Few people outside the UCLA and Arizona State fan bases recognize the magnitude of tonight’s game. This matchup has quickly turned into a regular season championship of some sorts, as the winner has consistently gone on to represent the Pac 12 South in the conference championship game. Last year, Arizona State trotted into Southern California and escaped with not only a 38-33 victory but the Pac 12 South crown as well. The year prior UCLA held off the Sun Devils in Tempe, winning 45-43 on a last second field goal. One thing is for sure; the game will be close and there will be points, plenty of them.
I’m not sure you can overhype a game that carries this much weight, especially when you add that tonight first time since 2007 that both teams will be ranked and the game will be played in Tempe.
Within the last week the hype for this game has dwindled as the Sun Devils star quarterback Taylor Kelly was ruled out more than a week ago. Kelly was in a protective boot as recent as Monday after injuring his right foot September 13 against Colorado. Allow me to introduce to you Mike Bercovici the backup quarterback for the Sun Devils. Bercovici is no slouch; he was narrowly defeated by Taylor Kelly in 2012 for the starting quarterback job, and the big arm Bercovici is more than ready to display his talents in primetime. Arizona State’s bye week allowed him an extra week to get starter reps and I’m expecting a little bit of a coming out party. Jim Mora has been mum all week about the status of his star quarterback and pre-season Hesiman candidate Brett Hundley who injured his arm last week. I don’t believe for a second that Hundley sits out this game, Mora is just toying with the Arizona State faithful stupid enough to believe that Hundley doesn’t trot out tonight.
Temperature will be a factor all night with temperatures expected as high as 99 at kickoff. How each team handles the heat and which stars succumb to dehydration and cramps will be a theme all night. A UCLA offensive line that has struggled at times this year – and that’s being generous – will need to give Hundley time to throw the ball downfield. Arizona State’s defensive front seven is revamped but has only six sacks through three games, so despite the UCLA offensive line struggles I think they can control them all night. If they do and Hundley has time in the pocket, he will have the open receivers to throw it to because Arizona State’s secondary is not strong.
While the passing game is certainly a focus in their offense, Arizona State isn’t as one-dimensional as one might think, in fact their starting running back DJ Foster averages 9.1 yards per carry and leads the Pac 12 in plays of 20 yards or more. Myles Jack and company will have to contain him early and put the pressure on backup quarterback Mike Bercovici to win the game with his arm.
Tempe will be rowdy. The crowd will be rocking, but the loss of Taylor Kelly and the porous Sun Devils defense can’t be understated.
Prediction: UCLA escapes in Tempe with a 37-27 victory.
*Section Photo credit to Christian Petersen, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports