ASU vs UCLA…more than just another ‘big game’ for Devils

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                </div>OK, Arizona State football seems to have had one “big game” after another this season.  There was the huge upset of then-No. 20 Wisconsin in the second game of the […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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OK, Arizona State football seems to have had one “big game” after another this season.  There was the huge upset of then-No. 20 Wisconsin in the second game of the season, the stunning blow-out win over USC that cost the Trojan’s head coach his job, the historic meeting with Notre Dame in Cowboy Stadium when the Sun Devils came within three points of one of the biggest upsets in program history, and the match-up with then-No. 5 Stanford (which didn’t turn out so well).

But tonight’s match-up with the UCLA Bruins tops all of those biggies.  And the contest could not have been scripted any better.

This has become THE game of the season.  Here’s why:

Both teams enter the game with 8-2 overall records.

Both teams are coming off a string of victories, with ASU having won its last five games and UCLA winning three straight after tough losses to conference powers Oregon and Stanford.

The offensive coordinator for UCLA, Noel Mazzone, was ASU’s offensive coordinator in 2010 and 2011, during which time he worked with the Sun Devils’ current quarterback,  Taylor Kelly.  He left Tempe at the same time that second-year head coach Todd Graham was taking over the reins.

The last two games between the two teams were decided by a field goal, with UCLA winning in 2011 when the Devils missed a 46-yarder to give UCLA a one-point victory, and again last year when the Bruins kicked a 33-yarder on the last play of the game to win by two.

(*Update: It wasn’t a field goal that made the difference in this one, but it was extremely close at the end.  UCLA ran out of downs in a comeback effort that didn’t end until the final five seconds of the game as ASU held off the surging Bruins after dominating the first half.  The Sun Devils sacked UCLA’s much-heralded QB Brett Hundley seven times on the way to the 38-33 victory and a meeting with Stanford for the Pac-12 championship.)

Last year, the two quarterbacks who will meet again today, played toe-to-toe and ran up nearly identical numbers. UCLA’s sophomore sensation Brett Hundley, who will soon be NFL-bound, will take on ASU’s junior QB Kelly, who is averaging 284 yards passing per game.

But, if the ASU defense has anything to say about it, Hundley will get picked tonight.  The Sun Devils have 17 interceptions this year, ranked first in the conference and seventh in the nation in that category, led by redshirt senior defensive back Robert Nelson, who has collected a pick in four of the last five games.

Both teams are nationally ranked.  In fact, this is the first time in 27 years that both of these teams meet while ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.  ASU is ranked No. 19 in the AP (No. 17 in the BCS) and UCLA sits at No. 14 in both AP and BCS rankings.

And finally, here’s the really important part of the script for tonight’s slugfest… this game could determine the winner of the South Division in the Pac-12 and send one of the two teams to meet the North winner in the conference championship game on Dec. 7.  ASU is 6-1 in conference play and sitting atop the division; UCLA is just a game behind at 5-2; an ASU win would clinch their appearance in the championship game.

The Sun Devils travel to Pasadena for this one, so this will be Taylor Kelly’s first game playing in the historic Rose Bowl, where the Bruins lead the conference in average attendance.  So Kelly will be working amid the roar of close to 71,000 spectators.

The best way to deal with that situation is to score first and try to take the crowd out of the game.  And ASU is good at that.  The Devils, whose scoring drives in Graham’s quick-strike offense generally take three minutes or less, have scored first in eight games this season – and have won seven of those.

As much as Kelly has contributed to one of ASU’s best seasons in years, he may also be the Achilles heel tonight.  He has 10 interceptions on the year and has won just two of the six games the Devils have played against ranked opponents.  He needs to step up big tonight, just as he did against the Bruins in the heart-breaking loss last year, and his senior running back Marion Grice needs to tack on one more 100-yard game – which is likely since he has gained 100 or more all-purpose yards in each of the last 12 games.

And the defense has to do just what it’s been doing all year long.  The Sun Devils are one of just five teams in the country to rank in the top-20 in both total offense and defense.  They have forced a turnover in 24 consecutive games, third-best in the country.

That turnover may be the difference in a game that is so evenly matched tonight.

But, then, we can’t forget about those pesky field goals either.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)