Pasadena, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - With the Pac-12 South Division title hanging in the balance the 19th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils and the 14th- ranked UCLA Bruins will square off in a critical league battle at the Rose Bowl.
The Sun Devils have quietly risen to the top of the Pac-12 South Division. Arizona State has won five straight games after a 30-17 triumph over Oregon State last weekend. The win pushed the Sun Devils to 6-1 in league action, which has them ahead of both UCLA and USC by a game in the standings. Arizona State also moved up to No. 19 in the national rankings this weekend with its overall record improving to 8-2.
"We have worked a really long time, some of these guys five years, for the opportunity to go to UCLA and compete for the Pac-12 South Championship," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "We are 60 minutes away, one win away, from clinching the south. That is a big, big deal."
This is the first part of a brutal two-game stretch to end the year for UCLA, which must deal with cross-town rival USC next weekend. The Bruins have set themselves up nicely to get a shot at their third straight Pac-12 Championship appearance with wins in three straight contests. The most recent was a 41-31 victory over Washington. The Bruins now sit at 8-2 overall and with a win this week and against the Trojans, will earn the South Division title.
"We are still in the hunt with another week to play. We call it our championship drive here. Arizona State is coming in here, and they are an excellent football team," UCLA head coach Jim Mora said. "But the most important thing is winning, and our offense has embraced it. It's an indication of the character of our players. I'm excited. I'm fired up. We are still in it. We have to keep going. We have to keep winning."
If last year's matchup is any indication this should be a barn burner. Ka'i Fairbairn booted a 33-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Bruins to a thrilling 45-43 victory over the Sun Devils in Tempe. The Bruins lead that series by a count of 18-10-1.
Other than Oregon and Washington, no team in the Pac-12 is picking up more yards (475.3 ypg) than the Sun Devils. Arizona State also boasts of the second best scoring average (42.3 ypg) in the league.
A look at the short list of Heisman candidates probably wouldn't include Marion Grice, but it certainly should. The Sun Devils' lead running back has been unstoppable both on the ground and through the air this season. Grice has amassed 901 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing and has added 43 receptions for 366 yards and six more scores as a receiver. Grice has scored more touchdowns than any player in the Pac-12 and is second in the country in the category.
Grice isn't the only player that has been versatile. Taylor Kelly lines up under center and has been impressive both with his arm and his legs. Kelly has completed 62.4 percent of his pass attempts for 2,838 yards and 24 touchdowns, though he has been picked off 10 times. Kelly has had some issues of late as he has failed to get over 200 yards passing in the last two games. Kelly has also rushed for 312 yards and seven scores this year.
Although Kelly didn't excel through the air against the Beavers, Jaelen Strong was able to produce his best game in awhile as he had 106 yards on seven receptions. Strong (59 receptions, 834 yards, five TDs) had five straight games of 100 or more yards at one point this season but before last Saturday had been held to 35 or less in three straight. D.J. Foster (50 receptions, 523 yards, three TDs) and tight end Chris Coyle (24 receptions, 370 yards, four TDs) should not be overlooked either.
The Sun Devils' defensive efforts have earned them the top spot in the Pac-12 in total yards (338.4 ypg) just as quietly as they have risen to the lead in the South Division. Carl Bradford (11.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks) and Davon Coleman (10.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks) lead the pass rush, while Robert Nelson (39 tackles, six INTs) has been shutting down receivers and capitalizing on mistakes.
UCLA isn't far off the offensive pace. The Bruins are picking up 457.8 yards per game, with one of the more balanced attacks in the league. UCLA is also averaging more yards per play (6.1) than the Sun Devils (5.9).
The offensive breakthrough of the weekend, and probably the year, occurred in Los Angeles last weekend when converted freshman linebacker Myles Jack rushed for 59 yards and four touchdowns for the Bruins. It is the most for a Bruin in a game since 2005, when Maurice Jones-Drew accomplished the feat. Jack's efforts help out a backfield that has Paul Perkins (476 yards, three TDs), but has been without Jordon James (471 yards, five TDs), who has missed five of the last six games.
None of those three rushers is leading the team in rushing. That honor goes to quarterback Brett Hundley (502 yards, seven TDs), who like Kelly, is a threat both through the air and on the ground. Hundley is more comfortable as a passer though, having amassed 2,384 yards and 20 scores to just eight interceptions, completing 67.8 percent of his passes.
Hundley looks downfield for Shaquelle Evans (36 receptions, 524 yards, seven TDs), Devin Fuller (40 receptions, 453 yards, four TDs) and Jordan Payton (27 receptions, 336 yards, TD).
UCLA has not had the same type of defensive success as the Sun Devils this season, ranking ninth in the Pac-12 in total yards allowed (393.6 ypg). The Bruins have forced 21 takeaways and are tied for third in the league in turnover margin (+7). All-American Anthony Barr (14.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks) is a beast in the front seven. Keenan Graham (5.0 sacks) and Ishmael Adams (49 tackles, four INTs) have also made plenty of plays on the ball.