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Arizona State’s ‘Backs Against the Wall’ vs. No. 7 UCLA

TEMPE, Ariz. — Week 4 of the college football season hasn’t been kind to Arizona State the last two seasons. Last year, ASU fell to UCLA, 62-27 at Sun Devil Stadium and analysts thought the defense would never stop another drive. Last Saturday, the Devils lost to USC, 42-14 and fans were jumping off the bandwagon and filing into the Tempe streets by halftime.

ASU stunned its faithful when it followed up last year’s loss to the Bruins with a 38-34 win at USC that revived the season.

“We need to have a similar response,” coach Todd Graham said of this Saturday’s game against No. 7 UCLA at the Rose Bowl. “We have got a similar challenge. This is a very, very well-coached football team, a very veteran football team and very explosive at wide receiver.”

A defensive alignment switch after the UCLA game keyed the Sun Devils’ surge last season to a five-game winning streak and a Sun Bowl win over Duke. ASU may not have the luxury of such tinkering with its struggling offense this season, but the Devils are working on it.

“I’m not happy with the way we’ve played; I’m not happy with what we’ve done but I do like the growth in what I’m seeing,” he said. “It’s there. I really see it and I think it’s coming. We just have to go out and get it done.”

The Devils are 38th in passing offense at 267.8 yards per game and 70th in rushing offense at 163.5, which are fairly similar numbers to their pace of the past two seasons. But ASU is tied for 93rd in scoring offense at 25 points per game. Last season, they averaged 36.4 points per game and the season before, they averaged 39.7.

Turnovers have killed ASU. The Sun Devils are tied for 98th (out of 127 FBS programs) in turnover margin at minus-3. Quarterback Mike Bercovici has thrown two interceptions and ASU has lost seven of 13 fumbles in four games.

ASU had the sixth best turnover margin per game in the nation in 2014 at plus 1.2. The Sun Devils fumbled 15 times all season and lost just four. In 2013, they were 11th in turnover margin per game at plus 0.8. The ball security issues are uncharacteristic of Todd Graham coached teams.

“There’s not really a common theme,” quarterback Mike Bercovici said. “When you’re holding that football you’re carrying the weight of this football team.”

Ball security will be even more critical against an explosive Bruins offense that is averaging 37.8 points per game to rank 32nd in FBS. ASU knows it has to right its ship quickly in a competitive Pac-12 South. Arizona won the division last season after losing to both Los Angeles schools, but if the Sun Devils were to drop to 0-2 in conference play, they would probably need to run the table to win the division. That’s a tough proposition with Utah, Oregon, Cal and Arizona still on the schedule.

“I’m not going to tell you that I wouldn’t rather play at home,” Graham said, when asked if a road game can be a galvanizing experience away from all the pressures of home. “But obviously our guys know that our backs are against the wall.”

ASU at UCLA
When: Friday, 4:30 p.m., PST
Where: The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
TV: FOX

3 KEYS TO VICTORY

Unbalance the Bruins: ASU coach Todd Graham emphasized several times that UCLA is a balanced offense that is equally effective running (233.8 yards per game) or passing (248.2) the ball. They have a terrific running back in Paul Perkins (second in the Pac-12 in yards) and a crop of explosive receivers. Graham wants to take one of those elements away and make UCLA one-dimensional. ASU has been better against the pass (5th in Pac-12) than the run (10th) this season, but that is mostly due to the fact that they played two run-heavy, triple options teams in nonconference play (Cal Poly and New Mexico).

Finish in the red zone: In 18 trips inside the red zone this season, the Sun Devils have scored 14 times (11 touchdowns, three field goals). Three times (once on downs) they’ve turned the ball over or missed a field goal. Their red-zone efficiency ranks 10th in the Pac-12 and 93rd nationally. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell likes to line up in the shotgun in those situations because it adds the QB as a running option, but that could change after coach Todd Graham called him out for it after a fumble at 1 against USC that was returned for a TD.

Hand onto the ball: This is a key every week, but ASU’s nine turnovers this season are the easiest factor to identify in their lack of success. A road game in a hostile environment presents enough challenges. Turnovers would likely make those changes insurmountable.

INJURY REPORT
ASU — WR Cameron Smith (knee, out for season) and WR Dillon Faamatau (knee) are out for the season. FS Armand Perry (ankle), WR Jalen Harvey (collarbone) and LB Marcus Ball (medical condition) are out.  CB Lloyd Carrington (groin) is probable. UCLA — LB Myles Jack (knee), DB Fabian Moreau (foot) and DT Eddie Vanderdoes (ACL) are out for the season.

3 QUICK FACTS

— Running back De’Chavon Hayes took some reps at backup cornerback this week as an insurance policy in case starter Lloyd Carrington couldn’t play due to a groin injury.

— ASU ranks 111th nationally in defensive third-down efficiency, allowing opponents to convert nearly 47 percent of their opportunities. USC was 10 of 16 last Saturday and most of the conversions came on middle to long yardage.

— UCLA running back Paul Perkins is the older brother of ASU freshman quarterback Bryce Perkins. Paul Perkins is on pace for a 1,500-yard season, and his 128.5 yards per game average trails only Nick Wilson of Arizona in the Pac-12. Last season, Perkins became the first Bruin to lead the Pac-12 in rushing since DeShaun Foster in 2001. One of his six 100-yard performances came in Tempe against the Sun Devils. Perkins had just 14 carries but amassed 137 yards.

QUOTABLE

“I’ve been very pleased — not satisfied but pleased with the way things have gone so far. I think we’re on the right path. I think we have a long ways to go but I think we’re all finally heading in the same direction in terms of our expectations from player to coach, and coach to player and as a program.” — UCLA coach Jim Mora on his team’s 4-0 start.

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