November 28, 2008

UCLA preview

Arizona State has quite a bit to play for when it takes the field in tonight's game against UCLA.

No, the Sun Devils are not on the verge of a possible Pac-10 championship like they were last November. Indeed, at 4-6 they currently have a losing record.

But there is still a lot that can be accomplished in these next two weeks.

Most importantly, the Sun Devils would like to go out with a win for the seniors playing in their final game at Sun Devil Stadium.

Players like Rudy Carpenter, Mike Jones, Keegan Herring, Paul Fanaika, Troy Nolan, Luis Vasquez and Rodney Cox have given a lot to the program, and they would no double like to walk off their home field as winners, especially with the game televised nationally on ESPN2.

Additionally, a win would move ASU to an even 4-4 in conference play, one game below .500 overall, and also give the Sun Devils their longest win streak of the season.

A win also means substantially increased significance for the Territorial Cup game next Saturday.

It would put ASU within one game of being bowl eligible. With bowl appearances in four straight years -- tied for the most consecutive appearances ever -- the Sun Devils would have a chance to keep to keep that streak alive against Arizona.

The Wildcats also sit at 4-4 in the Pac-10, and Stanford is at 4-5. By winning out, ASU would pass both teams and do no worse than sole possession of fifth in the Pac-10, a significant achievement given the 2-6 start and six game losing streak through the heart of the schedule.

"This is a very important game for us to win," quarterback Rudy Carpenter said of the UCLA contest. "We're playing one-week season right now to stay alive for the postseason."

ASU was able to get its confidence up with consecutive games against Washington and Washington, two of the worst teams of the Pac-10 era, which it out-scored by a combined 70-19.

The Bruins are certainly not an upper echelon opponent by any stretch, but they present a much tougher challenge than either of ASU's last two opponents, particularly on defense.

It is in this game where we'll see if the Sun Devils' offensive improvements in the last month were real, or simply the result of playing against weak competition.

About UCLA

Head Coach: Rick Neuheisel (1st season)
2007 result: 6-7
2008 record: 4-6 (3-4 in Pac-10)

Offense

The last time Norm Chow was in the Pac-10, he was coordinating a USC offense that was perhaps the best in recent college football history.

Chow returned to the league this year to help new head coach Rick Neuheisel compete against the Trojans and bring the Bruins back to prominence.

It's going to take some time.

UCLA doesn't have the personnel on hand to full take advantage of Chow's impressive schemes and game planning ability, and the Bruins have struggled at times on offense this season, scoring more than 30 points just once through 10 games.

Like ASU, the Bruins are extremely young on both sides of the ball, playing 11 true freshmen and 11 red shirt freshman. Six of those players have started at least one game on offense, and seven true freshman have played on offense.

All told, 17 offensive players have seen their first action in a UCLA jersey this season.

Additionally, the quarterback position has been dramatically impacted for the second year in a row due to injuries, as Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson were both lost before the season even began.

It's easy then, to understand why the Bruins have often struggled to put points on the board despite having a highly respected coordinator and offensive-minded head coach at the helm.

Junior college transfer Kevin Craft became the opening game starter, and he's remained with the first-string throughout the season. He guided a dramatic early season come-from-behind win over Tennessee that had UCLA fans expecting great things, but other than a subsequent comeback win over Stanford, it's been a mediocre season at best.

Craft has thrown more than twice as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns (7), and completed just 56.3 percent of his passes.

With such a young group, the Bruins have thrown the ball to many targets this season, with speedy 5-foot-11 junior Terrence Austin leading the team with 41 catches, and 6-foot-3 junior tight end Ryan Moya not far behind with 37 receptions.

One of the freshmen making an important contributions on offense is Taylor Embree, third on the team with 35 catches for a team-best 478 yards.

At running back, the Bruins have used senior Kahlil Bell to shoulder much of the load, and the 6-foot-0, 219-pounder has rushed for a modest 334 yards on 114 carries (2.9 yards per carry) with seven touchdowns.

Defense

UCLA has more talent on the defensive side of the field, with greater continuity due to popular coach DeWayne Walker being kept on as the coordinator by Neuheisel.

Walker's defense finishing 29th nationally in total defense last season and 14th in rushing defense.

The strength of the unit is up front, with defensive tackles Brigham Harwell, a senior, and Brian Price, a sophomore, among the better players at the position in the conference. Harwell has 48 tackles and Price has 29 tackles, including 12 for a loss.

ASU coach Dennis Erickson said the strength of the Bruins' front four is that opposing quarterbacks aren't able to step up into the pocket as easily against them due to the tackles' ability to collapse the pocket and bring pressure from the interior.

Junior defensive end Korey Bosworth leads the team with 5.5 sacks from his defensive end position and true freshman Datone Jones is beginning to make his mark at the other end spot, with 14 tackles on the season.

At linebacker, junior Reggie Carter is a key player, with a team-best 72 tackles from the weakside, and he also has three forced fumbles.

In the defensive backfield, the Bruins feature junior cornerback Alterraun Verner, who has a team-best 19 consecutive starts. He is second on the team with 62 tackles, and first with 13 pass breakups. He also has two interceptions.

Starting safeties Rahim Moore, another freshman, and Brett Lockett, a senior, have each started every game of the season. Lockett is third on the team with 58 tackles, which Moore has 48 stops.

ASU vs. UCLA

The Sun Devils and Bruins have identical records and both can reach bowl eligibility by winning out.

This is the 25th meeting between the two schools. ASU won last year, 24-20, but UCLA leads the series 15-8-1, with five wins in the last seven meetings.

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