Another Saturday, another critical game for UCLA's young but improving football team. Arizona State comes to town seeking its fifth win of the year, its hopes of becoming bowl eligible hanging by a thread with two to go, the last against Arizona. The record is worse than that when you consider that the Devils' four victories came in its first two games - over Idaho State and Louisiana Monroe - and over the Pac 10's two Washington teams.
Statistically, once again in this latter portion of UCLA's conference schedule, the two teams are very closely matched. ASU has a very slight advantage in the statistics, perhaps, but not so much as to compensate for the Bruins' growing efficiency and home field advantage in this one. With a solid and focused effort, the Bruins should be able to win their sixth and erase some of the memory of the meltdown in the desert last year when UCLA's turnovers nullified a fine defensive effort and handed ASU the victory.
The Bruins do enjoy some advantages. Kevin Prince is ranked ahead of ASU's Danny Sullivan in the Pac-10 stats, but again, mostly by a very small margin. UCLA's Terrence Austin ranks fourth in the Pac 10 in both punt and kickoff returns. And the Bruins absolutely dominate the tackles for loss category with four players ranked in the top ten in the conference - Brian Price with a significant lead over everyone as No.1; Korey Bosworth at No.5; Datone Jones at No. 6; and Reggie Carter at No. 10.
Carter in particular appears to us to be moving a bit better in recent games. It's great to see, comes at a very good time for the Bruins, and causes one to wonder how this year might have gone for UCLA despite all the inexperience if Carter had been healthy all season and, perhaps, had Prince avoided getting his jaw broken against Tennessee.
In their last game, ASU got run over by Oregon. Of course, Oregon's the best rushing team in the Pac 10. Still, getting the running game working gives a team control of a game. And, while the passing attack has developed into a real weapon for the Bruins, their running game - can hardly call it an 'attack' at this point, not against a real D I defense anyway - has struggled.
Some of that is Johnathan Franklin's sudden attack of fumblitis the last couple weeks. The Bruins need Franklin, also known as "Jet Ski" to get back out there and get the job done as he is the only healthy running back who combines style, size and speed.
Derrick Coleman has the size - and excellent stats - but doesn't really have much of a burst. In fact, with the commitments recently of two very highly rated for 2010, some project Coleman's future at fullback as opposed to tailback. Another fan fave, Milton Knox, has been looking good running the ball of late. Knox is a shifty, dangerous runner although he lacks both the killer explosion that made Maurice Jones-Drew so exceptional and the size to pound forward through tackles for yards after he is hit. Blocking in the backfield is another area in which Knox has to show he can get the job done.
Last weekend, albeit it was against Washington State, a squad that would be challenging for last place were it in the Mountain West Conference, or the WAC as opposed to the Pac 10, Chane Moline had his number called often and the senior responded with a terrific effort both at FB and at TB including running from the "wildcat."
Those changes - the multiple drop-down reads by Prince that resulted in Moline emerging with seven catches and also Moline's rushing for three touchdowns - came as a result of excellent game-planning by the Bruins' offensive brain trust. The young and depleted Cougars hedge their defensive backs, back to protect against the long pass. That opens up the area underneath. It won't be quite so straightforward this weekend.
Arizona State boasts two players who are tied for third in the Pac10 with three interceptions each where they are tied with UCLA's Alterraun Verner and Akeem Ayers. That puts them only one interception out of second place - which is four interceptions - but 'way behind the conference - and national - leader, UCLA's Rahim Moore who has nine.
Arizona State's offense isn't great, nor is its defense. But then that matches the Devils up pretty well against UCLA at this point. The difference could very well be the Bruins' recent improvement and playing in the Rose Bowl. This will be the final home game for 12 Bruins seniors - not counting Micah Kia who we hope will rejoin the team and participate for one more year in 2010.
What's required is pretty apparent to all Blitzers: on defense, the Bruins have to hold position and play their gaps; they have to get pressure on ASU's QB , be it senior Danny Sullivan or athletic sophomore Samson Szakacsy, who was given the starting nod and made a strong impression with his performance last Saturday at Oregon.
Szakacsy came off the bench in the second quarter with his team already behind in the game 31-7 and completed 13 of 22 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions in ASU's 44-21 defeat. He also ran for a touchdown and used to his speed to elude heavy pressure from the Ducks. All of ASU's quarterbacks have suffered from some sort of injuries during this long season.
Whoever ASU plays, the Bruins can't allow him too much time to find open targets; and they have to continue to make sure tackles, bring guys down when they get their hands on them.
On offense, someone has to step up in the running game - get through holes quickly, fall forward after being hit, hold onto the ball. The O Line looked good against WSU - but, well, you know - including Darius Savage at offensive guard. The line has to play well again - probably play better than last week given the step-up in opposition - make those blocks and sustain them longer without getting called for holding. And Prince has to keep the game plan in mind, run through his progressions and take what the defense is giving him. The throws have to be on time and on target this week, even more so than versus Wazzu.
This is the game now that UCLA has to win. A victory brings the record to 6-5 heading into the SC game. After the debacle against Stanford, the Trojans have this week off, two weeks to prepare for UCLA, two weeks to try to regain some face in Southern California.
The Bruins don't have that bye week so they need to make this week a crusade, to get that sixth win that ESPN pointed out UCLA would surely have had a lot earlier in the year were they playing in the Big Ten or the Big Twelve or the Big East. (Odd use of the word "big" in those cases, no?) They need to get bowl eligible now and go into November 28 riding a three game winning streak.
This is the game they have to get that done.