THIS WEEK’S OPPONENT:
Arizona State Sun Devils, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ – Saturday, October 27, 12 Noon, Fox Channel 11
LINE: Arizona State by 6
Walt Hazzard, the point guard on UCLA’s first national championship basketball team in 1964, was the Bruins’ coach in the mid-1980’s.
During one season in his tenure, his team was coming upon a part of a schedule filled with tough, top-notch teams in which their fate would likely be decided.
He called it the “Death March”.
Twenty-something years later, UCLA’s football counterparts will be embarking on a similar death march to determine the fate of their first season under Jim Mora, starting this Saturday when they will venture to the desert to play an Arizona State Sun Devil team that, like the Bruins, have won five of their seven games and will feature perhaps the toughest defense that they will face to date.
Not to mention that ASU will be desperately looking to wipe their humiliation by Oregon in their last game out of their mouths.
How UCLA will fare may well depend on the health of the Sun Devils’ two best defensive players, linemen Will Sutton and Junior Onyeali, who were both knocked out of the game against the fourth-ranked Ducks.
While Onyeli is expected to be on the field against the Bruins, Sutton spent the rest of the Oregon game on crutches, and he is listed as day-to-day.
Both linemen anchor an ASU defense that averages four sacks and 9.4 tackles for loss a game, with Sutton leading the Sun Devils with 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.
That officially makes him an absolute beast in and of itself, but when you put that together will Onyeali’s four sacks and Chris Young’s team-leading 12.5 tackles for loss, you have a Sun Devil defense that could very much terrorize UCLA’s offense, as their 28 sacks and 66 tackles for loss on the season have outdone their UCLA counterparts.
Especially considering the youth and inexperience of the Bruins’ offensive line, who will directly battle with Sutton (if he plays), Onyeali, Young, and the rest of their ASU front seven mates.
Bottom line: Arizona State’s front seven will be a HUGE concern, particularly if Sutton, who will likely be playing on Sundays very soon, is in the lineup.
A key to the game will be the Bruins’ ability to run the ball, which means that Damien Thigpen, Jordon James, and Johnathan Franklin, who is averaging 125.4 yards a game on the ground, will have to have good days in order to keep the Sun Devil defense honest and unable to tee off on quarterback Brett Hundley, which is what they will be looking to do.
I’m also looking for Noel Mazzone, UCLA’s offensive coordinator, to devise a game plan that will enable Hundley to roll out and get rid of the ball quickly on pass plays, to throw the ball to the running backs in the flat and perhaps throw ASU’s front seven off balance, because if Hundley holds on to the ball too long, he will definitely be running for his life against Sutton and company.
Meanwhile, UCLA’s defense will have plenty to worry about as the Sun Devil offense has done very well, led by quarterback Taylor Kelly, whose 15 touchdown passes trail only USC’s Matt Barkley in the Pac-12 Conference.
Anthony Barr and Datone Jones, who each have 11 TFL’s, will try along with the rest of the Bruin defense to pressure Kelly and not give him time to throw. Barr, who’s having a great season as his 7.5 sacks lead the team, will need to have a good day disrupting ASU’s rhythm as will Jones and everyone else.
This game is a golden opportunity to reverse what’s been a troubling trend of UCLA not playing well in the desert, as their last two trips to play the Arizona schools in their houses have resulted in disasters.
If they can come out of the Phoenix area with a win – Tempe is a suburb of Phoenix – that would be a monumental feat for the Bruins going forward as their death march, which will include Arizona, Washington State on the road, ninth-ranked USC, and Stanford, begins.
It will certainly not be easy, as Arizona State’s points per game, 37.7, and opponent’s points per game, 18.3, surpasses the Bruins’ 31.7 and 22.6 respectively, but if Jim Mora’s team stays focused, makes plays, and avoids mistakes (like penalties and turnovers!), beating the Sun Devils will not be an impossible task.