Before Thursday's UCLA-Arizona State game (10PM EST, Fox Sports 1), Ryan McGinn and myself sat down to discuss this week's matchup, and what both the Bruins and Sun Devils will be bringing to the field in Tempe this week. Can the Bruins pull off a convincing win on the road against a Taylor Kelly-less Sun Devils squad? Or can Mike Bercovici do what Jerry Neuheisel did last week, and be the backup that leads his team to a big victory?
RM: Well the cat was let out of the bag about a week ago that TK10 won't be playing Thursday night, but Jim Mora has been much better about hiding the status of his star QB. So should we expect to see native Arizonian Brett Hundley decked out in blue and gold under the Tempe lights Thursday or will it be the battle of the number two's?
CT: I think Hundley will be suiting up to start come Thursday against the Sun Devils. Having the bye week right after the Texas game was huge for having Hundley as close to a 100% for this weeks match up. Neuheisel performed well in Hundley's absence, but the offensive playcalling was dramatically limited to most screen/swing passes and Paul Perkins run plays, so we should definitely see the offense open up more normally vs. Arizona State.
We didn't see much from Mike Bercovici when Taylor Kelly went down. He came in during the third quarter of the Sun Devils win over Colorado, throwing just four passes while DJ Foster carried most of the offensive production for the remainder of the game vs. the Buffs. Do you think OC Mike Norvell will put his trust in Bercovici's arm more against the Bruins secondary? Or do you think he'll continue to go to Foster and let him pound it away on the ground?
RM: Mike Norvell's no dummy; he would have never let former Sun Devil junior QB Michael Eubank walk unless he fully trusted Mike Bercovici to run the offense if disaster struck. But with this being the biggest conference game of the season being broadcast nationally on Fox Sports 1 for god and everyone to see, Norvell will look to give Foster a slightly heavier workload than usual... if that's even possible. Unfortunately for the Tempe faithful, no way Jim Mora lets him do so. I'm expecting UCLA to load the box and make ASU try to beat them on Bercovici's right arm, something that's easier said than done. Whether Norvell trusts Bercovici or not, he'll have to let him loose if we want to have any chance of staying in this thing.
"Runningbacker" Myles Jack has been relatively quiet on offense this season. Any chance we see him impress on both sides of the ball or does he continue his stellar work just on the defensive end?
CT: With the way Paul Perkins has played this season, I think the Bruins are set at the RB spot for now. I wouldn't be shocked to see Jack come in during Goal Line packages to add a little extra size in running or blocking, but for the time being, his home is on defense, as it should be. Jack has accumulated 26 total tackles (18 solo) this year, good for second behind LB Eric Kendricks. Both make a big 1-2 combo that has been huge for the UCLA front seven in the run defense, holding teams to just 3.6 YPC so far this season. (Worth noting, they haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher yet this season). They'll have possibly their biggest test yet with DJ Foster coming out of the backfield this week.
Speaking of, Foster has absolutely obliterated the stat lines in each game this season, rushing for over a 100-yards in each game this year to set a new career-high for yards in a season. How can Foster have success on the ground against the Bruins, and will he break 100-yards on Thursday?
RM:A: Sadly enough, I feel like DJ Foster's success falls onto the shoulders of Bercovici. ASU has to show they are still capable of flinging the rock for an extravagant number of yards for UCLA to play them honestly on defense. Jaelen Strong is such a great deep threat that getting him established early will force UCLA to provide help defense over the top... but if Mike can't get him the football, they won't need to. Luckily, Jaelen is a top five wide receiver in the NCAA and Mike has an absolute cannon. Bercovici just needs to find the confidence to toss it out there and let Jaelen Strong go get it. A couple accurate deep balls early will force Mora to pull at least one backer out of the box to play over the top, leaving a little more wiggle room for Foster. Second, Taylor Kelly wasn't exactly Michael Vick, but the threat of him busting the occasional long run forces ends to stay home and play honest. If Mike can show he's capable of similar rushes, the UCLA defense won't be able to sell out on DJ out of ASU's elaborate read option sets. Look for UCLA to crash towards DJ whether it's play-action, read option or just a generic run, until Bercovici shows flashes of that big cannon or any type of running ability.
Good news, bad news. Bad news? No way DJ finishes with 100 yards. The UCLA defense will be the best defense they've played so far. DJ will have to work ten times harder than the last three games to find running room, all while getting brought down harder than usual. UCLA will cause DJ's legs to tire out earlier than ever and have him a little more battered and bruised than usual. Good news? With a solid stable of runnning backs in Kalen Ballage, Deantre Lewis, and Demario Richards, the four will all get a ton of touches Thursday. We may not see DJ Foster be offensive MVP, but the running game will still star Thursday.
Say CTG lets Bercovici and his arm loose Thursday, who's the guy who can handle Jaelen Strong? With DJ Foster torching defenses, he's become a forgotten man as of late, but is there anyone on this UCLA defense you can slow him down if necessary?
CT: I've been impressed with Ishmael Adams so far this year. He's been doing well in keeping guys from making big plays and forcing teams to look elsewhere in coverage. He's got 2 PBU's (tied for most on the team) and a pick six on the year. There's only been one or two instances on the top of my head that they've given up a big play that turned the tide of a game.
What about the Sun Devils on defense? Not only will ASU have to contain Brett Hundley, but Paul Perkins is having himself a good year and adds a new threat on the ground for the Bruins. Who can step up and hold down the fort on defense?
RM: While I could talk about freshman wonders Tashon Smallwood and DJ Calhoun, I feel like our two veteran could use some hype. Damarious Randall took the ASU defense by storm last year, turning in a magnificent performance against the Irish at Jerry's World and hasn't looked back since. Good at playing down hill against the run and being the insurance policy in the secondary, he's been a defensive leader all season for a very young unit. Look for Hundley to be a tad bit more careful looking over the top, with Randall lurking in the shadows. The other? Salamo Fiso. The redshirt sophomore linebacker has a similar story to that of Randall, starting about halfway through last season. A rock at the strong side linebacker spot, expect to see him harass Hundley off the blitz this Thursday, while keeping Paul Perkins from busting the edge open for a huge gain.
So how do you think this one goes? Does UCLA sprint past the Devils or stumble on a hot Thursday night in Tempe?
CT: With what we've seen the first couple of weeks from UCLA, I don't expect the Bruins to be sprinting past many teams this year. However, with Hundley back under center and Taylor Kelly out this Thursday, I think the Bruins will be able to get past the Sun Devils to give themselves a leg up in the Pac-12 South to start conference play. UCLA by a touchdown.
RM: With a second string QB at the helm, UCLA's main goal will be stopping DJ Foster, which will be easy to accomplish with 8+ men in the box. If CTG & company stay the course, they have an outside chance of winning this game, but this could become UCLA's first marquee win of the year. UCLA catches another break with the timely injury of TK and stays undefeated again for another week, 23-20 UCLA.