UCLA head coach Jim Mora has only faced one running back that made him change his game plan.
“There’s only been one running back that I’ve ever faced in my career that we had a special set of rules for,” Mora said. “And that was Barry Sanders.”
This week, the Bruins won’t exactly face a hall of famer, but the offensive test awaiting them in Tempe, Ariz., includes more than one running back – it includes about five.
A trio of running backs have led Arizona State to a 5-2 record (3-1 Pac 12) this season, with the Sun Devils’ two quarterbacks using wheels of their own to become two extra weapons on the ground. Yet still, Mora insists his UCLA defense will stay true to its roots and try to contain the running game using strong fundamentals. The schemes will stay the same.
“We had Barry Sanders rules,” Mora said. “But other than that, I’ve played some pretty good ones and I’ve never really put too much emphasis on individuals.”
This week, the individuals in question are the running backs, D.J. Foster, Cameron Marshall and Marion Grice and quarterbacks Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank. Foster, a freshman, is the Sun Devils leading rusher averaging just over 44 yards per game, while Marshall, the veteran of the group, has been the go-to back this season with 292 yards on 68 carries and five touchdowns. Grice has been a more than effective supporting character with five rushing touchdowns of his own.
Kelly and Eubank have spread the offense even more so, with both being able to run and throw. Arizona State head coach Todd Graham had to vehemently defend his dual-quarterback system after an early season loss to Missouri, but it has yielded nothing but results: The duo has combined for nearly 400 yards on the ground with Eubank also contributing two touchdowns.
While both have seen plenty of action, it’s Kelly that has been the starter and Kelly’s wheels that Mora has been impressed with.
“A couple things jump out a me about their quarterback,” Mora said. “His mobility, his ability to throw the ball on the run, his speed at which he runs the ball when he does become the runner.
“He’s not a guy that’s looking to run out of bounds or just looking to get a few yards and get down, he’s looking to break to break them.”
Mora feels that Kelly fits perfectly with Graham’s style of play.
“I think he’s fearless,” Mora said. “Todd Graham likes to play a tough, physical style of play and they can do that with him.”
But the Sun Devils are equally worried about UCLA’s running tandem of Johnathan Franklin and Brett Hundley.
“I think the number one thing offensively, is their ability to run the football,” Graham said at his weekly press conference.
If last week’s game against Oregon is any indication, the Bruins should be able to run all over the Sun Devils.
A disastrous first half saw the fourth-ranked Ducks score on six straight drives en route to a 43-21 win. Oregon netted 406 yards against Arizona State and Marcus Mariota’s 86-yard touchdown was the longest touchdown run for a quarterback in Oregon history.
“I just think that Oregon is so explosive,” Mora said. “The second half they played them very well.”
But those numbers were outliers in a season where Arizona State has defended the ball well. One number does stand out, and it’s the 48 passing yards the Sun Devils held Oregon to. A pass rush that Mora described as “disruptive” is the key to the Sun Devil defense, which currently leads the Pac 12 in pass defense.
“I see a team that’s physical, that’s explosive, that can make plays on both sides of the ball,” Mora said. “We just have to get ourselves mentally right, physically prepared, have a good week of practice, have a good game plan for our kids and go out there and cut it loose.”