UCLA, ASU finding defensive stops hard to come by
LOS ANGELES (AP) Jim Mora turned around UCLA’s defense to win the Pac-12 South in his first season as head coach in 2012. Todd Graham did the same in his second season at Arizona State in 2013.
However, defensive stops have been hard to come by this season for both the Sun Devils and Bruins headed into their game Saturday.
UCLA (4-5, 2-4 Pac-12) is on track to become the first Power 5 team since Northwestern in 2002 to allow more than 300 yards rushing per game for an entire season. Arizona State (5-4, 4-2) has allowed 30 points or more in seven games, and the task gets no easier for either defense this week.
Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage lead a multifaceted Arizona State rushing attack that broke out for a season-high 381 yards in a 41-30 win over Colorado last week. The two seniors have combined for 989 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns this season and now face a UCLA defense that has been leaking long runs.
”We haven’t tackled well enough on the back end to prevent so many of those long gains,” Mora said. ”It’s those explosive runs that have made our yards per game and yards per attempt just look so incredibly bad. We’ve given up so many – and I’m not talking about 15-yard runs, I’m talking about really long runs.”
Long pass plays have dogged Arizona State in recent years, and Graham has backed off his high-risk, high-reward blitzing approach after hiring former Baylor assistant Phil Bennett as defensive coordinator. But Bennett might be tempted to take more chances to limit UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, who has the Bruins averaging 39.8 points per game at home.
”If you give him a bunch of time and he’s free and throwing, you can get in trouble,” Bennett said.
Here are some things to watch for as the Sun Devils seek their third straight win over the Bruins at the Rose Bowl:
ROSEN’S RETURN: Rosen is expected to be back in the starting lineup after missing the loss at Utah with a concussion. Rosen’s absence has derailed the passing game as backup quarterbacks Devon Modster and Matt Lynch were a combined 16 of 23 for 149 yards passing with three touchdowns since Rosen got hurt. Rosen leads the Pac-12 with 339.1 yards passing per game, and he has thrown 20 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
MAGNIFICENT MANNY: Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins isn’t putting up the gaudy passing yards he did at the start of the season, but he has thrown for three touchdowns and rushed for three touchdowns in the last four games. Graham is most pleased with how Wilkins has cut down on turnovers in that span, throwing just one interception in a 30-10 win at Utah.
”Instead of playing like an athletic quarterback, he is playing like a disciplined quarterback,” Graham said. ”I can tell he is trying to do the things we ask him to do because of how we have taken care of the football.”
HOME COOKING: UCLA is 4-0 at home, 0-5 on the road, and there isn’t an obvious answer for the glaring discrepancy. Linebacker Kenny Young thinks it might come down to comfort.
”It’s like your backyard, you know,” Young said. ”It’s like you are with your family and there’s just like a party going on, just having fun. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is.”
TURNING POINT: Any examination of Mora’s tenure at UCLA may well be divided into before and after the 38-23 loss to Arizona State in 2015. Mora was 33-11 overall, including a 19-9 record in the Pac-12, going into that game with UCLA undefeated and ranked No. 7 in Rosen’s freshman season. Since then, UCLA is 12-18, 8-15 in conference.
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