It seems that most Sun Devil fans (and perhaps some players) are now fully expecting Arizona State to win the Pac-12 South division and play for the conference title and a berth in the Rose Bowl. While that still seems to be a safe bet, the reality is that the UCLA Bruins are only one game behind the Sun Devils in the division, meaning that Saturday's game in Pasadena carries with it serious implications.
So how can ASU leave California with the dvision nearly locked up?
Here are the top five keys in this weeks installment of "4th and Goal".
1st - Take the R-U-N from Bruin
The Bruins are a very average football team in many areas, and outright bad in others. However, their primary strength is their running game, led by the tailback tandem of Jonathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman.
Given roughly equal carries, Franklin leads the team with 565 yards while Coleman is tied for second in the Pac-12 (behind ASU's Cameron Marshall's 12) with nine rushing touchdown. Together, they are averaging 5.5 yards per carry and comprise the best duo in the conference outside of Eugene.
As a team, the Bruins have run 308 times and only thrown 106 passes. Their offense contains little surprise, so it'll be paramount for ASU's front seven to shut down the running game, something they have struggled with at times.
2nd - Make Kevin Prince Beat You
The primary benefit in accomplishing the above goal is that it would force the onus of the Bruins' offense on quarterback Kevin Prince.
Quite simply, Prince is a bad quarterback. While a good athlete, he's never been able to handle the passing and mental demands that make quarterbacks...well, quarterbacks. In limited action over the last two seasons, Prince has only completed 48.2-percent of his passes with six touchdowns and nine interceptions. Against Texas earlier this year, he completed as many passes to Longhorn defenders (three) as Bruins receivers.
Given the ASU defense's tremendous ability to generate turnovers this season (they are fourth in the nation with 25), Prince would surely commit multiple turnovers if thrust into a playmaking role.
3rd - Start Fast
Last week, Arizona State was the heavy favorite over Colorado and raced out to a 21-0 lead in the quarter.
They will need a similar performance Saturday in Pasadena.
This game has all the makings of a classic ASU trap game--an inferior opponent on the road who can run the ball. UCLA, for all of their struggles and inconsistency this season, has the ability to control the tempo of the game and capitalize on any ASU mistakes.
The best way to prevent such a scenario is to jump out to an early lead, take the crowd out of the game and force UCLA out of their ground-based comfort zone and into Prince's turnover parade.
The Sun Devils showed they had a killer instinct last week and a repeat on Saturday would go a long way towards clinching the South.
4th - Continue Holding the Line
One of the biggest problem areas for the Sun Devils in 2011 has been the play of their offensive line.
Coming into the game against Colorado, the running game was averaging a woeful 3.8-yards per carry (bottoming out in a ridiculous 1.9 against Utah) and the pass protection was a major issue in both of the team's losses this season.
However, the line, rejuvenated off the bye week, manhandled the Buffalo defensive line. As a result, the team ran for 207 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry, and Brock Osweiler had plenty of protection in the passing game.
They should be able to carry over that momentum. The UCLA front seven has been poor against the run, allowing over 184 yards per game, and their pass rush has been horrendous, ranking 109th in the country. The Bruins have only tallied nine sacks through eight games, and their second leading sacker, defensive tackle Cassius Marsh, will miss the game due to suspension.
That should result in a big day for Brock Osweiler and the ASU receivers.
Goal - Don't Stop to Smell the Roses
Like the X-wing pilot making the trench run on the Death Star, ASU is "almost there". They are closing in on the South division title and the path is clear of any significant hurdles.
However, the Sun Devils have shown a tendency to play down to the level of competition at times, something they absolutely cannot afford this week.
The history and grandeur of the Rose Bowl, the intensity of this rivalry, the Sun Devils' national rankings--these things must all be forgotten as soon as the ball is kicked off. Arizona State is a better team than UCLA in almost every area. It's time to prove it.
Prediction: 34-17 ASU
For more in-depth analysis of ASU football, listen to the Speak of the Devils podcast on iTunes