Going into Saturday's massive matchup with the Arizona State Sun Devils, there is a sense that the Bruins are underdogs. Even with UCLA being at the Rose Bowl for this Pac-12 clash, the Sun Devils are favored by the Vegas line. The oddsmakers also see it as a shootout, with the line for points being somewhere between 60 and 63 points combined.
Me personally? I see this as a game where both defenses have an edge over the offenses in terms of overall talent and coaching, to be honest. I'd be much more shocked to see a 35-31 game than I would be a 20-17 game, last year's game aside.
That isn't to say that Arizona State's offense isn't an outstanding group because it is. One of the most efficient offenses in the country, by most advanced metrics. The computers absolutely adore the Sun Devils this season, take a look at Football Outsiders' database of stats. The Sun Devils are a top 10 team in nearly every metric available, where the Bruins are somewhere between 15th and 30th.
I've been impressed by what I've seen of Arizona State this season, but to call them a top 10 team in the country seems like a big stretch. Regardless, if UCLA doesn't show up ready to play, the Sun Devils will win this game.
Strictly offensively speaking, ASU has had a nice season thus far. Their total offense and scoring offense numbers are respectable to very good. Scoring offense is 42 points per game (9th in the NCAA) and their total offense is 23rd in the NCAA at 475 yards per game. Those numbers would be a bit lower without a game against Sacramento State to open the year, but still a good unit. The weird thing about those numbers is a strangely low conversion rate on third downs. Their offense converts just 42% of the time (54th in the NCAA). How they make up for that is beyond me. They are also one of the best teams in the country at converting redzone opportunities to scores (going 53 for 58 this year, 11th in the NCAA).
Let's take a look at their rushing game and passing game more closely.
The quarterback for the Sun Devils is Taylor Kelly. Kelly isn't the most impressive looking QB physically compared to the other signal callers in the Pac-12. He's not small by any stretch but a little light at 6'2", 201 (exactly my size randomly). He's had a very nice year in his second season as QB, with 2838 yards thus far to go with 24 touchdowns to 10 interceptions with a 62.4% completion percentage (238-378). As a unit, Arizona State averages 292 yards per game (22nd in the NCAA). Despite that high overall number, their yardage per completion is just 65th in the NCAA (in a virtual tie with UCLA's passing offense at 12.04 YPC).
Their pass protection has been a big issue as well (one of very few real problems with Arizona State as a team). They've allowed 27 sacks (100th in the NCAA). Last week, the offensive line featured two redshirt seniors, two redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore. There is a lot of experience on that unit, despite their struggles pass blocking.
The receiving threats for Arizona State are plentiful, but the Sun Devils also have a similar problem to UCLA in the passing game. No real game-breaking players at wideout.
Jalen Strong, Chris Coyle, Richard Smith and Kevin Ozier are all solid players. Certainly all Pac-12 caliber, but none of them represent a huge mismatch in terms of speed or size. Strong is 6'4" and has 834 yards on the year, but he's coverable. Coyle is one of the better TE's in the conference, but no TE has made an impact against the Bruins this season (and with our LBs, does that surprise anyone?). Smith and Ozier are just role players in a good offense. They'll need to be accounted for, but not planned around.
The two threats in the passing game that could be an issue are the running backs, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice. Combined those two have 90 catches for 889 yards and 9 touchdowns. That is a ton a receiving targets and yards for running backs.
How the Bruins choose to attack and defend those players will be interesting. In a normal defense, you would expect the responsibility to fall on UCLA's linebackers. Myles Jack, Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks will be tasked with covering those guys quite a bit, as I'd expect Anthony Barr to be a primary pass rusher for most of this game.
The running game has also been an asset for the Sun Devils this season, though not as big of a strength as their passing game. ASU averages 183 yards per game, 55th in the NCAA. They average 4.41 yards per carry, but have scored 26 rushing touchdowns. The bell cow is Grice, who has accounted for 901 yards and 14 touchdowns on 173 carries (5.2 YPC). Grice isn't as physical or explosive a runner as the last two backs that UCLA has faced, but he's a shifty back and rarely gets tackled for a loss.
The difference maker for the Sun Devils on the ground might actually be the quarterback Taylor Kelly. Due to the high number of sacks, Kelly's rushing numbers are down significantly from last year. He's gained 459 yards rushing, but lost 147. In the last two games, Kelly has actually accumulated negative rushing yards (-3 total, I believe). If Kelly is taken away as a rushing threat, the Sun Devils offense can become a little one dimensional.
Overall, I like this matchup for the UCLA defense. Arizona State's strengths play right into UCLA's strengths. Questionable pass blocking and an offense that counts on match-ups versus linebackers in the passing game. If the linebackers live up to their bill as the best unit in the Pac-12 and maybe the country, then there is no reason why the Sun Devils should score more than 4 times in this game.