If you're an Arizona State fan, player, or coach this morning, and you're looking for the healthiest, most positive spin on your team's 62-27 home loss to UCLA on Thursday night, you can at least say this: your team dictated how the game played out.
Your team had 105 of the game's 163 snaps. Your team gained 626 of the game's 1,206 yards. And your mistakes contributed directly to a lot of the plays that killed you. Route confusion? Ninety-five-yard pick six. Missed tackle? One-hundred-yard kickoff return. Tackle each other instead of the ball-carrier? Eighty-yard catch-and-run. Freshman defender thinks the receiver has stepped out of bounds and gives up on a play? Fifty-two-yard catch-and-run.
And hey, through all of the mistakes, your team continued to battle. After a crazy stretch in the second and third quarters that saw ASU run 26 plays to UCLA's three but somehow get outscored, 28-3, your Sun Devils drove down for a touchdown, forced a punt, and put themselves in position to cut the UCLA lead back to 14 before a turnover on downs. And with the game out of reach, they repeatedly drove into UCLA territory.
So maybe there's some scrap there.
But Thursday night's story was about UCLA. For the first time in 2014, the Bruins looked like the top-10 team and Pac-12 (or more) contender they were supposed to be. They broke big gains, made game-changing plays on defense and special teams, and showed the depth necessary to still make big defensive stops after 100-plus snaps. And quarterback Brett Hundley, who completed 18 of 23 passes for 355 yards and four touchdowns and flexed his injured left arm for the camera after a short, late rushing touchdown, looked perfectly healthy despite an elbow brace.
UCLA does not publish a depth chart in its weekly game notes (grumble, grumble), but if it did, there would probably be 15 to 18 freshmen and sophomores on it. This isn't the most seasoned team in the country, far from it. In fact, it's one of the country's younger squads; five of the Bruins' 11 offensive starters are sophomores (only one is a senior), and seven of last night's top 11 tacklers are underclassmen.
Still, with Hundley in his third year as starting quarterback, and with well-placed seniors on the defense -- Owa Odighizuwa on the defensive line, Eric Kendricks at inside linebacker, Anthony Jefferson at safety -- there was supposed to be enough veteran leadership and experience on the roster to make UCLA the favorites in the Pac-12 South and supposed darkhorse contenders* in the national title race.
* You can't be a true darkhorse if too many people call you a darkhorse.
Instead, in 2014, UCLA has looked mostly like the inexperienced team it actually is. The offense failed to make the trip east to Virginia, and the Bruins needed three defensive touchdowns to survive in Charlottesville, 28-20. The defense failed to make the trip back home, and UCLA needed a huge offensive performance to fend off Memphis, 42-35. Then, facing Texas in Arlington, Hundley got hurt, and UCLA needed a late touchdown pass from backup Jerry Neuheisel to survive.
Three one-possession wins over unranked teams doesn't earn you title-caliber bona fides.
Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today
We needed to see that UCLA could slow down a high-caliber offense. Well, ASU did snap the ball 105 times and had first-down success: 18 of 52 first-down plays went for at least 10 yards. But ASU averaged only 3.8 yards per play on second down (which set up a lot of third-and-longs), and UCLA managed five tackles for loss, seven passes defensed, and two forced fumbles. These numbers aren't great, but considering the conservatism with which they played in the second half (when the lead ballooned to four touchdowns), it's good enough. And the fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter were impressive, considering the tired legs.
We needed to see that Hundley was either healthy or healthy enough. I would say that a 78 percent completion rate and seven non-sack carries for 77 yards proves that.
We also needed to see more big-play potential with the UCLA offense. I wrote about it in the Bruins' 2014 preview, and it remained true a few games into the season.
[Offensive coordinator Noel] Mazzone has wisely elected to run the ball more, catering to his quarterback's dual-threat capabilities -- Hundley threatened to reach 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in 2013 -- and with the pieces he has inherited in L.A., he has put together one of the nation's most efficient offenses.
A few more big plays wouldn't hurt, though. While UCLA ranked 13th in Success Rate+ (opponent-adjusted efficiency) last fall, the Bruins ranked just 69th in IsoPPP+, which measures the magnitude of the successful plays (adjusted for opponent, too, of course). They finished well in the red zone, and they set the defense up well in the field position game, but they needed quite a few plays to finish drives, and that can sometimes backfire.
Neither Jordon James nor then-freshman Paul Perkins showed much explosiveness in the run game last fall; the biggest big-play threats in the backfield were Hundley and Myles Jack. Meanwhile, of the three wideouts who caught at least 20 passes in 2013, only one (Shaq Evans, now a New York Jet) averaged better than 11.6 yards per catch. There are all sorts of efficiency weapons at Hundley's and Mazzone's disposal, but the Bruins could use a few more gashes to go with the nicks.
Heading into Thursday night, Perkins was still averaging just 4.8 yards per carry, and the top five receivers -- juniors Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller, and Devin Lucien, sophomore Thomas Duarte, and four-star freshman Eldridge Massington -- were averaging just 11.4 yards per catch. Granted, the average was getting dragged down by the extended handoffs to Fuller and Lucien (combined: 5.3 yards per catch through three games), but UCLA's offense was still further ahead of the game in terms of efficiency (which is important!) than in explosiveness.
It's amazing what three plays of 80-plus yards and two more of 40-plus can do for your explosiveness numbers. Duarte went 43 yards to set up a field goal in the first quarter, Massington took a short pass 80 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, Payton burned his cornerback, got held, and still caught a bomb for 80 yards in the third quarter, and after a fourth-down stop, Perkins bolted 81 yards up the gut of a demoralized defense in the fourth quarter. UCLA was as efficient as ever, but one thunderbolt or so per quarter is really all you need.
And suddenly Perkins is averaging 5.7 yards per carry for the season, and that fivesome of receivers is up to 13.9 yards per catch. Small sample sizes, et cetera, but we needed to see that UCLA was capable of something like this ... and we saw that UCLA was capable of something like this. And unlike the Virginia game, UCLA's two Ishmael Adams' return touchdowns (one via interception, one via kick return) were just icing on the cake, not a grave necessity.
The Bruins are now 4-0 after three road trips, and five of their final eight games are in the Rose Bowl's cozy confines. They get Oregon at home two weeks from tomorrow, and they get USC and Stanford at home late in the year. It would be foolish to assume that this is the version of UCLA we will see the rest of the season, and it would be too simple to forget ASU's own doomed role in some of these big plays. But the Bruins have cleared some hurdles.
At the very least, what was a blurry Pac-12 South picture got a little clearer.
Arizona State, meanwhile, must pick up the pieces quickly. Youth and inexperience don't automatically result in low-quality play, but they do create volatility, and ASU was all sorts of volatile. The Sun Devils featured 25 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep, only seven senior starters, and a first-time starting quarterback, and while they made quite a few nice plays, the mistakes were crippling. With incumbent Taylor Kelly on crutches on the sideline (he might have to miss at least one more game with a foot injury), junior Mike Bercovici did complete 42 of 68 passes for 488 yards and three touchdowns, but he threw two interceptions and suffered a sack-and-strip, all of which were terribly costly.
But even if youth leads to volatility, it better not lead to dwelling. ASU visits USC next Saturday, then gets Stanford at home, Washington on the road, and Utah and Notre Dame at home. The future is bright for this green team, but the present-tense challenges will keep coming, whether ASU's ready or not.