10:00 PM EST, FOX Sports 1 – Line: UCLA -4.5
Budding rivals clash in an early Pac 12 showdown as the fifteenth-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils host the eleventh-ranked UCLA Bruins on Thursday Night Football. Though it may not hold quite the same appeal as some other rivalries in the conference, these two teams have basically decided the Pac 12 South in each of the past two seasons. Both Jim Mora and Todd Graham came to their respective schools back in 2012, and since then each has quickly improved upon floundering programs; in 2012, Mora’s Bruins stormed into Tempe and proved victorious in an epic 45-43 thriller that ultimately earned them the division crown, while Graham’s Devils returned the favor a year later by virtue of a 38-33 win. Now, these teams face off in Tempe for the first time as ranked opponents since 2007. However, there is a small situation mounting under center for both teams, as each could possibly be without their starting Quarterback for tonight’s crucial contest.
For UCLA (3-0, 0-0 in Pac 12), that could be a really big deal. During last weekend’s narrow 20-17 victory over Texas, Heisman candidate Brett Hundley injured his elbow, leaving his availability for tonight’s game up in the air. The reason for the uncertainty has been Mora’s propensity to be as coy as possible when describing his injury-riddled team; in addition to his Quarterback, Mora could be without as many as three Offensive Linemen, with Conor McDermott (shoulder) and Jake Brendal (knee) both questionable, and Simon Goines out for the season with a broken ankle. Perhaps that’s been the reason why the Bruins have largely underwhelmed to this point, particularly after carrying the No. Seven ranking in the preseason; despite owning an unblemished record, they have fallen to eleventh in the rankings, thanks to an average margin of victory of 6.0 points. Granted, they’ve been tasked with statistically the toughest schedule of any of the remaining unbeatens, but they simply haven’t had the look of a dark horse National Championship contender. Anyway, it may prove in fact to be gamesmanship on Mora’s part, but if Hundley is unable to go then in all likelihood it will be Jerry Neuheisel, who took over for his fallen teammate and paved the way to victory.
To tell the truth though, even with all the injuries the offense has still be very productive; through three games the Bruins are averaging 30.0 points (75th nationally) on 447.0 yards of total offense, including a very healthy 288.0 yards through the air, along with 159.0 more on the ground. Hundley’s mobility has been a huge factor behind the decimated Offensive Line, allowing him to complete 70.4% of his passes for 686 yards and three touchdowns and one interception without the luxury of a clean pocket. Of course, he can make plays with his legs as well, rushing for 74 yards and another score. However, the shortage of healthy bodies up front has taken an effect on the rushing attack as a whole, for UCLA has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, down from 4.5 a year ago. Now what has made this team vulnerable is the defense, which has been a far cry from last year’s incarnation, one of the best in the country. Mora’s defense has suffered it’s fair share of injuries too, particularly in the Secondary where veteran Safety Randall Goforth (shoulder) is out for the season, with promising youngster John Johnson (shoulder) joining him. As a result, they’ve been picked apart far too often in the passing game, allowing 255.7 yards on a lenient 66.1% of their attempts. Memphis burned them on a number of occasions to the tune of 396 yards and three touchdowns on 33-of-44 passing, while Texas went 27-for-34 for 226 yards and two more scores. Remember, this is a defense that still boasts the likes of Ishmael Adams, Eric Kendricks, and Myles Jack, whom are each easily All-Conference performers. They simply need to play up to their reputations.
Meanwhile, the situation is a bit more grave for the Sun Devils (3-0, 1-0 in Pac 12), who have already announced that their starting Quarterback Taylor Kelly will miss tonight’s game after he injured his foot back on September 13th in a 38-24 victory. Taking all the drama out of things, Graham proclaimed his Quarterback out a week ago, as his team enjoyed an early Bye Week. So that means they’ve had over a week to prepare for the Bruins, who they will be facing with Junior Mike Bercovici under center. Bercovici wound up on the losing end of a Camp Battle with Kelly back in 2012, waiting in the wings while his predecessor continued to earn Graham’s favor. In fact, he’s attempted a mere 24 passes over the past two seasons, but could now be locked into the starting job depending on the extent of Kelly’s injury, and his own performance of course. Thus far, the strong-armed veteran has completed just 9-of-17 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown in limited action over three outings. It remains to be seen just how effective he can be steering the Devils’ potent offensive attack.
On the campaign, Arizona State has averaged a robust 47.0 points (8th nationally) on 539.0 yards of offense, including 234.7 yards via the pass and another 304.3 yards via the rush. That last bit is huge in a number of ways; not only are the Sun Devils trampling their opposition, but they’re attempting 42.7 carries and gaining a ridiculous 7.1 yards per rush. DJ Foster has been a bonafide stud in the backfield, leading the team with 510 yards on just 54 carries, racking up 9.4 yards a tote, and scoring five touchdowns. His 170.0 yards per game ranks third nationally among tailbacks from the Power Five Conferences, with the lion’s share of that figure coming between the tackles; Foster has averaged 103.3 yards when running inside, tops among those same conferences. However, it remains to be seen just how the loss of Kelly will effect the ground game, for the Quarterback was very adept at making plays with his feet. In fact, Kelly actually ranks second on the team in rushing, churning out 168 yards and a pair of scores on 19 carries. Bercovici is much more of a classic pocket passer, which is isn’t so bad considering his arm strength and the potential of play-action. Defensively, Graham’s boys have been solid against the pass, permitting opposing Quarterbacks to complete just 59.6% of their attempts for 199.7 yards, with the pass rush playing a big role as six different players have already notched a sack. However, it’s been quite a different story against the rush, where the Devils have been far from devilish; through three games thus far they have been gashed for 197.0 yards on 4.7 yards per carry, with Colorado posting 232 yards two weeks ago.