The lights always shine bright in Los Angeles, but they ought to be just a little brighter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
In FOX College Football’s national game of the week, No. 14 UCLA hosts No. 17 Arizona State in a matchup with huge Pac-12 implications.
If the Sun Devils can prevail, they’ll clinch the Pac-12 South, taking the crown away from two-time defending South champion UCLA. If the Bruins can protect home field, they gives themselves a shot at a third straight South title against USC in the Coliseum next week.
On the call of Saturday’s game will be play-by-play man Gus Johnson alongside analyst Charles Davis. Davis took a few minutes Wednesday to down the game and evaluating the bigger picture for both programs. The game kicks off from the Rose Bowl at 4 p.m. PT/5 p.m. MT.
FSAZ: The stakes are obviously pretty high in this one with the Pac-12 South title in play. What intrigues you most about this matchup?
Davis: What intrigues me most is that these are two programs that have a reputation of teasing their fan bases but not finishing off the deal. It’s a perfect setup. I was just talking with an ASU fan yesterday, and I said ‘Congratulations, heck of a year,’ and they go ‘Yeah, but we don’t know how to finish.’ And that’s kind of the pervasive feeling. That’s not the only ASU fan I’ve heard from. And UCLA fans look at the last couple years — they got in one year because USC was on probation and then last year they get it done but had to play Stanford in back-to-back weeks. They played really well but couldn’t quite get over the top, and then they lost in the bowl game to end the year with a three-game losing streak. So there’s always a lot of caution from these two fan bases. This week you can take caution and throw it to the wind. It’s all optimism. What intrigues me even more is the way these coaches go about doing things. They know that (perception) is out there, and they go attack it head on. They don’t try to dance around it. They’re just like ‘Look, we’re going to change things.’
FSAZ: You’re spot on about that feeling within the ASU fan base, but do you think, especially after these past few weeks, that Todd Graham might have the Sun Devils past that?
Davis: I do because I think what he’s done with this team is he’s let them know when you do have a game that’s doesn’t go the way you want it to, you dissect it and you move on. You don’t let it linger. Notre Dame could have had a real big effect on that team. It felt like the moment kind of took over on them in that game, and if they look back on that and look back on this season, I think they’re going to ask themselves ‘How did we not beat Notre Dame?’ Not that Notre Dame doesn’t have talent, but it was there for the taking, and they didn’t take it. And you also go back to the first half of Stanford and that big stage, they didn’t handle the first half very well, but since then they’ve played with such confidence that even when they don’t have their ‘A’ game, they’ve played not just well enough to win, but to even have big margins even when they don’t play up to their potential. I think that’s a credit to Todd Graham for reshaping their psyche and letting them know ‘Hey, you can fail a little bit, but we’re going to bounce back and go at it even harder the next time.’
FSAZ: On the other side, Jim Mora has UCLA in position where it could win the South for a third year in a row. How much has he had to do with the resurgence at UCLA?
Davis: He’s had everything to do with it, and that’s a CAPITALIZED sentence. What normally happens is a coach comes in and they pretty much give the new coach what they want. UCLA hasn’t just been able to build him a brand new facility right away or reshape the weight room or change the whole practice field. They’ve done some minor stuff, but they haven’t done this whole makeover like ‘Welcome, coach, here’s our gift to you.’ He’s taken what existed already and taken the same kids whose psyche was beaten down after losing to USC 50-0, backing into the title game (in 2011) and going to a bowl game at 6-7, and pretty much let them know ‘We don’t have to take that anymore, we don’t have to be the second fiddle, second rate or apologize for anything. We’re going to go through the front door on everything.’ That’s how Jim lives. If this is a buddy cop movie, Jim’s not the No. 2 guy. Jim’s the No. 1 guy. He’s the first one through the door, and he might let the other guy do the paperwork. Because of Jim’s attitude and a staff that mirrors him he has let those kids know the standard is higher and they have grasped on to that in a big way.
FSAZ: Let’s talk about the game itself. Both these offenses can really move the ball and score, but how about these defense?
Davis: I think UCLA getting (linebacker) Eric Kendricks back is huge for their defense. They’ve played better when he’s on the field. Anthony Barr gets all the credit, and deservedly so, but Kendricks is huge glue for that team. Having him around to go with Myles Jack and Barr is a big deal for UCLA. For Arizona State, it’s a little more of an unsung style, but guess what? The pressure is coming up front, and the guys in the secondary are really responding. They’ve become big time playmakers and ballhawks. I like that secondary a lot. But I think more than that, Will Sutton is really starting to come to life. His numbers aren’t going to jump out at you, but watch the film and you’ll see they’re doubling him all the time because he takes up that kind of space and commands that type of doubl- team. I also think Carl Bradford will play lights out on Saturday after what happened with him and Todd Graham. Getting benched and understanding Todd Graham is a man of principle and when he says something he means it and showed that to his team, I think his team’s going to respond really well on Saturday. No one wanted Bradford to sit out, but when a coach tells you team comes first and you’re going to be accountable and then proves it with a star player? The team can always talk about ‘We’re on the player’s side,’ but trust me on this: Having been there, when you show you live up to your word as a head coach, those guys will run through walls for you.
FSAZ: You mentioned Myles Jack on defense, but I have to ask — how impressive has it been what he’s doing as a running back the last two weeks?
Davis: It’s very impressive, especially this day and age where we’re not expecting guys to play on both sides. Plus there’s a limited amount of practice and limited amount of time with the playbook. He comes into the game now, you pretty much know he’s going to touch it and he’s coming at you, but he’s still churning out yardage like he did against Washington. It was a surprise with Arizona, but with Washington it wasn’t a surprise.
FSAZ: You also mentioned Will Sutton, and he’s part of a really dangerous veteran line that will take on a young UCLA line. Who wins that battle?
Davis: It’s a heck of a battle because you’re talking about three freshmen expected to start for UCLA. It’s not their first start, so they’re not true freshmen, but you’re still dealing with Sutton and Jaxon Hood. Gannon Conway has been so unsung but is playing so well lately. Davon Coleman has also played well for them. This is a heck of a battle. Can Sutton make some plays inside? Because if he goes inside he’s going against (Jake) Brendel, whose an experienced center, but the two guards are freshmen. You’ve got to think they think they might have a matchup advantage there. It’s a great battle up front, and experience-wise you’d give it to Arizona State, but the way UCLA has played lately, the one thing about them is they’re scrappy and aggressive just like their head coach.