Arizona State is riding high after easily dispatching Colorado at home on Sep. 25, but coach Herm Edwards and the Sun Devils will encounter arguably their biggest challenge to date as they head out on the road to face No. 20 UCLA Saturday night.
The last meeting between the two teams was a rollercoaster affair that ended with a Bruins victory. ASU rallied from a 17-0 deficit to take a one-point lead late in the fourth quarter, but ultimately surrendered a game-winning touchdown drive to UCLA with a minute remaining.
The root cause of ASU’s defeat - aside from their offensive lethargy in the first two quarters - was their inability to keep Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in check. Thompson-Robinson, a noted dual-threat, was allowed to escape the pocket and extend plays throughout the first half, which resulted in UCLA taking a sizable lead.
The Sun Devils made adjustments and blitzed Thompson-Robinson aggressively in the second half, leading to five ASU sacks in the second half, including a safety. Under siege from Arizona State’s defensive front, the UCLA signal caller was ineffective for the entire third quarter and most of the fourth, which enabled the Sun Devils to claw back into the game and even temporarily take the lead.
Limiting Thompson-Robinson’s mobility will be key for the Sun Devils in Saturday’s matchup. ASU has struggled to contain athletic quarterbacks so far this season, as both UNLV’s Doug Brumfield and Colorado’s Brendon Lewis were able to accumulate 35 or more rushing yards against the Sun Devils. Thompson-Robinson is nursing a minor injury, and has yet to author a dominant rushing performance this season, but the Sun Devils cannot afford to take him lightly regardless.
“I don’t know if you stop him. I think you try to contain him,” Edwards said. “Nobody is going to stop him. Great athletes, you’re not going to stop them. That word is kind of overused. You’re not going to stop the guy. You can try to contain him and hold him to a minimum. You have to understand your rush lanes. Any time you run by a quarterback — our quarterback does the same thing. You run past him upfield and you open windows for the guy to escape. If you watch the last couple times that quarterbacks ran on us, look at the rush lanes, very obvious. Run past the quarterback, you got a problem, right? I think all those things come into play.”
The same goes for UCLA’s backfield tandem of Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. Brown averaged over 13 yards per carry against ASU last season. While Charbonnet has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in three of the Bruins’ four games and has found the end zone seven times. In the event that UCLA’s passing attack falls flat, Charbonnet and Brown provide a more-than-decent plan B for an offense that has scored 35 or more points in every single game.
Fortunately for the Sun Devils, UCLA’s defense has been decisively less impressive. The Bruins allow an average of 330 passing yards per game, by far the highest of any team ASU has faced this season and fifth-worst in the entire FBS. Jayden Daniels turned in a relatively lukewarm passing performance against Colorado, but UCLA’s porous secondary should enable him to have a bounce-back.
Oddly enough, UCLA’s run defense ranks fifth-best in the FBS and has held opposing teams to fewer than 70 rushing yards in every contest except one. ASU’s vaunted run game may receive a boost from the return of DeaMonte Trayanum, who returned to practice Tuesday, but the Bruins’ fearsome defensive front may be the biggest test yet for the Sun Devil backfield.
The stakes will be high Saturday, as the victorious team will retain its spot atop the PAC-12 South standings. ASU’s first road trip of the season did not go as planned, and the Sun Devils will have to make sure not to self-destruct in the same manner that they did at BYU. A win in Pasadena would go a long way towards exorcising the Arizona State’s away game demons, and if the Sun Devils can keep their composure, it should be within reach.