This week, ASU takes on South Division rival UCLA at home in Tempe. The Bruins come into the game with a 3-2 record, after a convincing victory over the U of A Wildcats in Pasadena. The S&P+ ratings over at footballstudyhall.com have UCLA ranked 24th, and ASU ranked 66th, giving the Sun Devils a 33% chance of victory and a projected scoring margin of -7.4. This means a lot of things need to go right for ASU to pull out a victory. Here are the three most important on that list.
FIRST TINE TO VICTORY: BE SUCCESSFUL ON FIRST DOWN
With Brady White making his first career start on Saturday, the ASU offense needs to take pressure off him by being successful on first down, something they were not able to do last week against USC. ASU doesn’t need to gash UCLA for tons of yards in the run game in order make life a little easier for White, but they do need to be able to get yards on first down, so that he’s not repeatedly put into second and third-and-long situations, where UCLA knows to expect a pass. The easiest way to do this is to consistently be able to get 4-6 yards running the ball on first down.
The UCLA defense presents a challenge in this area, but not an insurmountable one. The Bruin defense gives up 4.5 yards/carry, which ranks 76th in the country. Although they’ve allowed 5 yards/carry in 4 of their 5 games, 4 of their 5 opponents have offenses that rank in the top 25 in that category. On the other side of the ball, ASU’s rushing offense is pretty mediocre. They average 4.0 yards/carry themselves, and while being pretty efficient (success rate of 46.3%, ranked 36th), lack explosiveness.
The Sun Devils can also utilize the quick passing game to mix things up. Expect a heavy dose of bubble screens, slants, quick hitches, and sticks on first down, especially if they are struggling to get first down yards with the run. This is where some of the Air Raid principles that Chip Lindsey has implemented into ASU’s offense will be valuable.
This is the type of game that can quickly turn into a disaster if ASU is unable to get yards on first down. Putting a freshman quarterback in his first start in too many passing down situations will result in a lot of 3-and-outs, and probably some costly turnovers.
SECOND TINE TO VICTORY: IMPROVED TACKLING
Through the first four games of the season, the Sun Devils’ pass defense struggled so much that the team’s tackling issues were little talked about. Well, against USC, that changed. While there weren’t so many coverage breakdowns, ASU gave up several big plays to the Trojans because of missed tackles, both in the run game and in the passing game. This needs to improve, or Saturday’s game could end up looking a lot like the 2014 UCLA game in Tempe.
If ASU can tackle better and prevent big plays, they stand a good chance of keeping the UCLA offense in check. The Sun Devil defense, for all of its struggles, is actually decent on a play-to-play basis. They have a defensive success rate of 38.6%, which ranks 40th in FBS. On the other side of the ball, the UCLA offense only ranks 78th in success rate. Eliminating the big plays will be a big key if ASU is to win.
THIRD TINE TO VICTORY: BRADY WHITE
In the first tine, we talked about what ASU needs to do to make life easier for Brady White. Here, we’ll talk about what White needs to do make life easier for himself. Ideally, an ASU victory on Saturday would look a lot like their 2014 victory over Stanford – good defense and an efficient performance from a quarterback who didn’t need to make very many big plays. Unfortunately, there’s no indication that the ASU defense will hold UCLA to 10 points, or even anything close to that. ASU is also unlikely to absolutely dominate with the run game – as discussed above, ASU is average running the ball, and UCLA’s defense is decent. Therefore, if ASU is going to win, White will need to play quite well, and be more than just a game manager.
He’ll need to be accurate and make good decisions on early downs, so that, as mentioned earlier, he can avoid too many passing down situations. He’ll also need to be able to be accurate down the field as well. UCLA is likely to stack the box to stop the run, and play tight coverage, daring the Sun Devils to throw the ball downfield, something they haven’t been able to do much this year. White needs to take advantage of this, and complete intermediate and deep passes at a higher rate than Manny Wilkins was able to. He’ll need to avoid turnovers as well, as a negative turnover margin is something ASU will not likely to be able to overcome, given their weaknesses on defense.
If ASU wants to stay in the race for the South Division title, it needs a win on Saturday, as winning the division without at least a split with the Los Angeles schools seems unlikely. If ASU can put Brady White in a good position to succeed, and get decent production from him, while eliminating big plays, they’ll have a decent chance.
For more preview information on Saturday’s game between ASU and UCLA, be sure to check out Gary Doran’s Advanced Stats 12-Pac.