TEMPE, Ariz. – When UCLA plays Arizona State on Saturday, the outcome will go a long way toward determining which team is a true challenger to favored USC in the Pac-12 South.
The Bruins (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) already have an ugly road loss at California. A victory on Saturday would put UCLA back into contention with three of its final four games at home, capped by visits from Stanford and USC.
Arizona State (5-2, 3-1) must regroup from its Duck debacle at home, a loss to No. 2 Oregon far more one-sided than the 43-21 score would indicate. A victory over the Bruins could be essential for the Sun Devils to remain relevant heading into a pair of tough games at Oregon State and USC.
"This is a big, important game," Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said. "Our guys have a lot to play for and this is the time. This is the end of October and November when you decide your fate."
Both teams are something of a surprise under first-year coaches Graham and UCLA's Jim Mora.
While the Sun Devils have had a bit of extra time since their Thursday thrashing by Oregon, the Bruins have had a whole week off since beating Utah 21-14.
UCLA brings two components with significant Arizona connections. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was part of Dennis Erickson's staff at Arizona State. Then there's UCLA freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, who grew up in nearby Chandler, Ariz.,
"It'll be fun," Hundley said. "All my family is going to be there, family and friends. Everybody I know is from Arizona, so they'll all be there. It'll be a fun time."
Hundley has thrown for 14 touchdowns, just three shy of the school freshman record of 17 set by Tommy Maddox in 1990.
While Mazzone is extremely familiar with several of Arizona State's players, they also are familiar with the offense the UCLA coordinator runs.
"The thing that we've got to be concerned about a little bit is that they have a great knowledge of our offense. Their players played against our offense in practice for the years that Noel was there," Mora said. "We're going to have to change some things up a little bit, try to keep them off guard, but still, you can't scrap everything and start over. It still comes down to calling good plays and executing those plays."
The Sun Devils may not have arguably their best player, defensive tackle Will Sutton, out with a knee injury. If Sutton plays, any offensive adjustments would be minor, Mora said.
"You can't make wholesale changes to your team, especially to your blocking patterns, depending on one player," Mora said. "You've certainly got to have emphasis on him, but we've just got to do our thing and do it as well as we can, and if he's in there, help when we can help, and if we can't help, the guy who's blocking him has got to do a good job on him."
Graham's main defensive concern is slowing running back Johnathan Franklin, who is just 184 yards shy of the school rushing record of 3,731 yards set by Gaston Green (1984-87).
"Their offensive line does a good job blocking the zone and the things that they do are very simple in the run game, and most people that are good at it are," Graham said. "I think the number one thing offensively, is their ability to run the football. He is a very physical runner and a guy you have to tackle."
The Sun Devils plan to get their up-tempo spread offense back in high gear under the control of quarterback Taylor Kelly. Mora realizes the challenge. He discounts the one-sided loss to Oregon. Just about everyone has a one-sided loss when they play the Ducks.
"I see a team that's physical, that's explosive, that can make plays on both sides of the ball, that runs well. Their quarterback is excellent on the move, especially moving out to his right. You've got to do an excellent job of keeping him in the pocket," Mora said. "They're just a solid team. They operate offensively at a pretty good pace, but that's nothing new, because that's the trend in college football."
Graham sees no sign of an extended hangover from the Oregon defeat.
"Anybody that says they have a hangover because they got beat the last week, that is just an excuse," he said. "You have to get your guys ready to play every week. You go out there and you play well, you can have a hangover or have a letdown because you just won a big game, so it is about being mature. It is about being a competitor. You have to come back and compete every week."
AP sports writer Greg Beacham in Los Angeles contributed to this report.