Tempe, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) – In a Pac-12 Conference clash packing plenty of
intrigue, the 11th-ranked UCLA Bruins come calling on the 15th-ranked Arizona
State Sun Devils.
UCLA, once thought to be a dark horse candidate not only to win the Pac-12 but
to make the inaugural College Football Playoff, has fallen back a bit despite
starting 3-0. The Bruins still hold a lofty rank in the Top-25, but scraping
by Virginia (28-20), Memphis (42-35) and Texas (20-17) has not instilled a ton
However, the biggest story currently swirling around the squad is the shifting
landscape under center after backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel tossed two
touchdown passes to lead the Bruins past the Longhorns following an injury to
starter Brett Hundley. Hundley is listed as questionable for Thursday’s
contest with an injured elbow.
There is also much to talk about at the quarterback spot on the opposing
sideline. Arizona State starter Taylor Kelly injured his foot in the Sun
Devils’ 38-24 victory over Colorado on Sept. 13 and is out indefinitely. The
role of starter now falls to Mike Bercovici, who is tasked with conquering
UCLA and pushing the Sun Devils to 4-0.
These teams have been featured in some dramatic contests the past two seasons.
Arizona State pulled out a 38-33 triumph at the Rose Bowl last year to secure
the Pac-12 South title, and the win earned the Sun Devils some revenge after
they fell in a 45-43 final on a last-second field goal to the Bruins in 2012.
UCLA leads the all-time series, 18-11-1.
Although he is unlikely to take the starting job from a healthy Hundley,
Neuheisel certainly played well enough against Texas to show the Bruins won’t
be slowed down offensively without their starter. Neuheisel completed 23-of-30
attempts for 178 yards and the two critical scores. Should he start he must
continue that level of success. It is a challenge he feels he is ready to
conquer, especially with his surrounding talent.
“That’s the great thing about this team. We faced a lot of adversity
especially in these first three games; more that we would have probably liked
but we can handle anything,” Neuheisel said.
To keep the wins coming Neuheisel will need help from the receiving corps,
which has plenty of talent. Jordan Payton (19 receptions, 266 yards, TD) is
the most productive of the group, leading the way in receptions and yards.
Devin Fuller (14 receptions, 83 yards) and Devin Lucien (10 receptions, 44
yards) are reliable, and Thomas Duarte (nine receptions, 170 yards, two TDs)
is a big play waiting to happen.
Of course the offense will likely shift a bit more pressure on to Paul
Perkins’ shoulders, with Neuheisel still unproven. Perkins has tallied 304
yards and two touchdowns on 63 carries, while starting two games at running
back. He was instrumental in the win over Texas, piling up 126 yards. Jordon
James also chipped in with 69 yards in that contest.
Defensively speaking, the Bruins have been a strong unit, limiting foes to 24
points and 392.3 yards per game. They have also surrendered only five
touchdowns in nine red-zone opportunities, and have kept teams to a 38 percent
success rate on third down.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks (37 tackles, INT) is the heart and soul of the
defense, while Myles Jack (26 tackles) is an athletic marvel who hits hard and
finds a way to get to the ball.
Without Kelly the Sun Devils could be in for a bit of regression on offense,
unless Bercovici is able to step in right away and excel. That is something
head coach Todd Graham is counting on.
“Obviously, Taylor (Kelly) being unable to play is a big deal for us, but we
do have a lot of confidence in Mike (Bercovici),” Graham said, adding his team
will be ready no matter which quarterback takes the field for UCLA. “There is
no doubt in my mind that we are preparing for their quarterback to play, but
we can only worry about the things that we can control.”
Bercovici, a redshirt junior, does not have much experience, having appeared
in only nine games in his career. He has thrown only 17 passes this season.
However, he may not be required to air it out all that often considering how
effective the Sun Devils have been on the ground this year. They lead the
Pac-12 and rank 11th nationally in rushing yards (304.3 ypg). Helping them to
such lofty heights has been running back D.J. Foster, who is fifth in the
country in rushing yards per game (170). In all, he has accumulated 510 yards
and five scores on the ground, while adding 139 yards and a touchdown on 11
Another skill position player that Bercovici will lean on is wideout Jaelen
Strong, who leads the team in receptions (19), receiving yards (266) and
touchdown grabs (two).
On defense, Arizona State is limiting opponents on the scoreboard, while
having mixed results in terms of yards allowed. Foes are putting up only 20.3
points per game, but picking up nearly 400 yards. Just like UCLA, Arizona
State has done a good job keeping opponents out of the red zone, with only
nine drives ending up there.