What to watch: No. 14 UCLA vs. No. 17 Arizona State

UCLA must beat Arizona State to keep its Rose Bowl hopes alive. Here’s how the matchups break down. (Prediction below.)

UCLA offense vs. Arizona State defense: Brett Hundley’s current three-game streak without an interception is the longest of his career. The Sun Devils have 17 picks on the season, tied for first in the Pac-12 and seventh nationally.

Cornerback Robert Nelson is coming off a career game, taking one of his two interceptions against Oregon State to the end zone. The name to watch on secondary, though, may be senior safety Alden Darby — an All-Pac-12 second teamer who has three interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Of Hundley’s eight picks this season, five have gone to opposing safeties. He also might not have receiver Devin Fuller, whose undisclosed injury makes him a game-time decision. The sophomore leads the team with 40 receptions, and is a frequent third-down target.

ASU also has the best defensive front seven the Bruins have seen in weeks, with five seniors listed as starters. Reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton has seen his production dip significantly since gaining nearly 40 pounds over the offseason, but Carl Bradford and Davon Coleman have combined for 21.5 tackles for loss.

“They’re old,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “They’re a veteran group. They play hard, they play fast, they play physical, and they’ve got a lot of confidence right now.”

Although they’re the Pac-12′s stingiest total defense at 338.4 yards allowed, the Sun Devils are only the league’s seventh-best scoring defense (24.4 points). UCLA needs to take advantage inside of 20 yards, where the Sun Devils have allowed scores on 86.67 percent of chances — ninth in the Pac-12. Opponents have scored 19 touchdowns and seven field goals on 30 red-zone attempts. ASU’s yards per play allowed (5.14) also isn’t dominant.

Starting running back Jordon James should finally return after sitting out five of UCLA’s last six games, but could still be rusty. Linebacker/tailback Myles Jack will likely see at least seven carries; the coaching staff might want to keep him under 10 to keep him fresh on defense, but he’s obviously a game-changer if he runs wild.

Edge: Arizona State, slightly

Arizona State offense vs. UCLA defense: Junior Taylor Kelly isn’t one of the country’s elite quarterbacks, but he’s put up respectable numbers in his second year as a starter. Every one of those sits somewhere in the middle of the Pac-12: 283.8 yards per game (fourth), 7.5 yards per attempt (eighth), 62.4 percent completion (seventh). His biggest improvement has come on the ground, where he’s punched in seven touchdowns on 31.2 yards per game. He averaged 40.0 a year ago, but didn’t rush for a score until the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Both Marion Grice and D.J. Foster offer him dangerous targets out of the backfield, but UCLA’s linebackers are versatile enough to match up against both. All four of the starters are capable of dropping back into coverage, with All-American Anthony Barr being the only one without an interception.

Barr was snubbed for the Nagurski Award, with voters electing five others as finalists for the nation’s best defensive player. While the likely top-five pick has been outstanding most of the year, his numbers have gone down with increased blocking attention as well as his increased role near the line — one that also has him adjusting his style of play.

“I’m just trying to use my hands more,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Not trying to put my shoulder in the way.”

The secondary is looking to bounce back after a subpar game against Washington, the first time all season that the Bruins have allowed more than 300 passing yards. ASU’s top receiver is sophomore Jaelen Strong, who ranks third in the conference with 83.4 yards per game but 17th with 14.14 per catch.

Edge: UCLA, slightly

Special teams: Both kickers are similarly effective from close range, but ASU freshman Zane Gonzalez has gotten a lot more chances this season. His 18-of-21 performance on field goals this season has helped put him at No. 7 nationally with 10.1 points per game, but he has yet to hit one longer than 41 yards. The Bruins’ Ka’imi Fairbairn has only kicked three field goals in the past four games. He is 12-of-16, but 2-of-6 from 45 yards or farther.

After losing his placekicking job last season, Alex Garoutte has resurfaced as the team’s punter. His 38.6 yards per punt are lackluster, however, and the team’s collective 36.69-yard average ranks second to last in the FBS.

UCLA has come up with big special plays moments, blocking kicks and forcing fumbles, but has also been susceptible to occasional miscues. Its own kick and punt returns also look iffy. Steve Manfro and Devin Fuller are both questionable to play, while Shaq Evans has lost yardage on several punt returns recently.

Edge: Even

Prediction: Arizona State 33, UCLA 30.

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  • jameskatt

    This is UCLA’s biggest game of the season thus far.

    Anthony Barr needs to hit Arizona State’s quarterback like he did USC’s quarterback last year. I loved that hit. We could hear it clearly despite the pouring rain at the Rose Bowl. And everyone in the stands around me were either cheering wildly or laughing with joy after the hit.

    The rest of the UCLA team needs to hit Arizona State hard. I would be very unhappy if no Arizona State player left the game with an injury. That would mean UCLA came in with a passive and losing attitude.

    UCLA needs to be sharp and aggressive, ready to go for throat and crush it. If UCLA gets outplayed by this attitude, I would show respect to the winning team, since they were better that day. But to lose otherwise is unacceptable.

    Go for throat. That is winning football.

    • LTEfan

      Yes, be aggressive. But also protect the ball better when on offense. A game between evenly matched teams so often turns on a key turnover or two, giving the other team easy points. The ball was on the ground far too often against the Huskies, and UCLA was fortunate to recover it repeatedly.

      • jameskatt

        You are right. We can’t be turning the ball over. That would be giving away the game.

        So far, Brent Hundley hasn’t thrown an interception in the past 3 games. Hopefully this is a continuing trend indicating he has recovered from his concussion.

        Certainly, UCLA needs to also do more vertical plays, not just the throws to the side with the hope the receiver can make a run of it.