The Pac-12 South title could be on the line when Arizona State travels to UCLA on Saturday night.
Arizona State sits atop the Pac-12 South standings going into Week 13, but UCLA is just a game behind. The Bruins and Sun Devils aren’t alone in chasing the division crown, as USC is still alive at 5-2 in conference play. The Trojans lost to Arizona State earlier this year and play UCLA next week.
The Sun Devils have lost only one Pac-12 contest this season, a 42-28 matchup at Stanford in late September. Since losing to the Cardinal, Arizona State has reeled off five consecutive conference victories, including a 62-41 blowout win over USC.
UCLA started 5-0 but stumbled in back-to-back games against Stanford and Oregon. Although the Bruins dropped those two matchups, Stanford and Oregon are the top-two teams in the Pac-12, so there’s no question Jim Mora’s team is battle-tested.
Close games have defined this series in the last two years. UCLA won by two points last year and claimed a one-point victory in 2011. The Bruins own an 18-10-1 series edge over the Sun Devils, with Arizona State’s last victory against UCLA coming in 2010. The Bruins have won two in a row over the Sun Devils in the Rose Bowl.
Arizona State at UCLA
Kickoff: 7 ET
TV Channel: Fox
Spread: Arizona State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
Arizona State’s defensive line vs. UCLA’s offensive line
It’s a strength versus weakness matchup in the trenches on Saturday night. Arizona State’s defensive line is among the best in the nation, anchored by senior tackle Will Sutton. Sophomore Jaxon Hood and senior Gannon Conway round out the likely starting defensive line for the Sun Devils, and this unit helps to key an aggressive front seven. Linebacker/end Carl Bradford is the team’s top pass rusher, recording 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles this year. UCLA’s offensive line features three freshmen and depth is a concern due to injuries. The Bruins haven’t been terrible in pass protection (18 sacks in seven Pac-12 games), but this unit allowed seven of those in UCLA’s two losses. Arizona State’s defense has 23 sacks in Pac-12 action, so expect the Bruins’ young offensive line to have their hands full. UCLA needs to give quarterback Brett Hundley a clean pocket, but the sophomore is also capable of making plays with his legs when necessary.
UCLA’s rushing attack
UCLA ranks seventh in Pac-12-only games in rushing offense. The Bruins are averaging 166.7 yards per game, but the ground game has received a spark in the last two games from linebacker Myles Jack. Yes, that’s right, a linebacker. Jack is an athletic freak and has 179 yards on just 19 attempts. The coaching staff doesn’t want to overuse Jack on offense, especially with a high-powered Arizona State offense on the other side. But Jack should expect to play some on offense, especially if Jordon James is less than full strength due to an ankle injury. James has played in only five games this year and has missed five out of the last six contests. The Sun Devils struggled against the run last season but rank second in the Pac-12 in 2013. Opponents are averaging just 111.3 yards per game on the ground against Arizona State this year. The Sun Devils held three of their last four opponents to 70 or fewer yards on the ground. UCLA has to be careful not to overwork Jack, but the freshman has been this team’s best option recently. Will James be at full strength on Saturday night? If he is, the Bruins should be able to depend on him for 20 carries. However, expect to see Paul Perkins and quarterback Brett Hundley contribute to the ground game as well.
Stopping Marion Grice
Arizona State running back Marion Grice leads all Pac-12 players by averaging 12 points a game this year. The senior has 20 touchdowns through 10 games and needs 99 yards to reach 1,000 on the season. UCLA’s rush defense ranks eighth in Pac-12 only games and has allowed 11 touchdowns in conference play. The Bruins held Grice to 48 yards last year, but Arizona State managed 220 overall yards on the ground. The Sun Devils are relatively balanced in their play-calling, and it’s difficult to keep this offense in check. UCLA has an active and speedy front seven, which figures to create some problems for Grice and the Arizona State offensive line. If Grice can get on track, it will help take some of the pressure off quarterback Taylor Kelly. However, if the Bruins slow down Grice, the Bruins’ defense should get the upper hand in the matchup against Arizona State’s offense.
Key Player: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
Since throwing for 275 yards and five touchdowns against Washington State, Kelly hasn’t had his best efforts in Arizona State’s last two games. The junior has just 327 yards over the last two weeks and has tossed two picks to one touchdown. The Bruins rank sixth in the Pac-12 in pass defense, but opponents are completing 63.1 percent of their throws. Even though Kelly is a sharp passer (62.4), he’s also got plenty of mobility (3.4 ypc) for UCLA to account for him in the run game. After two sluggish performances, will Kelly bounce back and lead Arizona State to a South Division title?
If you like offense, this game is must-see television on Saturday night. There’s very little separating these two teams, so homefield advantage for UCLA could swing this in its favor. And both teams are +9 in turnover margin in Pac-12 play, so every mistake will be magnified. Arizona State has lost its last two games to UCLA by just three combined points. If the Sun Devils keep linebacker Anthony Barr away from quarterback Taylor Kelly, their offense should have an edge against UCLA’s defense. When the Bruins have the ball, it’s all about protecting quarterback Brett Hundley against an experienced, aggressive front seven for Arizona State. It’s tough to pick against the Bruins in the Rose Bowl, but it’s time for the Sun Devils to break through.
Prediction: Arizona State 34, UCLA 31