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UCLA Football Preview: Arizona State Needs Defense to Stay in the Game

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ASU’s young offense will need the defense to close the gap and stop the Bruins from scoring.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After finally shaking the Stanford curse, the UCLA Bruins are coming home to play the Arizona State Sun Devils this Saturday in what seems to be shaping up to be a warm, early evening game. The Bruins are riding high after their success and there were improvements all around that led to the victory.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had about as balanced a game as a quarterback can have, going 21 of 34 for 192 yards with 13 rushes for 66 yards and three total touchdowns. He was sacked three times. So, while DTR looked a lot better, the offensive line is going to have to step up the protection this weekend to give him time to complete passes and make holes for the run game.

Arizona State ranks #43 in total defense, allowing about 352 yards per game. However, when looking at third down defense, the Sun Devils drop all the way to #100, allowing opponents to convert on third down approximately 43% of the time. Defensive coordinator Danny Gonzalez blamed poor third down defense for their loss to Colorado in late September, when they allowed the Buffs to squeak out a 34-31 win. Additionally, ASU’s young offense struggled last week, losing to #13 Utah in a lackluster performance with 122 yards in penalties. They also have not been able to notch a defensive touchdown this year.

Here is a look at the defense ASU will bring to Pasadena.

Defensive Line

The Sun Devil defense runs the gamut in experience, and the guys up front are no different. Redshirt sophomore D.J. Davidson will start as the nose tackle and he should be flanked by sophomore Jermayne Lole and redshirt senior George Lea. Davidson suffered a season ending injury in 2018, but has bounced back this year as an interior lineman, putting up ten solo tackles so far and 1.5 sacks.

Lole is a talented player that can line up anywhere on the line to fill in gaps, and he has proven his talent with 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks so far this year. Lea made a name for himself as a starter toward the end of the 2018 season. He, too, can move across the line and fill in any position.

Standing these three up is going to be key number one for both pass protection and the run game. Stanford had a lot of injuries last week, but ASU is in tact and ready to go.

Linebackers

The linebacking corps is led by redshirt senior Khaylan Kearse-Thomas, who has really worked his way up the depth chart in his five years with the Sun Devils. He had a season-high and career-high eleven total tackles in their loss to Colorado, but seems to have hit the skids in his last few games as he only notched five total tackles over the last three weeks.

Surrounding Kearse-Thomas is a large group of underclassmen, including sophomores Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler. Robertson was one of the top linebackers in the country last year, earning the 2018 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award. He has been named to Bronco Nagurski Award Preseason Watch List and the Bednarik Award Watch List this season. He led the team in tackles last year and is quick and unafraid to make contact, so if anyone is going to give the Bruins trouble, it will be this guy.

Sophomores Kyle Soelle and Tyler Johnson and freshman Case Hatch will also see some playing time, but Robertson is definitely the one to watch.

Secondary

Junior Evan Fields and sophomore Aashari Crosswell lead the safeties in this five-man backfied. Fields has already hit a career-high in total tackles this year at 42, with 13 of those coming against Michigan State on September 14. Crosswell earned a Pac-12 All-Conference Honorable Mention nod last year and has notched seven pass break ups and one interception so far in 2019. Additionally, he has three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, so Crosswell has definitely a reputation as a ball hawk out there in space. Redshirt freshman Cam Phillips played in two games last year, but one was against UCLA and he was able to record a career-high seven tackles in that game.

Redshirt junior Chase Lucas and senior Kobe Williams are more than likely the starting corners. Lucas nabbed the most recent interception last week against Utah, where he was able to return the pick for 21 yards. Lucas played both sides of the ball in high school, but is sticking to the defensive backfield at ASU. Williams has started in every game while on the Sun Devils’ roster after starting at cornerback in one season with Long Beach City College.

This group has the ability to kill our passing game if DTR’s performance falls off from last week. Accuracy is going to be another key to success as ASU has relied heavily on their defense to keep them in games.

Analysis

Analysis is near impossible for this game as one never knows which UCLA team is going to show up. ASU is coming off a terrible loss and will certainly be out for blood. There will likely be a large contingency of Sun Devil fans. Additionally, with a true freshman quarterback, Arizona State needs a top-notch performance week after week from their defense to keep their momentum alive. The Sun Devils are 5-2 overall, but they have the same 2-2 conference record as UCLA. This game will be huge for Pac-12 South standings.


Go Bruins!