It's gameday. Since the schedule was released, Sun Devil fans have had this game circled, as the last two meetings between the Arizona State Sun Devils and UCLA Bruins has produced the Pac-12 South champion. It's finally here, and here's what our staff has to say about it.
Justin Emerson: Managing Editor (@J15Emerson)
Nick Krueger: Managing Editor (@NickPKrueger)
Jason Galvin: Columnist (@Jason_Galvin)
Ryan Bafaloukos: Staff writer (RyanBafo)
Shane Theodore: Staff writer (@shane_writes)
Is this the most important game of the season?
Emerson: No question. Lose this one, and winning the Pac-12 South isn't entirely in the sun Devils' control. They would need someone to beat UCLA, and if that's USC, then someone would have to beat the Trojans for the Sun Devils to win. It's huge, no way to overstate the importance of tonight.
Krueger: There are a lot of ways to look at this question, but I'm going to take a slightly different route here. In the context of a season for any team, the next game should always be the most important one, UCLA is the next game and hence it is the most important to this Arizona State team right now. Todd Graham takes this stance with media every week, it is "coach speak" but I think it also rings true. The Sun Devils can't sleep on any team in the Pac-12 this season, and especially not UCLA. So to answer the question, yes. It is the most important game, but USC definitely won't carry any less weight the following week. This game is in primetime, the best game Fox Sports 1 has ever put on their air, the best game of the college football weekend and a game most everyone will be watching so that only adds to the hype surrounding this particular game as well.
Galvin: It is, and even more so without Taylor Kelly. Lose this game and the wheels fall off, but win it with a backup quarterback and the team will have all the confidence in the world heading into USC. This game is also huge in the Pac-12 title chase, and a win gives the Sun Devils a big advantage.
Bafaloukos: No, I do not believe this is the most important game of the season. To me, that game is Stanford on Oct. 18. The Cardinal have had Arizona State's number for the last few years, with two resounding victories last year. The fact is Arizona State's goal is always the Rose Bowl and they cannot do that unless they beat Stanford or Oregon. From a mental aspect I think it would do a lot for Arizona State's confidence if they beat Stanford at home. What people forget is the previous two matchups between these two teams were later in the season. Even with a loss, the Sun Devils are not out of the Pac-12 South picture, especially since UCLA has to still play USC, Oregon and Stanford.
Theodore: If Arizona State wins, it'll be the biggest win they'll have this season. But that importance doesn't necessarily carry over if the Sun Devils lose. Let's not forget that this is a Week 5 game in a 13 week college football regular season that puts a much bigger emphasis on how a team finishes rather than how they start. So while this is the biggest opportunity the program will have to leave a national impression this season, it's by no means a make-or-break game.
Which defensive player needs to have possibly the best game of his career tonight?
Emerson: Jaxon Hood, come on down. Will Sutton was a monster, and a big reason why the Sun Devils were able to beat the Bruins in Los Angeles last year. Hood was de facto labeled as the next impact player, the next Will Sutton on that defensive line, and it's time for him to step up in a big way.
Krueger: I'm going to say Marcus Hardison. Brett Hundley will experience some level of discomfort already (how much we don't know) with his arm pain. Hardison has proved himself to be the most capable pass rusher on the defensive line this season and it falls on his shoulders to hurry Hundley. As Jason alluded to in his matchup of the week, Hundley has issues keeping his eyes down field on the move. The quicker the Sun Devils can make an impact and show UCLA that it's going to be a fight even without Taylor Kelly, that's all the better for Arizona State.
Galvin: Which defensive player needs to have possibly the best game of his career tonight? Jaxon Hood. It's time for the junior to blossom into the game changer everyone thought he was becoming. Hood can be the key to shutting the Bruins rushing attack down, and UCLA simply doesn't have the weapons out wide to beat ASU.
Bafaloukos: I think the defensive player who needs to step up is Marcus Hardison. Whoever the UCLA quarterback is, the Sun Devils have to pressure him. They have to get after him and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Hardison has for the most part been a disappointment in his Sun Devil career, he needs to step up tonight.
Theodore: I'm looking at the defensive line as a whole group that will need to dominate their matchup in order for the Sun Devils to win. Arizona State's secondary isn't good enough to stand on their own, so guys like Jaxon Hood, Tashon Smallwood and Marcus Hardison will need to create pressure on the quarterback.
D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong have carried the load so far, and they're going to need to tonight. Agree or disagree?
Emerson: Yes. Strong and Foster are unquestionably the best players with the fork on their helmets without Kelly. UCLA is obviously going to gameplan for these two, but if Arizona State is going to win this game, they will need to be flat-out better than the Bruins.
Krueger: Agree but I'll also say that they're not going to be able to do it alone. Foster will be relied on even more so, but if Mike Bercovici is going to have success, he's going to need every other skill position guy playing at their highest level. That means Cameron Smith, Kody Kohl, Strong, Foster, Chambers etc. Someone outside of Foster and Strong will also need to have a spectacular game if the Sun Devils are going to keep it close and have a chance to win. The Bruins game plan circles around stopping them so Arizona State will still have to spread the ball out somehow.
Galvin: Absolutely. Strong is a quarterbacks best friend, because he can take badly thrown balls and turn them into big plays with his amazing catch radius. Foster, meanwhile, has been one of the best players in America. The more they can take the load off Bercovici and the defense, the more likely it is Arizona State wins.
Bafaloukos: I think that Bercovici will look at Strong a lot, especially early on. To me, Foster is the most important player on the field tonight. If UCLA stops the run and forces Mike Bercovici to beat them, Arizona State may be in trouble. Foster has to establish a rushing presence for the Sun Devils.
Theodore: The only scenario in which I see Arizona State winning would be a scenario in which both Strong and Foster go off on UCLA. The defense relies on the offense too much and the offense relies on Strong and Foster, so their contribution will be critical.
And quite simply, is this team good enough to beat UCLA without Taylor Kelly? What will the final score be?
Emerson: I've struggled with this all week, and I still can't decide. I do believe in the power of conviction and that this Arizona State team will rally behind its backup quarterback and play its collective heart out. But UCLA is good, really good. The Bruins haven't quite put it together yet, but the talent is there. Don't think Jim Mora isn't hyping this game as much as Todd Graham is. I've got to say UCLA 38, Arizona State 31.
Krueger: Are they good enough? Yes. Will they? No. The answer to the first part of the question for me was also "no" at the beginning of the season, but these first three games have shown UCLA certainly has its fair share of weaknesses. Hundley will play, but it becomes a question of how bad is the injury and will it effect his ability. This is an incredibly intriguing game for that reason. The bye week was a blessing for the Sun Devils and it's hard to find a three-year veteran back up who knows the system as well as Bercovici. However, the uncertainty of what Bercovici's abilities will look like against one of the better defenses in the Pac-12 is too much for me not to pick the Bruins. UCLA 35, Arizona State: 31
Galvin: I think so, but part of that thinking is UCLA simply is not as good as advertised. They lack weapons and have huge holes on the offensive line. Bercovici is a solid quarterback. I was always impressed with him while covering his high school games in California, and I think he will be smart with the ball and give the Sun Devils a chance to win. I'll call the upset: Arizona State 37, UCLA 33
Bafaloukos: I think this team is good enough to beat UCLA without Taylor Kelly. And I say they do beat UCLA without Taylor Kelly. I am going to say the Sun Devils win 31-24.
Theodore: I don't say they are. If Bercovici turns out to be a revelation I'll gladly admit my wrongdoing in doubting him but until then, I don't see the rest of this team being enough to beat UCLA. I think the game stays close throughout but Hundley and UCLA pull out a 38-24 win.