(Photo: Mauricio Casillas/WCSN)
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham dubbed No. 17 USC the most “talented” team the Sun Devils would face, but on Tuesday after practice, Graham deemed No. 7 UCLA the “best football team” that ASU will play up to this point of the season.
For a variety of reasons, that claim is likely true, but the most tangible and visible one happens to be that the Bruins sit on top the Pac-12 South and are fresh off a 56-30 victory over Arizona last weekend.
What was likely UCLA’s lone question mark — the quarterback position — is all but solidified with the mature play from true freshman Josh Rosen. Although Rosen has thrown four interceptions this season, he has shown great touch on deep routes as well as the ability to go through his progressions and toss to one of his check down options.
Also aiding the progression of Rosen is what Graham called an “MVP-caliber” season so far from redshirt junior running back Paul Perkins. Through four games, Perkins has rushed for 514 yards and six touchdowns. Perkins’ 6.4 yards per carry have helped provide UCLA with great balance for its offense.
With that in mind, ASU’s run defense might be its most solidified portion of its gameplan. Against USC’s trio of talented running backs, the Trojans were held to 76 yards, well under its average of over 200 per contest.
On the other side of the ball, UCLA is still feeling the impact of losing junior linebacker Myles Jack for the season due to a knee injury. The Bruins currently rank last in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, and they gave up 353 yards on the ground to Arizona.
ASU finally began to see what a fully-healthy running attack might look like with the return of sophomore Kalen Ballage. While Ballage was far from healthy, he still managed to rush for 33 on nine carries and participated on special teams. A healthy Ballage combined with a well in-form sophomore running back Demario Richard will greatly help with a Sun Devil offense still looking to find its rhythm.
Matchups to Watch
Demario Richard v. UCLA front seven
If there has been one area where ASU has been solid on offense, it has been the ground game, spearheaded by Demario Richard, who gained 131 yards against the Trojans last week while averaging 9.4 yards per attempt.
While redshirt quarterback Mike Bercovici hasn’t quite found the form that he was in during his short stint as the starter last season, Richard has consistently produced quality results for ASU. The Bruins are vulnerable to the ground game and most recently allowed Arizona sophomore running back Nick Wilson to go for 136 yards.
Certainly, if ASU can take advantage of its ground attack, especially in the red zone where ASU has struggled, the offense may begin to look like what most thought the Sun Devils would be before the season began.
Josh Rosen v. the blitz
Everybody in the country knows what Graham’s defense will do: blitz, stunt and do anything it can to create chaos for the opposing offense.
ASU has found its way into opposing backfields often and totaled 37 tackles for loss so far; however, that hasn’t translated to sacks. Against USC’s strong offensive line, the Sun Devils failed to generate a pass rush while exposing itself in the secondary, and redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler tore ASU up for five touchdowns.
Rosen isn’t close to Kessler in terms of experience, but the freshman has shown the ability to light it up if given time. Even if ASU can slow down Paul Perkins, and that’s a big if, that doesn’t necessarily mean Rosen will be in trouble.
UCLA’s offensive line has turned into a strong unit for the Bruins, and they only allowed two sacks to Arizona last week. For the majority of the game, Rosen had time to go through his reads and make smart plays. Before those two sacks, UCLA hadn’t allowed a sack all season, so generating pressure against an offense with as strong of an offensive line as UCLA has compiled with the hassle of managing its running attack is a tall task for ASU.
This will be the most blitzing Rosen will face this season, and it is always difficult to assume how a true freshman will do. But the Bruins are at home, so one could safely guess that will help ever so slightly.
UCLA is rolling. ASU is bleeding. The Bruins have an opporutnity to protect its home field and Pac-12 South lead with a victory, and the Sun Devils’ season might just be on its last legs if they suffer another loss.
ASU needs to win to keep its hopes for a Pac-12 South title alive, so expect ASU to come out fired up, loose and motivated to prove that it isn’t dead in the water just yet. Even so, UCLA is a well-rounded, solid team in nearly every aspect, and the skills of Perkins and Rosen might just be too much for ASU.
UCLA – 48 | ASU – 28
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com