On Saturday, the UCLA Bruins will play in perhaps the biggest game of their season when they take on the Sun Devils of Arizona State on the road in Tempe, Ariz.
There are a few reasons as to why this is such a significant contest.
First, a win Saturday would give UCLA six wins—thus making the Bruins bowl eligible. For a program hoping to compete for a Pac-12 South Division crown, getting to the six win mark is an absolute must.
The team finished 6-8 last year. Although they did appear in a bowl game (a loss to Illinois), the Bruins and Jim Mora want a bowl appearance in order to start building momentum and excitement in regards to the program. The lack of a bowl appearance this year would be a massive disappointment.
Secondly, UCLA and ASU are both in similar situations. For one thing, each program has ushered in a completely new coaching staff in the forms of Mora and ASU head coach Todd Graham. Both Graham and Mora have been ardent in a mission to place their fingerprints all over the respective programs.
The Sun Devils were one of the most penalized and disciplined teams under former head coach Dennis Erickson. In Graham's first season, ASU is seventh nationally in committing the fewest amount of penalties per game. Last season, the Sun Devils ranked at the bottom nationally when speaking about penalty yards a game.
That's a stunning turnaround, and quite a testament as to Graham's coaching abilities.
For Mora, he had the unenviable task of transforming a program that had the stigma of being soft—both mentally and physically. In order to remedy the situation, Mora whisked the Bruins away from cushy Westwood, Calif. and took them to San Bernardino, Calif. for fall camp. While withstanding scorching-hot temperatures and a lack of engaging activities, the team bonded and came together in the face of adversity.
As a result, the Bruins have started well—going 5-2 up to the point. Ironically enough, the Sun Devils are also 5-2.
Talent wise, the programs are also relatively similar. Both UCLA and ASU rely on young quarterbacks, and on inexperienced rosters for the most part.
In some ways, this game means more to UCLA than it does to Arizona State.
This is the type of game that the Bruins haven't been able to win in recent memory. Playing a game against a team with a similar talent level on the road has been virtually an automatic loss in the past five seasons.
In order to take the next step as a program, UCLA has to win these types of games, plain and simple. The Bruins have a young team, and understandably, mistakes will be made. However, the team just had a bye week. It should have provided the team with ample time to prepare for the Sun Devils. For ASU, they are licking their wounds a bit—both literally and metaphorically.
Graham's bunch were demolished at home by Oregon last Thursday, 43-21. On first glance, the scoreline isn't terrible by any means, but the scoreline is a bit misleading—considering that the Ducks were up on ASU in the fourth quarter by a score of 43-7.
To add injury to insult, ASU's all-everything defensive tackle Will Sutton left after the second play of the game with a knee injury. It's still unclear as to whether he'll be available for the game against the Bruins. If Sutton doesn't play, it's a massive loss for the Sun Devils. He's been a disruptive force from the tackle spot—as he's garnered a staggering 14.0 TFL, and has accrued 8.5 sacks in seven games.
Starting defensive end Junior Onyeali was also forced to leave the game due to an arm injury. If both are out, the Sun Devils will be deprived of their two best defensive linemen.
There is also an incentive in terms of personnel from both sides. Arizona State's roster is littered with players from Southern California. In fact, many of those athletes were overlooked and thus never received an offer from the local school UCLA. That could lead to a 'chip on the shoulder' type attitude for a majority of the ASU roster.
As for UCLA, starting quarterback Brett Hundley is an Arizona native. He grew up less than a half an hour from ASU—and spurned playing for the hometown team in favor of donning the blue and gold of UCLA. Salt will be rubbed in the wounds of the ASU faithful if Hundley has a monster game. Hundley also motivation from the standpoint that he surely will want to play well in front of his family and friends.
Another interesting subplot is the game from last season. ASU kicker Alex Garoutte missed three kicks, and UCLA won a 29-28 come-from-behind thriller at the Rose Bowl. This victory ultimately helped UCLA win the inaugural Pac-12 South Division crown, and prevented the Sun Devils from doing the same.
This game should have tons of fireworks. Both teams feature explosive offensives, aggressive defenses and most importantly, the desire to win a tough conference game.
On Thursday, a full game preview between the UCLA Bruins and the Arizona State Sun Devils will be published.