Pac-12. When Hundley has to run left to right, he struggles keeping his eyes downfield. This usually leads to poor throws or taking a sack. Perkins, meanwhile, lacks the explosiveness to outrun linebackers sideline-to-sideline.
So how do you get the Bruins moving east to west? Jaxon Hood is how. If the junior finally breaks out of his early season slump, he could change this entire game. On iso and dive runs, Hood needs to consume blockers and allow the linebackers to attack and make plays. This will force the Bruins outside, where Hood's ability to get into the backfield quickly can prevent any cutback lanes. This creates east to west running, and the Sun Devils can stop that.
Viliami Latu,Tashon Smallwood and Demetrius Cherry take on greater importance in this game as well, as the Bruins are likely to run to the weak side often, avoiding the one Sun Devil defensive lineman who has shined thus far in Marcus Hardison. Smallwood has looked overmatched at times, and Cherry has failed to take the job away, so a weakness clearly exists. Look for the Bruins to attack behind their biggest lineman, left tackle Malcolm Bunche. I expect to see a lot of read option plays as well, as the Bruins try to draw the safeties of Arizona State in by getting Hundley to the second level untouched.
The read option can be particularly difficult for young teams to defend, and the Sun Devils youth certainly showed in the second quarter against New Mexico, when the triple-option produced several long runs with worse athletes than those at UCLA. Calhoun, Fiso, Longino and the rest of the rotational linebackers are going to have to sure up the over pursuing that has happened in all three games to prevent the Bruins from putting long drives together.
Confidence is key in this one, as is limiting mistakes. The longer the Sun Devils offense has to sit and watch, the less likely it is that Bercovici and the team find a rhythm, and that would be troublesome for Arizona State. Shut down the Bruins running game, and you've turned them into a spread passing team that lacks the weapons to succeed. So far, three opponents have nearly used this strategy to upset the Bruins. If Arizona State can execute and shut down the run, the Bruins perfect season will end.