Is the first weekend in October too early to deem a matchup the de facto divisional championship?
The short answer: Yes. However, with the Pac-12 South looking to be in utter disarray — USC fired its head coach and has been blown out at home twice, Colorado's offense has disappeared after a promising 2020 season, Utah's off to an uncharacteristically slow start, and Arizona's... well... that leaves Arizona State and UCLA looking like the most likely conference title contenders.
Thus, a Week 5 matchup between the Sun Devils and Bruins has some extra juice. UCLA rebounded nicely from a heartbreaking Week 3 setback against Fresno State, rallying in the fourth quarter to hold off Stanford. Arizona State was a popular pick to win the South heading into the season and boasts the talent to break out as the latter half of the campaign approaches.
Arizona State at No. 20 UCLA
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UCLA -3
When Arizona State Has the Ball
A known strength heading into the season for Arizona State that's lived up to the hype has been the multifaceted running game. The Sun Devils are posting a considerable 5.6 yards per carry, and no fewer than 4.9 per in any of their four games.
Rachaad White has shouldered a heavier load with Chip Trayanum out due to an ankle injury, carrying 55 times. But even without last year's breakthrough star, Arizona State has maintained a healthy balance between quarterback Jayden Daniels and running back Daniyel Ngata taking on more snaps in his second season.
Establishing the run will require some creativity from Sun Devils offensive coordinator Zak Hill, facing the best statistical rush defense Arizona State will have seen thus far on the season.
Jerry Azzinaro's 4-2-5 defense has been dominant against the run. The Bruins rank fifth in the nation at 63.8 rushing yards per game allowed, and have limited opponents to 2.4 yards per carry.
Fresno State succeeded in creating rushing lanes for running back Ronnie Rivers by pulling UCLA's defensive backs further from the line of scrimmage with a dangerous passing attack. The veteran Daniels is completing passes so far this season at a 72 percent clip, but has yet to attempt more than 29 in a game. Jake Haener threw 53 in Fresno State's upset win.
When UCLA Has the Ball
After Fresno State sold out on the run and buttoned up the previously unstoppable tandem of Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet, UCLA got its run game going again in Week 4.
The Bruins went off for 204 yards on the ground against Stanford with Charbonnet setting the pace. With the run game clicking, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was able to attack effectively with the deep ball in the second half. A 75-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Philips broke a tie in the fourth quarter and effectively gave the Bruins the cushion to beat Stanford.
Thompson-Robinson's success in second halves is a development to watch on Saturday, particularly against Arizona State's aggressive defense.
The Sun Devils have racked up 29 tackles for a loss, including eight in their last two games. Linebacker Darien Butler's ability to get into the backfield and help stifle the UCLA rushing attack in the first half could prove critical to altering the Bruins' game plan.
Both Arizona State and UCLA turned the page nicely from Week 3 losses, in the process looking like the clear creme of the Pac-12 South crop. A win on Saturday is a significant statement that will give one side an important, inside track for the rest of the season.
Arizona State's arguably the most collectively talented team in the division, but between a deluge of penalties the first two weeks, pedestrian outputs from the passing game, and a lackluster offensive performance at BYU, the Sun Devils have yet to put it all together. This needs to be the week they do so, because UCLA matches up well against ASU's question marks.
The key for the Bruins will be getting the running backs going early. If Brown and Charbonnet are breaking off decent chunks of yardage early, UCLA should take control in a manner similar to its win over LSU in Week 1.
Prediction: UCLA 31, Arizona State 24
Podcast: Complete Week 5 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread