Two Pac-12 South heavyweights square off on Thursday night, as Arizona State hosts UCLA in a battle of two teams surrounded in mystery. The Bruins and Sun Devils are both dealing with injuries at quarterback, but the situation differs for each team. Arizona State starter Taylor Kelly is not expected to play due to a foot injury, while UCLA starter Brett Hundley is a gametime decision due to an elbow ailment suffered against Texas. With both teams dealing with injuries at quarterback, it’s hard to know what to expect from either offense or how the overall aspect of the game has changed.
The last four meetings in this series have been split evenly at two victories apiece for both teams. Arizona State won 38-33 in Pasadena last year, while UCLA won in Tempe 45-43 in 2012. The Bruins lead the overall series 18-11-1 over the Sun Devils.
UCLA at Arizona State
Kickoff: 10 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
Spread: UCLA -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Unsolved Mysteries at QB
As we mentioned in the opening, both teams have unsettled quarterback situations. Well, at least that’s what the coaches are telling the media. Arizona State does not expect Taylor Kelly to play, which is a huge loss for coach Todd Graham’s offense. Kelly averaged 264.3 total yards per game through the first two contests and accounted for eight scores. Backup Mike Bercovici is expected to start in place of Kelly, and the junior has completed 9 of 17 throws for 79 yards and a score in 2014. Bercovici has attempted 24 passes in his Arizona State career but is not as mobile or dynamic as Kelly on the ground. How much will the Sun Devils’ offense change without Kelly’s mobility?
On the other sideline, UCLA coach Jim Mora has been coy about the status of quarterback Brett Hundley. The junior suffered an elbow injury against Texas and practiced in a limited capacity over the last week. If Hundley can’t go, backup Jerry Neuheisel will start. Neuheisel completed 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards against Texas, but the offense would not be as dynamic with the sophomore under center. Although Mora hasn’t said if Hundley will play as of Wednesday, most around the Pac-12 expect the junior to start. Hundley is completing 70.4 percent of his throws this year but needs more help from a struggling offensive line.
2. Arizona State RB D.J. Foster
Considering the injuries at quarterback, both teams need their skill players to take on a bigger role within the offensive gameplan on Thursday night. Bercovici has a standout receiver in Jaelen Strong to target in the passing attack, but running back D.J. Foster is the player to watch on Thursday night. Foster is one of the nation’s top all-around running backs and averages 9.4 yards per carry (54 attempts). The junior also has 11 receptions (No. 2 on the team) for 139 yards and one score and leads the Pac-12 with 10 plays of 20 or more yards. UCLA’s rush defense is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry and held two of its three opponents to 126 yards or less on the ground. The Bruins own one of the nation’s top defensive fronts, which will test an Arizona State offensive line that has allowed the fewest sacks in the Pac-12 and has paved the way for rushers to average 7.1 yards per carry. Big plays are needed from Foster. Can he continue to deliver against an active and aggressive front?
3. UCLA’s Offensive Line
Protecting Hundley has to be UCLA’s No. 1 priority on Thursday night. The Bruins have struggled to get consistent protection from their offensive line in the passing game and there hasn’t been much room to run created for the rushers. With Hundley (potentially) playing at less than full strength, UCLA has to keep Arizona State defenders out of the pocket. The Sun Devils have a rebuilt front seven and have generated just six sacks through three games. Even if Arizona State’s defensive front is in transition, it’s still a dangerous matchup for a Bruins’ offensive line giving up 3.7 sacks per game. Of concern for Mora on the offensive line is the health of tackle Malcolm Bunche. The senior suffered a leg injury against Texas. His status for Week 5 is uncertain.
This game is surrounded by question marks. Kelly won’t play for Arizona State, so all eyes in pregame warm-ups will be on UCLA and Hundley. If Hundley plays, this game swings in favor of the Bruins. If Hundley doesn’t go, Neuheisel is a capable replacement, but the Sun Devils would have the upper hand. Even though Bercovici doesn’t have Kelly’s mobility, he’s had nearly two weeks to prepare as the starter and should be comfortable in his first start. If Bercovici plays well, it will open up even more opportunities for big plays from Foster. Considering all of the question marks and mysteries surrounding this matchup, it’s tough to make a prediction. But here’s a guess: Hundley plays and is just enough for UCLA to move to 4-0.