The view from 3-1 is a lot different for UCLA than anything they have experienced in recent years. As the media and all Pac-12 teams convened for media day in July, no one looked at this UCLA-Arizona State game and said, “There is the game for the top of the South Division. But things are different for UCLA now.
After losing 12 of the last 13 against Stanford, the Bruins left Palo Alto last weekend with a compelling win over the Cardinal. Now they return home Saturday for their fourth home game in five games this season. They face a Sun Devils teams that has an identical 3-1 overall record to go along with a 1-0 conference record. Much of the rest of the conference is in a state of chaos. Oregon State is the number two team in the North. Projected South winner USC is 1-2 in the conference. These are the situations that the Bruins need to take advantage, starting with Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.
Things also get different because UCLA has played two pass-first, run-second teams the last two weeks. Fresno State doesn’t have much of a running game. Jake Haener came out with the intent of throwing, no matter what. Stanford was missing its starting running back, and Tanner McKee is a drop-back quarterback as it is. Now UCLA plays an ASU team run by Jayden Daniels. He is as impactful as a runner as he is as a throwing quarterback.
Last week, the junior for San Bernardino, was 18 of 25 throwing for 236 yards. His completion percentage for the season is 72% because the Sun Devils run a high efficiency, low risk offense. But what makes him a danger for defenses is that he also carried the ball seven times for 75 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 125 yards earlier in the season in a win over UNLV. Of no coincidence at all, the one time his running game was held in check, the Sun Devils struggled. He gained eight yards net on 10 carries in the loss to BYU.
In fact, Daniels is second on the team in net rushing yards. That is a byproduct of sacks counting against his rushing yards, or he would be number one in the stats. Rachaad White leads the team in net rushing yards with about 14 more yards than Daniels on 18 more carries. Much of Daniels’ yardage on the ground is not by design. Sun Devils head coach Herm Edwards said Daniels is at his most dangerous when he is improvising. “It’s the unscripted play,” Edwards said Tuesday. “You don’t practice defense against when a quarterback might run.” He said the unscripted plays are the ones that defense cannot really prepare for, and that is where Daniels is most proficient.
White also leads the team in receiving yards, which shows the diversity of the Arizona State offensive backfield.
Respect For UCLA’s Offense
In terms of what the Sun Devils defense is facing this week, Edwards respectfully called the UCLA offense a lot of eye candy. “There’s a lot of motions, a lot of shifts,” Edwards said. “They go fast. When they feel like they’ve got you off balance, they’ll run right back up to the line and won’t allow you to substitute and they go again. So, you have to be ready for that.” Edwards said the only way to handle it defensively is to see it with what he called, “clean eyes.”
Clean eyes and focused players are a big focus for Edwards this week. The Sun Devils boast a roster with 28 players from the Southern California area. They are coming home to pay in front of family and friends. “They have to get their mind set to go back home,” he said. “And they have to keep their poise and make sure this thing doesn’t get away from them. I think we have enough guys now that have been there numerous times in LA that hopefully they can keep their emotions in check.”
More At Stake
There is more at stake than usual for a game that is not even at the halfway point of the season. Both coaches will tell you every game is important because it is the game that week. “It’s a Pac-12 game,” Edwards said. “They’re all important. You only play nine. And you can’t lose a bunch of those Pac-12 games because then you don’t control your destiny. As long as you continue to win games you control your destiny.”
But the chance to go 2-0 early on in conference play starts to create even the most minor of separation with the lower half of the division. With the chaos the conference has experienced the last few weeks, any advantage, no matter how early or how small, starts to matter more.