Most people thought that Arizona State's biggest test was going to be last week against the Oregon Ducks. Turns out, the real evaluation is coming nine days later against a substantially less talented UCLA team.
Following the most humiliating defeat of the Todd Graham era, the Sun Devils are now against the most adversity they've seen all season as it looks like they'll be without their best player, Will Sutton.
The good news is that ASU has the luxury of looking for the rebound at home. The Bruins have lost by an average of 23 points in their last two visits to Tempe. Additionally, the Bruins haven't fared well away from the Rose Bowl this season, with one of their two losses being when a mediocre Cal annihilated them on the road, 43-17.
But that's not to say this Bruins team won't provide some challenges for the Devils. In fact, if you've followed both programs closely this season, it would probably be difficult to differentiate their talent levels.
Enough talk already though. Let's get down to the nitty-gritty:
Familiar face, different place, same results. Former Arizona State offensive-coordinator is now doing the play-calling for UCLA and freshman Brett Hundley has been reaping the benefits of his quarterback friendly spread system. Hundley, a Chandler native, has played above expectation even though his inexperience pops up from time to time (like in his four interception dud against Cal).
When it comes to the fundamentals, Hundley still needs some polishing. But that doesn't mean he can't move the chains like an experienced vet. Hundley has shown impressive accuracy in the intermediate passing game with wide receivers Shaquelle Evans and Steven Manfro, finding the soft spots in the defense with their advanced route-running abilities.
But even when he's not on target, Hundley has a safety valve like 6'7 TE Joseph Fauria who has the tendency to come down with most balls thrown his way. The Bruins do have a tendency to stall when they get in the redzone but Fauria still leads the way with five of his 19 catches being for touchdowns.
The real catalyst behind UCLA's offensive success though is senior RB Johnathan Franklin. With an above-average set of hands on him, Franklin accounts for 153.9 of the 505.3 total yards the Bruins average on offense per game. If Sutton sits like expected, Franklin will surely gash the Devils as one of the most well-rounded ball carriers in the country. The shifty running back has excellent patience along with that speed that seems to kick into a second gear once he sees some daylight.
The offensive line in front of him also does an excellent job at paving the way despite their youth (three starting freshman). The Devils must be careful not too focus in too much on Franklin though because Hundley is a bit of a dual threat weapon himself with 240 yards including a 72-yard touchdown run on the season. UCLA also has some fresh legs always waiting behind Franklin with Damien Thigpen and Jordon James providing some burst off the bench for the Bruins.
After a miserable start, the UCLA's new 3-4 defense has really begun to show some promising results despite their weakness on the outside of the secondary. Anchored by an attacking linebacker corp, this unit knows how to get after the quarterback with Anthony Barr leading the way (7.5 sacks).
Damien Holmes is the other pass-rush threat on the outside and he's taken pretty well to not playing with his hand in the ground. With his defensive lineman pedigree, Holmes uses his leverage to get under blockers and collapse the pocket. However, he does have a tendency to get a little ahead of himself so you could see Taylor Kelly take advantage of this and scramble up the middle.
Waiting for him in the trenches though will be massive NT Seali'i Epenesa. The 310-pound junior can be a force at times, especially when offensive lines double-team his big, defensive end bodyguards Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh. Jones especially will be one that should be in Kelly's face all day as a high-intensity, unrelenting-motor-type. Jones has a Sutton-esque 11 tackles-for-loss on the season but his line mates have still been known to give up a big run play or two from time to time.
Luckily, they get the benefit of Tevin McDonald playing behind them at the full safety position to clean up their lapses. McDonald is one of those playmakers that always seems to be around the ball as he's an asset in both run support and play diagnosis. Along side him is SS Andrew Abbott, who has transitioned from UCLA's most successful corner to become a ball-hawk in the middle of the field.
Senior cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are this defense's real issue though as we previously touched on. Neither are awful when you look at their full body of work but both have a tendency to fall asleep on longer passes despite their obvious experience. If ASU can get them in one on one situations against someone like Marion Grice or Rashad Ross, Kelly won't have a difficult time racking up some big time passing totals.
ASU X-Factor: DT Jaxon Hood - With Sutton and Junior Onyeali banged up, Graham will be looking at the highly-touted freshman to step up against a run-oriented team. And Hood should be motivated enough as the Hamilton alum will be facing a quarterback who he's head-hunted during rivalry games against Chandler. If Hood can limit Hundley and Franklin's big play tendencies up the middle, the ASU offense can avoid becoming one-dimensional like they did last week. And they'll need their full repertoire in a game that's sure to be a close one.
Final Prediction: UCLA 27 - ASU 41 - Yes, hanging 41 on this underrated defense will be no easy task but I think they'll be set up nicely by some turnovers. Sutton means a lot to this team but I believe players like Chris Young, Carl Bradford and Alden Darby will be looking to prove that he's not the only one opponents should be afraid of. UCLA has been very, very sloppy on the road in recent history and I don't think that changes here. Kelly will get back on track with the run game assisting him once again and Graham calling some early fireworks. UCLA might jump out to an early lead but this week, ASU won't panic. The second half will be all about the Devils as they earn an important rebound win before a tough road trip.