Before 4 p.m. local time in Los Angeles, if you had asked any Arizona State football fan, “How would a 38-33 road victory feel?” The answer is obvious. Any Sun Devil follower would be thrilled to see their team go to the Rose Bowl and defeat the UCLA Bruins by that final score.
However, there will be some fans and definitely some analysts in the national media who will point to how the game unfolded, rather than the score. Fair enough. It’s not a stretch to say that ASU almost let this one get away.
Sitting amongst a huge contingent of Arizona State supporters who made the trip to Pasadena, the tension in the fourth quarter was pretty thick. Criticism and doubt were starting to dominate the conversations. Sun Devil fans who, undoubtedly, had plans for a raucous post-game celebration on Colorado Avenue in Pasadena were relegated to mostly relief and fatigue.
This is somewhat understandable, but also a little misguided. I would highly encourage fans to look at the totality of this game. Remember, UCLA was undefeated at home this season. They were ranked higher than the Sun Devils. They were the reigning Pac-12 South champs. The Bruins are a good, solid football team. And ASU beat them.
For now, that’s good enough.
Arizona State was not perfect at all (see below). But they were more perfect than UCLA, and they overcame adversity and a hostile crowd to earn their place in the Pac-12 championship game in two weeks. So, the Sun Devil Nation should hold its head high and enjoy a big victory, just like the players and coaches surely will do. They’ve put themselves in position to participate in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, so that’s all you can ask for.
Having said that, here are some observations and concerns about Saturday night’s game:
The Sun Devil defense had some serious tackling issues against UCLA. They let several Bruin runners get extra yardage after the initial contact. This occurred on special teams as well as when UCLA was on offense. It led to huge plays and extended drives on third down. It especially hurt when the defense had UCLA’s quarterback, Brett Hundley, corralled and flushed out of the pocket and he went on to torch the Devils with his legs. Even UCLA’s fourth quarter touchdown reception by WR Shaq Evans, where he went 30 yards untouched, was the result of poor angles taken by the secondary.
Tackling and proper pursuit angles have to improve if ASU wants to beat UofA and Stanford.
2) Special Teams Play
It’s no secret that three of UCLA’s touchdowns were the direct result of terrible field position created by breakdowns on ASU special teams. The punt and kickoff coverage teams allowed three long returns into Sun Devil territory. On top of that, the muffed snap on a punt led to a short field for the Bruins. Also, in an attempt to stem the tide, Alex Garoutte had a kickoff go out of bounds, giving the Bruins the ball on the 35 yard line. All of this is unacceptable, and ASU head coach Todd Graham will tell you the same thing.
The special teams problems have to be addressed if ASU is to win these last two hotly contested games.
3) Usage of Jaelen Strong
I think most ASU fans would have liked to seen WR Jaelen Strong get targeted more in the second half. I’m not sure, but he may have been a little gimpy. However, he was on the field. The combination of QB Taylor Kelly to Strong was unstoppable in the first half. It did not appear that UCLA made any major adjustments to deal with them. So, why ASU did not go back to the well is a mystery right now. The coaching staff didn’t even line up Strong wide by himself to allow for the back shoulder fade. Instead, he was lined up as an inside receiver most of the second half.
4) Third Down Play Selection
I realize as much as anybody that where Kelly throws the ball is mostly based on reading the defense. But throwing screens and dump-offs on third and long just isn’t going to cut it against quality teams. It appeared that the ASU offense played conservatively in the third and fourth quarters. The only exception was the wheel route thrown to RB Marion Grice for a 25-yard pickup. But you just got the feeling that the coaching staff was so worried about turning the ball over, they played it safe. My concern is that they may have played it a little too safe.
However, ASU did win the game, so who are we to complain, right?
5) Press Coverage Late
On UCLA’s final possession, when it had a first-and-30 with a minute to go, the Arizona State defense played man press coverage across the board on first and second down. This seemed a little dangerous. And they almost got burned when UCLA WR Thomas Duarte got behind two Sun Devil defenders. ASU was lucky that the deep post route was overthrown. That should never have even been a possibility.
I’m not suggesting that ASU should have played a typical “prevent” defense, but backing off the defensive backs 8-10 yards to keep UCLA receivers in front of them would have been prudent.
But ASU did win the game, so once again, all’s well that ends well.
Ultimately, a 38-33 victory over Pac-12 South arch-rival UCLA — and an opportunity to play Stanford for the conference championship — is all that matters. This Sun Devil team finally accomplished what fans have been longing for: legitimacy. ASU fans, players and coaches should enjoy this moment to the fullest.
In the military, when commanders are planning an operation, they use an old phrase: “The enemy gets a vote.” Meaning, of course, no matter what your grand plan is, the enemy has a plan, too. They also have weapons of their own and determination to beat you. It’s no different in football. UCLA (along with almost everyone else in the conference) has good players and good coaches. The process of winning a game has successes as well as setbacks, ongoing adjustments, moments of confidence, confusion, elation and frustration. That’s what makes football a great game.
So now comes the UofA. Enough said.