In predicting and prognosticating this epic Pac-12 South showdown, it might be easy to see a mirror image. UCLA and Arizona State are exactly that…mirror images of each other. Both in personnel and style of play. Both teams play a hurry-up offense that tries to snap the ball in under 20 seconds. Both teams have a legitimate dual threat quarterback who is proficient as a runner as well as a passer. Both teams play the short game on offense. And both teams have three-to-four star playmakers on defense.
ASU and UCLA are very similar statistically, as well. This includes actual numbers and rankings. The only statistical disparity between the two is penalties. ASU is one of the least penalized teams, while UCLA is one of the most penalized teams.
Because of all this, it would be tough to bet on a winner for Saturday’s game. Conventional wisdom probably says to go with the home team.
Not so fast.
Sometimes, playing in front of your own fans adds more pressure (more on that later). Besides the penalty factor mentioned above, another factor that might negate home field advantage is the UCLA offensive line. They are young. Talented, for sure, but young. Undoubtedly, they will have their hands full with Will Sutton, Jaxon Hood, Gannon Conway and Carl Bradford.
With that, here are some keys to victory for the Sun Devils:
1) Taylor Kelly’s Performance
For ASU to win this game, quarterback Taylor Kelly must have one of his best games of the year. Lately, he has struggled being consistent with his accuracy throwing the ball. He has also made several poor decisions running the zone read option. He’s got to turn that around, and turn it around quickly to beat the Bruins. He’ll have to run the ball well and not throw any interceptions. Kelly must come out for this game confident and poised to lead his team to victory.
2) Discipline in the Pass Rush
One needs only to look at the Utah game to find the ASU defense’s most glaring breakdown. They had trouble containing the QB in drop back passing situations. That seems to have been corrected after watching the Oregon State game. But Sean Mannion is no Brett Hundley. The Sun Devil rushers must stay disciplined and not get greedy. They must keep contain and leverage in their pass rush lanes to collapse the pocket and not let Hundley scramble and tuck it and run. He will make ASU pay dearly if they do not.
3) Account for DE Anthony Barr
Barr is listed as an outside linebacker, but he is most effective as an edge pass rusher (much like ASU’s Carl Bradford). Evan Finkenberg will initially have the task of handling Barr. But any running backs, tight ends and even Taylor Kelly himself will have to account for and make sure Barr is blocked. Not only that, whoever has that duty must use perfect technique. They must have good hand placement, good footwork and lots of determination to keep him from pressuring Kelly.
4) The Mazzone Factor
This is an interesting dynamic. Outside of the ASU program, nobody knows Taylor Kelly better than UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. He knows Kelly’s strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, preferences, fears and mental outlook. He is also very familiar with several of the veteran Sun Devil defensive players, having had to coach against them in practice every day for two years. Undoubtedly, Mazzone has shared his insights with the UCLA defensive staff. This probably was a factor in last year’s loss to the Bruins.
Of course, there is a flip side to that coin. Outside of UCLA, nobody knows the Mazzone offense like the ASU quarterbacks. All three (Kelly, Bercovici and Eubank) played for Mazzone two years ago. Likewise, those same veteran ASU defenders are somewhat familiar with the Mazzone offense, having practiced against it quite a bit.
This all may come out in the wash, but it is still an intriguing subplot. Nonetheless, Mazzone’s offensive system is very deceptive and efficient, and is being executed at a high level by the UCLA players.
To help understand the Mazzone offense, I have enlisted the help of long-time Phoenix area high school coach Ed Cook. Coach Cook is, for lack of a better term, a Mazzone “disciple.” He has been to many of Mazzone’s clinics and talked to him personally on several occasions. He’s also done weekly webinars with coach Mazzone and even visited Westwood during Spring ball. He is the local authority of the Noel Mazzone system. Coach Cook says:
“There are two points of emphasis of the Mazzone system. First is to try to confuse the defense with lots of formations, shifts and motions. The idea is not to change the package, but rather, change the presentation. But the purpose is to put a specific defender in conflict. It is usually a perimeter defender. For instance, an outside linebacker may be forced to choose between covering a back in motion on the swing route or the slant route behind him. The QB will wait to see which route the linebacker jumps and throw the opposite route. All of his plays incorporate that concept. It’s pretty simple. It forces the defense to pick their poison.
“The second point is to use screens. Coach Mazzone uses screens to keep the front four honest and to get the secondary to come down, then strike over the top. Sounds simple, but when using a variety of different looks, it can be hard for the defense to figure out the intentions of the offense. In a game where the UCLA offense gets 80 snaps, the defense can read it right 70 times and it’s still a big day for the offense. “
5) Let it All Hang Out
Many times, in a game of this magnitude, teams can play tight. They are so scared to make a mistake, they lose their aggressiveness — especially the visiting team.
ASU needs to do the opposite.
The Sun Devils should embrace the hostile environment. They need to stand shoulder to shoulder as if they were outnumbered at a biker bar and have to swing their way to the front door. They must let it all hang out and play loosely, or as the players say, “play with swag.”
Let UCLA feel the pressure.
After all, the Bruins are the ones playing in front of their own fans. They are the ones ranked higher and favored to win. They are the ones protecting their two-year championship rein. They are the ones who MUST win their last two games to get in.
I believe in this matter of the mental game, the Sun Devils can embrace the role of the underdog and play with a chip on their shoulder and come out with a victory.