Coming off a dramatic victory over Texas this past Saturday, UCLA faces Pac-12 South nemesis Arizona State next Thursday night in Tempe and has a few areas on which it needs to focus in order to put itself in the best position to beat the Sun Devils.
1. Sort out the punting game
On Saturday, UCLA probably had its best special teams performance of the young season. Ka’imi Fairbairn hit both of his field goals, including one that was true from 40+ yards, and extra points. Ishmael Adams might have made the second-most important play of the game against Texas when he ran back a late Longhorn punt to the Texas 33, setting up Jerry Neuheisel‘s game-winning pass to Jordan Payton on the next play. The coverage units were excellent, not allowing Texas’s return game to get going at all.
The one special teams deficiency that continued to plague the Bruins against Texas was a woeful punting game, with Matt Mengel and Adam Searl combining to average an abysmal 36 yards per punt, giving Texas excellent field position (generally around its own 35-40 yard line) and putting UCLA’s defense at a huge disadvantage before many drives even began.
Against an ASU team that will be without star QB Taylor Kelly but still has an innovative offensive coordinator in Mike Norvell and explosive playmakers like DJ Foster and Jaelen Strong, UCLA cannot make its defense unnecessarily vulnerable with short punts that give ASU good field position because ASU will exploit field position advantages far more than Texas did.
2. Continue with the defensive strategy from the 2nd half vs. Texas
In the first half, UCLA seemed to show a ton of respect for the legs of Tyrone Swoopes by bringing only three or four pass rushers per play and generally trying to contain Swoopes in the pocket. The strategy made sense on many levels, since Swoopes had seemed uncomfortable in trying to pick apart defenses as a pocket passer so far in his short career. Flooding the field with seven or eight athletic pass defenders, relying on naturally gifted pass-rushers like Deon Hollins, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, and Eddie Vanderdoes, and challenging Swoopes to prove he could be an effective passer seemed like a logical approach. However, this strategy also meant that UCLA generally wasn’t causing confusion on Texas’s woefully undermanned and inexperienced offensive line and was relying on the defensive line showing its individual brilliance rather than creating unpredictable chaos that would rattle the heads of both Swoopes and the big boys protecting him.
Texas played it very smart on the offensive side of the ball in the first half, taking note of its own personnel shortcomings and Memphis‘s success with misdirection plays and rollouts against UCLA’s defense. This made Swoopes’s reads very basic and allowed him to utilize his immense physical tools rather than his brain in picking apart the UCLA defense, especially on the numerous plays on which UCLA couldn’t generate a pass rush and Swoopes could sit comfortably behind the line of scrimmage while waiting for one of his receivers to find a soft spot in UCLA’s secondary. As a result, Swoopes completed his first eight throws of the game and went 13-of-15 for 123 yards in the first half. The folly of UCLA’s extremely conservative defensive scheme was encapsulated on that now-infamous 4th-and-8 play on which Swoopes was able scan the field against a three-man pass rush, roll out to his right, and hit his receiver 33 yards downfield for a gain that invigorated the Texas contingent at AT&T Stadium and eventually led to the first touchdown of the game for Texas late in the 2nd quarter.
In the 2nd half though, UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich and his assistants adjusted brilliantly. They got after Swoopes by rushing the passer with greater numbers from multiple angles, mixed in more man coverage, and stifled the Texas offense to the tune of 73 yards passing on 19 attempts (and 143 yards total) in the 2nd half. With the exception of one touchdown drive in the 4th quarter, Texas never found any offensive rhythm in the 2nd half.
Against an ASU offense that will have backup QB Mike Bercovici at the helm next Thursday, it is imperative that the UCLA defense retains the creativity and aggressiveness we saw in the last 30 minutes against Texas. Exploiting Bercovici’s inexperience and confusing him with multiple, exotic looks will limit his ability to get the ball into the hands of ASU’s explosive playmakers and, thus, stifle ASU’s offense as a whole. When there’s a clear deficiency at quarterback, UCLA has to approach things on defense like so: cut off the head to kill the whole snake.
3. GET BRETT HEALTHY
This isn’t something that the coaches can necessarily control, but it would be a huge advantage for UCLA to get its highly productive starting QB back for a game in which ASU will be missing its own. While late-game hero Neuheisel was poised and respectable as a game-managing backup QB stepping into the national spotlight against Texas, it was clear that UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone‘s playcalling was intended to limit mistakes, which is Neuheisel’s strength as a smart QB who knows the system, and avoid disasters, which would have been more likely to occur had Neuheisel’s weakness as a runner and his poor arm strength been more exposed by the play calls.
In a hostile road environment against an ASU team that is currently more talented and better coached than Texas, UCLA will need to have all the weapons it can at its disposal. This won’t startle anyone, but UCLA is much more likely to pull out a huge road win at ASU with Heisman Trophy-contender Brett Hundley running the show than the gutty but physically limited-backup Jerry Neuheisel.