Sun Devils have inside track in dysfunctional Pac-12 South
An impressive upset of Utah last week transformed the complexion of Arizona State's home stretch in Year 1 under head coach Herm Edwards. The Sun Devils kicked off November sitting at .500 and one game below that mark in Pac-12 Conference play, yet they slide into the final three games in control of their divisional destiny.
Such is the tumult in the Pac-12 South, wherein UCLA remains alive for a bid to the Rose Bowl... despite being effectively eliminated from bowl eligibility after taking its seventh loss of the season last week at Oregon.
One unlikely scenario fades while another strengthens Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium.
UCLA at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona State -13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A Harry situation
The difference in each of Arizona State's last two wins — both over fellow Pac-12 South contenders — has been wide receiver N'Keal Harry. He's perhaps the best wide receiver in college football, and that became readily evident with a recent move from the outside to the slot. Were that not an impressive enough indicator of his versatility, Harry comes in as a reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week two times running; once on offense, the other for special teams.
Depth, talent and experience in the secondary combine to form probably the best unit UCLA has, but the Bruins have dealt with injuries in recent weeks. Nate Meadors has missed time, Colin Samuel is done for the season, and new faces Quentin Lake and Elijah Gates have been forced to step up.
While Arizona State has other targets emerging — most notably Frank Darby, who's caught 10 of his 19 passes over the past four games — slowing Harry is critical to stopping the Sun Devils passing attack. Doing so is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor.
2. Quarterback quandary
Freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson returned from a shoulder last week at Oregon but had to go back to the sideline midway through. He returned to practice this week, and when healthy UCLA head coach Chip Kelly has opted for Thompson-Robinson over Wilton Speight. However, in both the second half of the Oct. 20 win over Arizona and last week's loss at Oregon, the UCLA offense looked better with Speight behind center.
The Bruins are not setting the world on fire with the pass in either scenario through nine games, instead relying on breakout star running back Joshua Kelley to shoulder the load. But with Arizona State's 3-3-5 defense having looked feisty at times against the run, UCLA faces a situation in which it may have to integrate a more balanced approach to avoid run-stop-heavy looks at Kelley.
UCLA scored both of its wins this season on the strength of generating turnovers. The Bruins garnered five takeaways in an Oct. 13 rout of Cal and held off Arizona for a one-point win by virtue of two turnovers forced near the goal line.
UCLA led the Pac-12 in turnovers created going into last week's game; the Bruins slipped to fourth after Oregon, Cal and Colorado all enjoyed heavy takeaway performances in Week 10. Nevertheless, UCLA's defense has shown an aptitude for turnovers; Arizona State's offense, on the other hand, leads the Pac-12 in ball protection.
With veteran quarterback Manny Wilkins, and breakthrough ball-carrier Eno Benjamin, Arizona State's maintained possession effectively and committed just seven turnovers all season.
After winning back-to-back games and showing life, UCLA's looked overwhelmed and overmatched the past two weeks vs. Utah and at Oregon. The trend should continue this week. Arizona State excels in areas that counter the Bruins' greatest strengths — like sending Harry against a solid secondary and boasting an offense that maintains possession without turnovers.
UCLA might be able to establish Kelley on the ground against a defense that's allowed at least 127 rushing yards every game since Week 3. That's the most realistic hope the Bruins have, extending possessions and keeping the Sun Devils defense on the field. It's also unlikely with the inconsistencies UCLA has had passing this season.
Prediction: Arizona State 35, UCLA 17