(Photo: Courtney Pedroza/WCSN)
A major step in deciding the Pac-12 South Champion will be taken Thursday night when No. 15 Arizona State (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) takes on No. 11 UCLA (3-0) in Tempe.
Or maybe not. With the way things are going, who knows anymore?
Snapshot of UCLA
Their offensive line can’t block, their defense has looked shaky in the last 10 quarters and quarterback Brett Hundley hyper-extended his elbow and missed most of the last game against Texas.
And they are still 3-0.
The Bruins have been living life on the edge, coming close to losing all three games, but Hundley and the defense have been able to make big plays in the fourth quarter to pull out the wins. Despite being heavily favored in their first two games and expected to blow out a short-handed Texas team, the Bruins’ largest margin of victory this season was eight points against Virginia.
The Bruin defense returned three turnovers for touchdowns against the Cavaliers to build a big lead but nearly gave it up in the second half after the Cavaliers changed quarterbacks.
The Bruin defense was expected to be one of the best in the nation but since the first half against Virginia, the Bruins have forced zero turnovers and the team ranks 81st in the nation in turnover differential at -1. What is more alarming is the fact UCLA blitzes and puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks yet they only have three sacks on the season, 114th in that category.
Texas Longhorns quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, playing in place of injured starter David Ashe, did not light up the scoreboard, but he was able to find holes in UCLA’s defense that really should not have been there.
However, the Bruins make plays when they matter, especially their quarterbacks. After throwing a pick-six that allowed Memphis to tie the game in week two, Hundley came back the next drive and led the Bruins to the endzone for the game-deciding touchdown pass.
Against Texas, Hundley left with an elbow injury, but back-up Jerry Neuheisel kept the game close and hit receiver Jordan Payton for a 33-yard touchdown pass with three minutes left in the game. Some luck helped the Bruins pull out the win when Swoopes short-armed a fourth-down pass on Texas’ last drive.
The Bruins are coming off a bye week, giving them time and, though they have not officially announced it yet, it is widely expected Hundley will start. The extra time also allows the Bruins to prepare for ASU back-up Mike Bercovici, who will play in place of Taylor Kelly.
Matchup to Watch
Mike Bercovici against the blitz.
Despite their struggles, UCLA will be the most talented defense Bercovici has seen so far in his career. The bye week gives UCLA time to prepare more blitz packages and figure out how to disguise coverages to confuse Bercovici at the line.
Bercovici will need to make snap decisions as he is sure to face six and seven man blitzes the entire game. The Sun Devil offensive line struggled to protect Taylor Kelly at times this season. Although Bercovici is mobile in the pocket, he is not a runner like Kelly, which puts more pressure on the line to pick up the blitz and hold the pocket.
Third and long situations will be especially difficult as UCLA will be able to blitz or drop back into coverage and force Bercovici to beat them down field, something he has not had to do in his career against ASU.
ASU Wins If
They control the ball. UCLA has only won time of possession once this season, against Texas, and that was only by a couple of minutes.
ASU likes to go fast but with Bercovici in, and a defense with an untested secondary and that struggles to get pressure, ASU would be wise to slow the game down a bit and keep Hundley and company off the field. Long drives that end in points will be Arizona State’s best defense against the Bruins.
Third down will be key for this strategy to work. UCLA is holding opponents under 40 percent on third down conversions.
ASU Loses If
The defense cannot take advantage of UCLA’s struggling offensive line. The Sun Devils have struggled to get pressure on quarterbacks this season without blitzing. UCLA has struggled to protect Hundley, even when facing only a three or four man rush.
Something has to give. If UCLA’s offensive line wins, and Hundley has time to stand in the pocket and survey the field and/or find open lanes to run in, it will be a long day for the Sun Devils. Even if Hundley is not 100 percent.
Arizona State 28