UCLA and Arizona St. are both led by new coaches this season and both find themselves in the thick of the Pac-12 South race. That would be unusual and eye-opening if seemingly the entire conference wasn't made up of new coaches.
Nevertheless, the Bruins are 2-2 in Pac-12 play, while the Sun Devils are 3-1. With division leading USC at 4-1 and still on the schedule for both teams, UCLA and Arizona St. are both in control of their destiny. If they win out, they are South champions and heading to the Pac-12 title game.
That run begins on Saturday when the Bruins visit the Sun Devils. UCLA has had a decade of road failures and if Jim Mora really wants to put his stamp on the program, beating a respectable team on the road in Pac-12 play would be a good start. To help us preview Saturday's contest, Brad Denny from House Of Sparky was kind enough to answer some questions and give us the lowdown on the Sun Devils.
The Sun Devils got off to a 5-1 start then got beat down by Oregon last week. How much of that was exposing an ASU team that played a weak schedule and may not be as good as their record indicates and how much was it the Ducks just being unbelievably good?
At the risk of sounding like a cop out, it's some of both. To address the latter first, Oregon has demonstrated that they are clearly the class of the Pac-12 and should be, at worst, getting their Rose Bowl accommodations ready. However, for as many gains as the Sun Devils have made over last season-and they are impressive-the game illustrated that ASU has a long ways to go to reach that upper echelon of the conference.
Will Sutton and Junior Onyeali both went out early against Oregon, but there has been encouraging notes about their status for this week. Do you expect them to play and what do the pair mean to the ASU defense?
Sutton is officially "week to week", and while he hasn't been ruled out, I'd be surprised if he played. Losing him is huge, as Sutton was arguably the Pac-12's top defensive player over the first seven week and a true All-American candidate. With him out of the lineup, the center of the ASU defense was exposed, and the entire attacking scheme folded. The Sun Devils have several quality defenders, but none is as important, either by his production and what he opens up for his teammates, as Sutton.
Onyeali, on the other hand, should play. The 2010 Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year has been a good pass rushing threat, and is one of the quickest defensive ends in the conference. If Sutton is out of the game, he and Carl Bradford must pick up a lot of the slack of the defensive front in attacking the Bruin offense.
Taylor Kelly was the conference's most efficient passer going into last week, but was absolutely ravaged by the Oregon defense. What did the Ducks do to stop the Sun Devils' passing game that the Bruins could use and how do you think Kelly will respond to his first real bout of adversity?
The Ducks were the first team that was able to bring consistent pressure on Kelly, and as impressive as Kelly has been all year, he is still in his first year as a starter and is still maturing. The pressure forced him into several uncharacteristic mistakes, and not being an elite athlete, he wasn't able to overcome the heat.
That being said, Kelly's best skills are his poise and intangibles, so he should be able to use those struggles as a learning experience. All year long, he has responded very well to adversity, so I expect him to play much better on Saturday.
Arizona St. was dead last in the country in penalties last year, but are now in the top 10, getting penalized fewer than four time per game. Is that just a matter of having a new coaching staff and how much better has it made the team?
ASU under Dennis Erickson was a very talented team that was often their own worst enemy due to a complete lack of discipline that manifested itself in high penalty and turnover totals.
Changing that culture was Todd Graham's number one priority and it's paid off in a massive way. The turnaround in that area has been nothing short of remarkable, and the results are plain to see not just in the stats, but on the field. The team plays smart, hard and discipline on every down, and while they may not always make the play, it's been a refreshing change to not see the team consistently shoot themselves in the foot.
Noel Mazzone came to UCLA and got the offense off to a flying start, but it has slowed down lately and there is some concern about his ability to adjust once opponents have a scouting report on him and his current offense. Did you guys have any similar issues with the Arizona State offense last year?
We did. In fact, during games last year, we began keeping a "Swing Pass Counter" in the press box, and I don't' recall it ever failing to reach the double digits.
There's no question that his offense can be very effective. Last year, Brock Osweiler set several school passing records, and the Sun Devils were able to score in bunches in many games. But some playcalling, such as abandoning the run for long stretches when it had been working well, was baffling (how many times can a swing pass be called on third and one?).
This year, he seems to have remembered that a tight end can be used in an offense, and when you have a talented running back, to actually give him a lot of carries. Plus, he's great at developing quarterbacks like Osweiler and Hundley. If he can straighten out his playcalling, he'd be among the best coordinators in the nation.
Is Arizona State better off with its new offensive coordinator this season or do you guys miss Mazzone?
Statistically, ASU is about the same, ranking 23rd in total offense this year as opposed to 25th last year. Basically, it's been a switch from Mazzone's horizontal-passing spread to Mike Norvell's run-heavy spread. This has played to the current team's strengths, where a suspect wide receiving corps has given way to a very talented stable of Sun Devil running backs and tight end Chris Coyle, who have all been very impressive so far. Things are going well now, but I'll refrain from a final "better off" judgment until the end of the season.
How long do you think Todd Graham will be in Tempe?
One factor that works in the long-term favor may be that stigma he "earned" last December. After that debacle, he may have no choice but to stick around for a while, and if things continue like they have, that will be exactly what ASU fans want.
Graham took over a program in total disarray in December and has won just about everyone over. From the change in the program's culture, to major wins in recruiting, to tireless community/alumni/media outreach, this ASU program has undergone a night-and-day transformation.
Being 5-2 and in contention for a division title after being picked to finish fifth in the South helps a lot, too...
How is the fan base at ASU holding up and what kind of crowd/atmosphere do you expect for this weekend?
The ASU fanbase, like every Arizona sports team, is very fairweather in nature. Sun Devil Stadium was a great atmosphere for the first quarter last week, and the fans can give the team a decided home field advantage when things are good.
It will be interesting to see how the crowd is on Saturday. It's an uncharacteristic day game coming off a loss, so it won't be sold out, yet there remains a lot of positive buzz around the team, and it's the Homecoming game. If ASU can get out to a fast start, the joint will be rocking, but if the Bruins can come out and make a strong early statement, it will get very quiet very fast.