(Photo: ASU Athletics)
The UCLA Bruins have won two of the last three South titles, and have beaten ASU the last two times they have played the Devils. In order for the Sun Devils to stop that trend they must do three things: The defense must get off the field on third downs, force UCLA to kick field goals in the red zone, and force two-way star Myles Jack to second-guess himself.
The UCLA Bruins are converting on 51 percent of their third downs, 12th best in the nation. Of the Bruins 79 first downs, quarterback Brett Hundley has converted 15 with his legs. On the other hand, ASU is the best in the FBS at forcing opposing offenses into three and outs.
The ASU pass rush must maintain its lane integrity to not allow Hundley to get outside the pocket on third downs, and if Hundley does break the pocket, the Sun Devils must wrap him up and gang tackle the six-foot-three, 225-pound sophomore. Further, force Hundley to beat you with his arm. Hundley has had his struggles on third downs when he has to throw the ball. On the year, Hundley is completing 68 percent of his passes, on third downs that drops to 60 percent. The UCLA quarterback has 8 interceptions on the season, 5 have come on third downs.
Third downs will be crucial in this game, and ASU defensive end Gannon Conway understands that.
“It’ll be a good matchup,” said Conway of both teams third down strengths. “I think things like that will determine the outcome of the game, as long as we can take them off the field on third downs we’ll be able to control the ball.”
ASU Defensive coordinator Paul Randolph remembers how Brett Hundley hurt the Sun Devil defense in last year’s game.
“If you look at our game last year against them you know he converted quite a few of the third downs with his legs, and that’s something that we have to be conscious of,” said Randolph.
If Brett Hundley and co. are able to extend plays, the ASU defense must force the Bruins to kick field goals in the red zone.
UCLA comes into the game ranked 17th in the nation in red-zone conversions. 43 of their 48 (89 percent) trips inside the 20 have resulted in points. More importantly for ASU, 35 have come via the touchdown. This is worrisome for Arizona State because they are allowing opposing offenses to score on 86 percent of their opportunities in the red zone. From the 26 total scores given up by the Sun Devils, 19 have come in the form of six points. ASU must play bend but don’t break defense because forcing a team to kick field goals in the red zone is always a win for the defense, secondly, forcing field goals will keep the Rose Bowl Stadium quiet.
“It’s going to come down to the red zone and other parts of the field and just doing what we are supposed to be doing on defense,” Conway said.
Lastly, Arizona State must shut down two-way star Myles Jack’s initial read, and force him to read the defense and his offensive line. Jack is a throwback player. When the six-foot-one, 225-pound linebacker isn’t hitting opposing players, he’s trying to run them over. In the two games Jack has carried the ball he has been explosive and powerful: 19 carries for 180 yards, and five touchdowns. However, he is inexperienced at the running back position, admitting himself that he doesn’t fully understand pass protection assignments, and the offensive line’s blocking scheme. More telling, he said he runs where Hundley tells him too. The key for the Sun Devils is to force Jack to react in order to see if the talented but raw athlete can effectively read defenses.
Head coach Todd Graham laid out the expectations for his team at the beginning of the season. Goal number one, win the PAC-12 South. Number two, win the PAC-12 Championship game. Number three, play in the Rose Bowl.
The Sun Devils have a great opportunity to get goal number one tomorrow.
Sam Rabadi can be reached via Twitter @Sam_Rabadi or email at firstname.lastname@example.org