The Bruins (5-2, 2-2) and Sun Devils (5-2, 3-1) are still in the hunt for the Pac-12 South title, with UCLA a game behind the USC Trojans (6-1, 4-1) and Arizona State a half-game back. Both teams have games coming up against the division-leading Trojans.
“We’ve got some very important games coming up starting with this one Saturday against a very good Arizona State team,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “We’ve got to get ourselves focused in and ready to roll, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Bruins are coming off of a bye week, but the Sun Devils are coming off a 43-21 nationally televised loss to the Oregon Ducks that was even more of a blowout than the final score indicates. Oregon led 43-7 at halftime, and Arizona State scored two late touchdowns against a Ducks defense composed mostly of reserves.
Whether or not that drubbing provides UCLA with an emotional edge isn’t something Mora said he’d be concerned with this week.
“I don’t think it matters at all, really,” Mora said. “I think had they won they’d be riding high, and the fact that they suffered defeat they’ll probably be as determined as ever to get back on track. I think regardless of what happens the week before you just have to do the best that you can to prepare that week going into the game and worry more about yourself than about the opponent’s motivation.”
What the Bruins will have to figure out is a way to deal with a stout Arizona State pass defense. The Sun Devils are No. 1 in the nation in pass defense, having given up 130.43 yards per game through the air.
They key is a relentless pass rush that is No. 2 in the nation, with four sacks a game, and a swarming front seven that leads the nation with 9.43 tackles for a loss per game.
“They’re disruptive,” Mora said. “The quarterback doesn’t have a lot of time to throw the football; they make him alter his motion a lot. They get him on the move a lot. Down the field they are veterans back there. They play physical. They just play good team pass defense.”
The Arizona State front took a couple of major hits last week against Oregon, when Will Sutton and Junior Onyeali both left with first-quarter injuries. Sutton is third in the nation with 8.5 sacks and fifth in tackles for a loss with 14. The availability of both players against UCLA is to be determined. But the Bruins know Arizona State will be formidable up front regardless.
“Their pass rush is really what helps them out, just getting pressure on the quarterback,” UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley said. “They have a good D-line, a solid D-line ... very fast. So we just have to be ready.”
On offense, Arizona State runs an up-tempo spread attack that centers around athletic quarterback Taylor Kelly and a multi-faceted running attack. Kelly has passed for 1,693 yards and 15 touchdowns with only four interceptions this season. He’s also part of the team’s running attack, tallying 248 yards in 73 carries this season.
The Sun Devils rotate tailbacks D.J. Foster, Cameron Marshall, Marion Grace and Michael Eubank, who have combined for 1,013 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Still, it’s Kelly who has Mora most worried, because of his ability to scramble and make positive yards on broken plays.
“He’s got speed,” Mora said. “That’s what really jumps out to me about their quarterback is his mobility, his ability to throw the ball accurately on the run and then the speed at which he runs the ball when he does become a runner. He’s not looking to get out of bounds or just get a little bit of yards and get down; he’s looking to break them.”
The teams have three common opponents so far with both posting home victories over Utah and road wins at Colorado. Arizona State won at California, 27-17, a week before UCLA was thrashed in Berkeley, 43-17.
But Hundley said that coming off a bye week will ensure his team is fresh as they head into a critical stretch of the season.
“It was huge just to be able to get your body back under you, just sort of get rested and come out strong for the rest of the season,” Hundley said. “It’s almost like a new season.
“These last five games are basically playoffs. They are going to be a big-time test for this team, and we need to be ready for them.”