ASU’s homecoming game against UCLA is critical for both teams, as the Sun Devils (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) and Bruins (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) control their own destinies in the Pac-12 South race.
“It really is a must win,” junior tight end Chris Coyle said. “This is a big turning point in the season.”
The Bruins enter Saturday’s tilt with a balanced offensive attack. UCLA, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and redshirt senior running back Johnathan Franklin, averages 288.7 passing yards and 216.6 rushing yards per game.
Franklin and the Bruins’ rushing attack gets the majority of the praise, but the Sun Devils know they cannot ignore Hundley’s ability to throw the ball. ASU coach Todd Graham has been impressed with UCLA’s receiving corps on film.
“The key is to stop the run and control the pass,” Graham said. “We have to tackle well in space.”
UCLA’s offense is averaging just over 30 points per game this season and has shown its big play capability, but the ASU defense is familiar with the UCLA attack.
The Bruins offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone, spent the past two seasons in Tempe. Redshirt senior cornerback Deveron Carr believes practicing against Mazzone’s offense for two years will be beneficial, but he does expect UCLA to have some wrinkles in its game plan.
“He’s an offensive coordinator for a reason,” Carr said. “Everyone has tricks up their sleeve. We’re just focused on the scheme they are doing now and how to stop their scheme.”
While the ASU defense is preparing to stop Mazzone’s balanced offensive attack, the Sun Devils’ offense will have its own challenge.
Despite scoring 21 points last week, its lowest total of the season, ASU is averaging 37.7 points per game. The Bruins are allowing 22.3 points per game, which ranks No. 41 in the NCAA. However, Graham believes the numbers do not accurately reflect the situation.
“That’s probably the most improved thing about (UCLA), their defense,” Graham said. “Defensively, they are a lot better than what they are rated. They have really explosive guys up front.”
Saturday’s bout is crucial for the Pac-12 South standings, but it will also set the tone for the rest of the season. With just five regular season games remaining, ASU knows the margin for error is slim.
A season ago, ASU also controlled its destiny in the Pac-12 South, but a 29-28 loss at UCLA derailed the Sun Devils and sent the team into a five-game tailspin.
This year, the team knows it cannot afford a similar result.
“The biggest thing the coaches are doing this year is making sure everybody is locked in,” Coyle said. “We know we need to finish the season strong. This is a game that we need to win so we can get back at them a bit. It will help us power through the rest of the season.”
Redshirt junior defensive tackle Will Sutton was fully dressed for Thursday’s practice, but did not participate in any of the segments visible to the media.
Sutton will be evaluated on Friday, but his status for Saturday’s game is still up in the air.
“He’s chomping at the bit to get back,” Graham said. “He’ll be back sooner rather than later. Whether it’ll be Saturday or not, I don’t know.”
If Sutton is unable to play, defensive coordinator Paul Randolph believes his players will step up and fill the void.
“Our guys practice every day, and they are in the meetings every day, so they know our system and our scheme,” Randolph said.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Carl Bradford echoes this sentiment and does not feel any extra pressure to perform because of the faith he has in his teammates.
“We (have) amazing players,” Bradford said. “I have tremendous trust in all of them. I know that they are going to do the best they can at what they do.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org