The storyline for tonight’s game against Arizona State is pretty simple. For us to keep our slim bowl hopes alive we have to win. Same goes for ASU. In my book, it is somewhat of an accomplishment that we are still in a position to contend for a bowl game following 0-59 and all the injury woes we have battled through the entire season. For ASU it’s about salvaging an extremely disappointing season given all the high expectations they had coming into this year. For us an upset victory in this game will give CRN another boost in his ongoing effort of culture change in Westwood.
Both teams are coming into this game, benefiting from an off week and a modicum of momentum at the expense of pathetic Washington schools. The numbers for both of these teams are fairly identical with ASU slightly ahead, which probably has something to do with our numbers being impacted by the ugly BYU game from earlier in the season. The offensive lines for both teams have been subpar this season:
UCLA and Arizona State find themselves in this predicament largely because of subpar play along the offensive line. Though the Bruins' ground game showed improvement against winless Washington two weeks ago, they still rank 116th in the nation at 85.7 yards a game.
The Sun Devils are a little better at an average of 101 yards but have given up 2.8 sacks a game, a fact not lost on UCLA's defensive linemen looking to boost their tackles for loss. "We know they've been struggling," defensive tackle Brigham Harwell said.
The poor OL performances have led to poor offensive numbers for both teams:
Arizona State's offense, despite being led by senior quarterback Rudy Carpenter (Westlake of Westlake Village), has been lethargic. The Sun Devils are seventh in the Pac-10 in total offense (342.9 ypg), rushing offense (101 ypg) and scoring (23 ppg), but have won their past two games.
UCLA is eighth in the conference in total offense (293.6 ypg), last in rushing offense (85.7 ypg) and eighth in scoring (19.6 ypg).
"I think we probably arrived at this place in different ways," Neuheisel said. "But I know they are feeling some sense of rejuvenation with the last two wins and a chance to reclaim what was a lot of hope for this season. So they have much to play for, just as we do."
For us to have a chance in this game (I know this is a broken record) UCLA will need a credible performance from Kevin Craft:
Craft can't give the ball away, but he also needs to make plays: It's a redundant point, but UCLA needs more out of quarterback Kevin Craft. Yes, he doesn't have much help. Yes, he's led some nice comebacks. Yes, the coaches still believe he and not any other quarterback on the roster gives the Bruins their best chance to win. Yes, a few of his 16 interceptions weren't his fault. Nonetheless, the Bruins slim bowl hopes depend on him not making poor decisions against Arizona State. The Sun Devils solid defense is going to gang up on the run and force the ball into Craft's hands. He will have to make plays for the Bruins to have a chance to win.
That was again from Ted Miller on WWL. While I agree that Craft has to make plays, his first priority should be to manage the game. Making plays doesn’t entail throwing shovel passes while he is on the run or throwing it exclusively to Sun Devil defenders. I think what we really need from Craft is to make sure he is aware of the game situations. If he has no options to throw, I rather have him tuck the ball in and gain positive yardage then giving it up. Moreover, I rather have us punt the ball and play a game of field position, depending on our defense and Austin’s ability to flip the field.
Speaking of Austin, he is under the spotlight as he is on pace to break MJD’s all purpose yardage record (1,863) from 2005. Austin heading into tonight’s game has 1,614. Yes the way have piled up the yardage is a little different considering Austin has gained his yardage via kickoff and punt returns, while MJD was pilling up TDs (MJD had 20 while Austin has had 1.). Still coaches deserve a lot of credit for putting him in position to make plays. From Kevin Pearson in the Press Enterprise:
"He's given us a playmaker, a guy who can make somebody miss and create some magic and excitement," Coach Rick Neuheisel said. "He's a guy that the opponent has to figure out how to handle. He's been a very, very valuable team member."
Austin had just 10 touches as a freshman but made an impact last season with 17 catches for 248 yards and 311 punt return yards. This season he has 1,135 return yards, and his 41 catches rank among the Pac-10 leaders.
"The staff puts him in great situations to showcase his abilities," said teammate Dominique Johnson, a fellow receiver and member of the junior class. "He's making the most of his opportunities."
The only thing he's not doing is finding the end zone. Drew scored 20 touchdowns in his record-setting season, but Austin has found the end zone just once this year, scoring his only career touchdown in a victory over Stanford.
Brian Dohn also has more on Austin in today’s report.
Other players in the spotlight this game day are E.J. Woods (Dohn wrote a great story on him for thanksgiving) and Scott Glicksberg.
We will end with a note from the OC Register’s game report. As they get ready to finish their last year at UCLA kids like Harwell and Bell are looking at this game more than just an opportunity to qualify for a bowl game. They have bought into the coach’s message of trying to build the foundation for something special in Westwood:
The Bruins are not solely motivated by playing in a bowl game. Bell talks about leaving a legacy at UCLA. Defensive tackle Brigham Harwell wants to be an All-American. Receiver Terrence Austin is threatening to break the school’s single-season all-purpose yardage record.
Each of them, though, said their biggest goal was to build the program. Austin, the only one of the aforementioned trio returning next year, said the Bruins would not have to start over in 2009 if they win their final two regular season games.
“This will signify a birth in our program — the turnaround,” he said. “If we win out, it’s only going to give us more confidence next year.”
A few weeks ago, once it became apparent the Bruins would probably finish with a losing record, Neuheisel began to play up the idea that this year’s team could still help lay those first bricks. The players apparently have bought in.
“I’ve always wanted to be part of a change,” Harwell said. “We know if we win these last two, it’ll be a change in the program.”
Here is to Harwell and Bell getting it done tonight.
The game will kick off around 6:30 pm PST. It will be on ESPN2. We will have a game thread up about half an hour before the kickoff. See you then.