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ASU Football: Storylines to watch against UCLA

Disciplined football will be the name of the game

Arizona State v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

TEMPE - There is a palpable buzz around Tempe this week for family weekend, both around campus and on social media, for maybe the first time all season. Like him or not, interim head coach Shaun Aguano injected some life into the ASU football (3-5, 2-3 Pac-12) by starting Trenton Bourguet at quarterback and beating Colorado last week.

No. 12 UCLA (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) is a much different story. UCLA is putting up 500.6 (2nd in the Pac-12) yards offensively, per-game. On the ground, the Bruins are rushing for 222.4 (also 2nd in the conference) yards per-game.

“They’re running the football. No matter what you think, they are running the football,” defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson said. “They try to make it seem like they’re throwing it a lot but when it’s all said and done, they are running the football.”

Last year, the Sun Devils held DTR to just 76 passing yards (before sacks) in the second half after ASU went into the locker room at halftime up 24-23. Shutting down Dorian Thompson-Robinson, or DTR, for even a quarter might give Bourguet and the offense enough breathing room to compete in a shootout.

Below are House of Sparky’s storylines to watch for ASU in an effort to take down another ranked-opponent at home.

Containing DTR, tackling in the open field

Everyone, fans and Sun Devil players alike, will be keying-in on DTR Saturday night in Tempe. Remember back to the USC game when Caleb Williams turned three would-be sacks on third-down into three miraculous plays to extend Trojan drives.

DTR has that same ability.

As of now, he is averaging just under 40 rushing yards per-game, down from his average of 55 rushing yards per-game last season. There are a few factors leading to this: Zach Charbonnet (who leads the conference with 7.5 yards per-carry) is healthy, and will be just as dangerous of a threat in the backfield, and as DTR matures (fifth-year in 2022), he is keeping his eyes downfield longer, even when there is room to run.

As a result, Sun Devil edge players and linebackers will have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders Saturday night. Captain linebackers Kyle Soelle (91 tackles) and Merlin Robertson (63 tackles) are two of the more sure-handed tacklers on the team, but keeping contain will be the name of the game.

“That offense is clicking because, in my opinion, (UCLA coach Chip Kelly) gets guys running laterally,” Henderson said. “(Kelly) gets guys looking with bad eyes, and the next thing you know it’s an explosive play here. You’re looking at the quarterback and the next thing you know, the running back is down the middle. I think that’s what he’s doing well. He’s scheming.”

That puts pressure on the primary edge defenders: Anthonie Cooper, Joe Moore, Travez Moore and Dylan Hall. Getting greedy by going quarterback-hunting is the last thing these rushers should be worried about. Keeping DTR in the pocket will be a priority.

“We have to again, emphasize about the third downs,” Aguano said. “I showed them, (we’re) at 50 percent (on defensive third-downs,) That’s not good enough. And so we gotta get off the field. A lot of it is the situation of football from a knowledge standpoint that we as coaches need to educate the kids. What do we need to do in order to be in situations that we understand the situation where we need to get off the field?”

What to make of Messiah Swinson

I know the fans want to see more of Missouri-transfer tight end Messiah Swinson, and why wouldn’t they? Jalin Conyers exploded for three (nearly four) touchdowns last week in Boulder, the only FBS tight end to record a three-score game this season.

“I mean (Conyers) makes plays all over the field,” Aguano said. “So I think he is a lot more comfortable with the schematics that we brought in. He is a mismatch for the smaller safeties, and then they got to tackle that guy.”

If 6-foot-4, 265-pound Conyers is a mismatch, what is 6-foot-8, 255-pound Swinson?

Swinson struggled with drops during fall camp, but has improved as the season has progressed, frequently acting as a top-target during garbage time (including one touchdown.)

Receivers like Giovanni Sanders and Elijhah Badger have been so good on third-down recently, the tight ends see fewer targets. Under Aguano, that might be changing.

Crowd Impact

It is family weekend. There is an (arguable) top-ten opponent in town. Bourguet has provided the offense a spark, and the hangover of Herm Edwards’s departure might finally be wearing off, even marginally.

There is no reason this should not be the most-crowded game of the season at Sun Devil Stadium.

Will the crowd have any sort of impact? The two most-recent games in Tempe with a significant stadium presence were the USC family weekend-loss in 2019 (with Joey Yellen at quarterback), and the upset-win over Oregon in 2019.

A sell-out might be too much to expect, but some noise will go a long way for the Sun Devils.