The EDGE: Close game between ASU-UCLA should be expected

D.J. Foster Junior running back D.J. Foster gets tackled on a first down run against Weber State on Aug. 28. (Photo by Andrew Ybanez)

EDGE-01

By now, everyone should know ASU redshirt junior backup Mike Bercovici is replacing redshirt senior Taylor Kelly (foot) for Thursday’s contest. Bercovici has thrown just 112 yards and one touchdown in his career, but coach Todd Graham and the rest of the team believe Bercovici is just as good as many starting quarterbacks around the FBS. Bercovici’s confidence and his passing decisions will definitely be examined all throughout the game.

MORE: See all UCLA game coverage. 

It appears UCLA redshirt junior Brett Hundley (left elbow injury) will likely play. Some could argue Hundley is the Pac-12’s top quarterback this season, but an injured left elbow could slow down the dual-threat signal-caller if he decides to play through it. Redshirt sophomore Jerry Neuheisel is a solid replacement, though, as he was 23-for-30 passing with 178 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions in the Bruins’ 20-17 win over Texas on Sept. 13.

EDGE-02

 

D.J. Foster has only played three games and got taken out in the fourth quarters against Weber State and New Mexico, but the junior still leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards and checks in at No. 8 in the entire nation with 510 yards. He is ASU’s best option offensively right now, but big runs might be harder to come by for Foster this time against the Bruins without Kelly’s ability to scramble and open up the field with his passing. Junior Paul Perkins is in his second year starting at tailback for UCLA. He’s running for a solid 4.8 yards per game. Perkins broke out for a 58-yard run against the Longhorns, but he only has two touchdowns — both coming against Memphis on Sept. 6. The Bruins have other dangerous options in redshirt senior Jordon James and running back/linebacker Myles Jack, but like ASU, the running game might be more contained with Hundley being limited.

EDGE-03

Bercovici has several wideouts that could make plays for themselves, including redshirt junior Jaelen Strong and sophomore Cam Smith, but whether he could get them the ball or not is an obvious question. The receiver with the third most catches is redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson with four, but that’s because the offense uses running backs Foster and freshmen Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard as integral parts of the passing game.

Junior Jordan Payton has been a nice replacement to former Bruin Shaquelle Evans. Payton has the same number of catches and receiving yards as Strong, but his lone touchdown is one fewer than Strong. The other two starting receiving spots have been a revolving door of junior Devin Fuller, redshirt junior Devin Lucien, sophomore Thomas Duarte and redshirt freshman Eldridge Massington, but all of them have at least six catches.

EDGE-04

After the Sun Devils’ final practice of the week on Tuesday, Graham expressed a lot of confidence in his offensive line. It shows on paper and through the eye test, as ASU has only allowed four sacks and has cleared the way for Foster and Kelly to break out huge runs.

The Bruins, meanwhile, haven’t done a good job protecting the line of scrimmage at all, as they have already allowed 12 sacks through the first three games of the season. This could be a problem for UCLA trying to keep Hundley’s left arm at least somewhat healthy throughout the game if he plays.

EDGE-05

Both teams are a bit inexperienced on this front. ASU continues to shuffle around each spot on the line, as sophomore Viliami Latu will start at the 3-technique, splitting time with freshman Tashon Smallwood. ASU is giving up 4.7 rushing yards per game, but it’s largely due to the fact two of its first three opponents were prolific running teams. The d-line only has one sack, coming from senior Marcus Hardison.

The Bruins have gave up three touchdowns on the ground this season and allow 3.8 rushing yards per game. Redshirt senior Owamagbe Odighizuwa is UCLA’s starter at left end after missing all of last year due to hip operations.

EDGE-06

Redshirt sophomore Laiu Moeakiola (wrist) is expected to play limited snaps, so that may be a hindrance to a young and inexperienced ASU defense. During the bye week, Graham said the team would lean on others from starters like freshman D.J. Calhoun to players who haven’t logged much time like redshirt freshman Marcus Ball and even redshirt sophomore Carlos Mendoza. The Sun Devils are clearly still trying to figure out a formula in the middle, as Graham said redshirt senior tight end De’Marieya Nelson will see a lot of time at Devilbacker.

Two of the Bruins’ best defenders are at linebacker, with Jack on the inside and redshirt senior Eric Kendricks on the left side. Kendricks leads the team with 37 and has logged an interception and a forced fumble for the season. Jack trails at second in tackles with 26 and is about as good of a defender as he is an explosive running back.

EDGE-07

Despite the ASU secondary’s ability to create turnovers at any given moment, the Sun Devils haven’t been too sharp in coverage, as shown on Sept. 13 against a decent passing team in Colorado. Redshirt senior safety Damarious Randall and redshirt junior safety Jordan Simone are ASU’s two leading tacklers, which isn’t really a good sign if safeties are constantly cleaning up on the defensive end.

UCLA’s secondary hasn’t been too stellar, either, as the Bruin are giving up a 66.1 percent completion rate and five passing touchdowns for the season. UCLA allowed Virginia to score two touchdowns through the air and let Memphis rack up 305 passing yards. An interesting player to watch is cornerback Jaleel Wadood, a freshman recruit who de-committed from ASU last year to join the Bruins and already has 12 tackles for the season.

EDGE-08

Both teams have accurate kickers, though both missed a field goal early in the season. Sophomore Zane Gonzalez scored the last points for ASU in last year’s meeting against UCLA while junior Ka’imi Fairbairn sank the game-winning field goal over the Sun Devils two years ago.

Sophomore punter Matt Haack has been a surprise for the Sun Devils, as he’s averaging 43.3 yards per punt and booted a 57-yarder against Colorado. Junior Matt Mengel is only averaging 37.1 yards per punt but has gotten the ball inside the opponent’s 20-yard line three times.

Junior Ishmael Adams is UCLA’s main returner and returned one kickoff for 38 yards. Meanwhile, ASU has yet to return a kickoff and continues to give up poor field position, so Adams could be a threat to ASU if the Sun Devils can’t contain returns. Slight edge goes to UCLA here for its better return game.

EDGE-09

Even though both teams are ranked high in the national polls, they haven’t dominated as they could potentially be in their first three games of the season. This could very well be a match that position-to-position advantages will have nothing to do with a final outcome. So many variables will be in play Thursday night, including whether Hundley will play, whether Bercovici will live up to the team’s expectations and if the blackout could give the Sun Devils an added boost at home. The biggest factor that should decide the winner will be if the UCLA defense could get into Bercovici’s head and create turnovers, and there’s a likely chance of that happening.

 

Reach the reporter at jnacion@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @Josh_Nacion

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