Daily Trojan: The Bruins gave up nine sacks to Arizona State on Saturday — what do you chalk that up to?
Emilio Ronquillo: The Sun Devils have a wealth of experienced talent up front, while the Bruins have first-years manning the two guard spots and another freshman at right tackle. The team’s left tackle for most of the game, and a majority of the snaps since Oregon, is an All-Conference lineman … at left guard. Head coach Jim Mora put it best when he described the matchup between 300-plus-lb senior defensive tackle Will Sutton and 280-lb freshman backup center-turned left guard Scott Quessenberry: the Bruin fought as hard as he could, but he was essentially a kid playing against a seasoned veteran that reminds Mora of NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp.
On one of the many times Sutton got pressure on quarterback Brett Hundley, he easily swum over Quessenberry to collect his only sack of the game two plays into the fourth quarter. Linebacker Chris Young of ASU brought crucial pressure off of the edge, sacking Hundley on each of the Bruins’ final two drives, with the first forcing the attempt of a missed field goal. Not everything’s on the line, though. Hundley has shown throughout the year that he still can err on the side of holding onto the ball for too long, a habit that Young took advantage of in the red zone.
DT: Like Marqise Lee, UCLA wideout Shaquelle Evans has seen his numbers go down this year. What do you think has caused that?
Ronquillo: The overall numbers don’t flash the way they did last year, but Evans is likely still the receiver Brett Hundley trusts the most. Evans might be the only player we’ve seen Hundley consistently throw to back-shoulder, and if red-zone targets were tracked, the redshirt senior probably has far and away the most shots at scoring short touchdowns as a wideout. In fact, Evans leads the skill positions with eight touchdowns, with five more than he scored all of last season.
The emergence of high school quarterback-turned slot receiver Devin Fuller has a lot to do with Evans’ decreases in catches and yards. A midseason stretch of a couple of weeks, including road games at Stanford and Oregon, saw offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone favor the shorter routes, particularly of the swing variety, to Fuller. Mazzone said at one point that having three true freshmen on the offensive line played a role in shortening the routes. One can distinguish between the roles of Evans and Fuller when looking at their stat lines: Evans has almost 150 more yards than Fuller, who missed last Saturday’s game against Arizona State, on just two more catches. Evans also has twice the amount of receiving touchdowns as Fuller.
DT: What do you consider to be the X-factor of this game?
Ronquillo: Because protecting a quarterback should never be considered something that flies under the radar, I’ll go with the health of cornerback Fabian Moreau being the crucial factor to keep an eye on in this regular season finale. A pulled hamstring took Moreau out of the ASU game for good, and the team had to rotate starting safeties at corner during much of the game to compensate for the loss, with freshman Tahaan Goodman replacing some of those reps at safety. The secondary wasn’t tested too much, as ASU did most of its damage through QB Taylor Kelly or Marion Grice on the ground, with the latter leading the team in catches. No. 1 wideout Jaelen Strong did make up for no other receiver getting more than 20 yards, though. Strong’s 91-yard game included a 19-yard touchdown just before the half saw Goodman slide over just a little too late over the top, and probably would’ve been a back-breaker for most teams. Even if Lee hasn’t been as productive this year, Moreau represents the Bruins’ best shot of making that trend continue.
Ronquillo: Count outside linebacker Anthony Barr, cornerback Ishmael Adams and Shaq Evans as guys who really want to win this game. Each of those players suggested that getting mentally ready for USC, even after losing the Pac-12 South, would require no effort whatsoever. About an hour after losing to ASU, Barr even told reporters that he’d instructed any Bruin not hyped up for the rivalry game to pack up his bags and leave the locker room.
Evaluating bounce-back performances for UCLA is tough. The Bruins followed the Stanford loss with a solid first half and poor second act against Oregon and after returning from the loss in Eugene, the Bruins feasted on lowly Colorado. With just a single scheduled game left in the regular season, UCLA has yet to produce that signature win against one of the Pac-12 frontrunners, or a thoroughly dominant performance from top to bottom: Arizona started to run wild in the second half, and Washington kept things interesting even without Keith Price.
On the other hand, USC looks to be a little easier to trust. Since Kiffin was fired, the Trojans have not looked as bad as the Bruins did in that first half last Saturday, and the whole nation knows about that BCS-shaking defeat of Stanford less than two weeks back. Finally, I figure that the team is also all for rewarding Ed Orgeron’s efforts by completing that 7-1 turnaround via avenging Matt Barkley.
If a team wins by more than one score, it’s going to be USC. UCLA’s inconsistency and nightmarish injury situation (the injury bug on the offensive line has now imploded on the backfield, with four out of the five opening-day running backs for the team missed last week’s game) make it vulnerable to a letdown. Provided that a usually stout, playmaking UCLA defense plays to its full potential, Hundley and company may only need one big Myles Jack run and a single huge throw (something that UCLA has produced in 3 of its last four) to keep things tight. Nonetheless, I’m going with the safer team that has already scored its biggest win of the year.
Final score prediction: USC 24, UCLA 20
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