(11) UCLA (3-0) at (15) Arizona State (3-0)
Thursday, September 25, 10 p.m. (ET)
The Sports Network
GAME NOTES: In a Pac-12 Conference clash packing plenty of intrigue, the 11th- ranked UCLA Bruins come calling on the 15th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils.
UCLA, once thought to be a dark horse candidate not only to win the Pac-12 but to make the inaugural College Football Playoff, has fallen back a bit despite starting 3-0. The Bruins still hold a lofty rank in the Top-25, but scraping by Virginia (28-20), Memphis (42-35) and Texas (20-17) has not instilled a ton of confidence.
However, the biggest story currently swirling around the squad is the shifting landscape under center after backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel tossed two touchdown passes to lead the Bruins past the Longhorns following an injury to starter Brett Hundley. Hundley is listed as questionable for Thursday's contest with an injured elbow.
There is also much to talk about at the quarterback spot on the opposing sideline. Arizona State starter Taylor Kelly injured his foot in the Sun Devils' 38-24 victory over Colorado on Sept. 13 and is out indefinitely. The role of starter now falls to Mike Bercovici, who is tasked with conquering UCLA and pushing the Sun Devils to 4-0.
These teams have been featured in some dramatic contests the past two seasons. Arizona State pulled out a 38-33 triumph at the Rose Bowl last year to secure the Pac-12 South title, and the win earned the Sun Devils some revenge after they fell in a 45-43 final on a last-second field goal to the Bruins in 2012.
UCLA leads the all-time series, 18-11-1.
Although he is unlikely to take the starting job from a healthy Hundley, Neuheisel certainly played well enough against Texas to show the Bruins won't be slowed down offensively without their starter. Neuheisel completed 23-of-30 attempts for 178 yards and the two critical scores. Should he start he must continue that level of success. It is a challenge he feels he is ready to conquer, especially with his surrounding talent.
"That's the great thing about this team. We faced a lot of adversity especially in these first three games; more that we would have probably liked but we can handle anything," Neuheisel said.
To keep the wins coming Neuheisel will need help from the receiving corps, which has plenty of talent. Jordan Payton (19 receptions, 266 yards, TD) is the most productive of the group, leading the way in receptions and yards. Devin Fuller (14 receptions, 83 yards) and Devin Lucien (10 receptions, 44 yards) are reliable, and Thomas Duarte (nine receptions, 170 yards, two TDs) is a big play waiting to happen.
Of course the offense will likely shift a bit more pressure on to Paul Perkins' shoulders, with Neuheisel still unproven. Perkins has tallied 304 yards and two touchdowns on 63 carries, while starting two games at running back. He was instrumental in the win over Texas, piling up 126 yards. Jordon James also chipped in with 69 yards in that contest.
Defensively speaking, the Bruins have been a strong unit, limiting foes to 24 points and 392.3 yards per game. They have also surrendered only five touchdowns in nine red-zone opportunities, and have kept teams to a 38 percent success rate on third down.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks (37 tackles, INT) is the heart and soul of the defense, while Myles Jack (26 tackles) is an athletic marvel who hits hard and finds a way to get to the ball.
Without Kelly the Sun Devils could be in for a bit of regression on offense, unless Bercovici is able to step in right away and excel. That is something head coach Todd Graham is counting on.
"Obviously, Taylor (Kelly) being unable to play is a big deal for us, but we do have a lot of confidence in Mike (Bercovici)," Graham said, adding his team will be ready no matter which quarterback takes the field for UCLA. "There is no doubt in my mind that we are preparing for their quarterback to play, but we can only worry about the things that we can control."
Bercovici, a redshirt junior, does not have much experience, having appeared in only nine games in his career. He has thrown only 17 passes this season.
However, he may not be required to air it out all that often considering how effective the Sun Devils have been on the ground this year. They lead the Pac-12 and rank 11th nationally in rushing yards (304.3 ypg). Helping them to such lofty heights has been running back D.J. Foster, who is fifth in the country in rushing yards per game (170). In all, he has accumulated 510 yards and five scores on the ground, while adding 139 yards and a touchdown on 11 receptions.
Another skill position player that Bercovici will lean on is wideout Jaelen Strong, who leads the team in receptions (19), receiving yards (266) and touchdown grabs (two).
On defense, Arizona State is limiting opponents on the scoreboard, while having mixed results in terms of yards allowed. Foes are putting up only 20.3 points per game, but picking up nearly 400 yards. Just like UCLA, Arizona State has done a good job keeping opponents out of the red zone, with only nine drives ending up there.
This is a contest with major implications in the Pac-12 title chase. Unfortunately for both teams, the situation at quarterback is much more murky than either would like. If Hundley is able to play at full speed then the Bruins are the clear favorite. If not, the odds could shift to the hosting Sun Devils.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: UCLA 34, Arizona State 31
09/24 10:30:21 ET