Week 6: UCLA Recap & Stanford Preview

A review of ASU's explosive offensive performance against UCLA, including Jayden Daniels' incredible game, a breakdown of Ricky Pearsall's 65-yard TD catch and run, and a preview of the Stanford game.

Fellow Smart Sun Devils,

The weeks keep flying by and we’re already five games into the season. We’re starting to get a better picture of who this Sun Devil football team really is, and where they fit into the PAC-12 championship race, which we’ll get into below. As always, if you’re not a subscriber yet, hit the button below to start getting The Smart Sun Devil in your inbox, and also share with your friends.

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UCLA Recap

As you probably heard, ASU beat UCLA in Pasadena on Saturday, 42-23. The win places ASU (2-0) in sole possession of first place in the PAC-12 South Division, a half game ahead of Utah, who had a bye last week and has only played one conference game. All other division rivals have at least one loss, and USC and Colorado have two each.

ASU exploded on offense, scoring a season-high 42 points, amassing 463 total yards on only 52 plays (8.9 yards/play). They had a particularly explosive second quarter, scoring 21 points, hitting on several big plays, and gaining 233 yards, more than half their total for the game. They went into half with a 24-23 lead, then held UCLA scoreless in the second half, slowly built their lead, and eventually won comfortably.

The ASU defense struggled in the first half. They gave up scores on five of UCLA’s seven first-half possessions, allowing UCLA to run 48 plays, and gain 280 yards (5.8 yards/play). One of the two stops was a UCLA fumble on a bad snap. Most of the damage was done by Dorian Thompson-Robinson, as he rushed for 64 yards on 9.1 yards/carry, and passed for 159 yards on 8.4 yards/attempt with a touchdown in the first half, with several scrambles that kept UCLA drives alive. ASU did manage to hold UCLA to field goals on three of their scoring drives, and keep Zach Charbonnet, UCLA’s leading rusher on the season, under control (13 rushes for 46 yards).

The defense tightened up in the second half, however. They only gave up 4.3 yards/play in the half, holding UCLA scoreless. UCLA only got into ASU territory twice in the second half, missing a 47-yard field goal, and getting stopped on a 4th-and-1 at ASU’s two yard line.

Advanced Stats Recap

Here’s the advanced box score, from CFB Numbers:

First, we can see that the post-game win expectancy was heavily in ASU’s favor (again, this means that given the stats in the game, you would expect ASU to win 93% of the time). ASU controlled the game, especially in the second half, and the final score was not due to any randomness, or freak occurrences - ASU just thoroughly outplayed UCLA, especially in important moments.

ASU’s .420 EPA/play is through the roof, a percentile performance in the upper 90s. The offense was efficient and explosive, with a success rate of 53% and an explosive play rate of 27%. The Sun Devils made their hay through the air, with a ridiculous EPA/pass of over 1.0, but also ran the ball well enough to keep UCLA honest. You may look at ASU’s 463 yards and 42 points and think that it was a good offensive performance, but not really all that special, but they achieved all that on only 52 plays. To put it in perspective, ASU’s yards/play of 8.9 was significantly higher than in their 68-point, 650-yard game against Texas Tech in 2016 (7.2 yards/play).

Meanwhile, UCLA had a negative EPA/play at -.015. Why such a large disparity between ASU’s and UCLA’s EPA/play, when ASU only had about 30 more total yards than UCLA? First, UCLA ran 84 plays to ASU’s 52, so on a per-play basis, ASU’s yardage was much higher. Most importantly, however, UCLA’s yards were empty - gains in the middle of the field or in their own territory that had moderate-to-minimal EPA impacts, offset by negative EPA plays, like failures to convert third and fourth downs in important spots on the field in key moments in the game. It was kind of a bend-but-don’t-break performance by ASU’s defense. UCLA also had one large negative EPA turnover, the aforementioned bad snap in their own territory in the first quarter. This is a good example of what EPA can tell us that yards, or even yards/play cannot.

Jayden Daniels Was Fantastic

Jayden Daniels probably had the best game of his career Saturday night. He was 13-19 for 286 yards and 2 TDs, with yards/attempt of 15.1(Wow! - 9 or 10 yards/attempt is considered really good). He added 45 yards rushing, and did not make many mistakes - he was not sacked, and really didn’t have any throws that were in danger of being intercepted (he did have a couple of passes tipped at the line of scrimmage). Here are the advanced QB stats:

Daniels EPA/play of .858 is phenomenal, a 99th percentile performance. He was, like the offense overall, explosive and efficient, with a success rate above 60% and an explosive play rate over 40%. His absurdly high EPA/play tells us that his yards, while somewhat modest at 286 and 45 passing and rushing, respectively, were absolutely crucial to ASU being in position to score points.

To put Daniels’ game in perspective with the other Power-5 quarterbacks last week, here’s a graphic that CFB Numbers tweeted out over the weekend:

On the Y-axis is ESPN QBR (a proprietary stat developed by ESPN to measure QB efficiency and is EPA-based), and on the X-axis is EPA/play. You can see that Daniels’ QBR was among the best in the country last week, but his EPA/play was an outlier (in a good way), along with CJ Stroud of Ohio State. Because ASU ran so few plays (52), and Daniels only had 19 pass attempts, his yardage wasn’t spectacular, but his performance was the equivalent of 400+ yards on 30 or 35 attempts (most 400+ passing yard games you’ll see involve 40+ passing attempts, and often more than 50).

On a couple of occasions this year, I’ve noted that ASU has not thrown the ball downfield much, and Daniels has had mixed results on the few downfield throws he did attempt. There were no such mixed results against UCLA - Daniels was 4-4 for 160 yards and one TD on passes that he threw more than 10 yards downfield. He had three really big throws in the game: a deep pass to Geordon Porter off of play action that was thrown in-rhythm and on-target, a TD pass to Ricky Pearsall on a sluggo (slant-and-go) route that, again, was in-rhythm and on-target, and a throw to Craig Hodges where he dropped back in his own end zone, rolled out to his right, and placed the ball perfectly to Hodges, allowing him to run and additional 20+ yards, and was the key play in the game-sealing touchdown drive. The opportunities for downfield throws were there because UCLA blitzes often, leaving their DBs in man-to-man coverage, and ASU was effective in picking them up and giving Daniels time to make throws on time.

Play of the Game Breakdown

One of the keys to ASU’s big offensive performance was ASU’s ability to hit UCLA with big plays when they blitzed or stacked the box to stop the run. UCLA has had a good run defense this season, in no small part due to their aggression and willingness commit players to run-stopping duty, often leaving one-high or even zero-high safeties in coverage behind the defensive front. Zak Hill put together a great game plan to counteract this, and Jayden Daniels and the ASU offense executed it well. A good example was Ricky Pearsall’s 65-yard catch and run for a TD in the second quarter.

On 1st-and-10 from their own 35 yard line, ASU came out in 11-personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs), and lined up in a trips formation to the field, with TE Jaylin Conyers lined up as the middle WR, with LV Bunkley-Shelton to the inside of him, and Ricky Pearsall to the outside. Just before the snap, Bunkley-Shelton went in motion to the outside:

This is a pretty common bubble-screen look, where the slot who motions to the outside will receive the pass on the move, and the other two WRs will block for him, allowing him to get to the sideline and up the field (black arrows). Additionally, UCLA isn’t showing blitz at this point, and is disguising their coverage - cover two zone, cover two man under, cover three are among the possible coverages from this look. However, as the play develops, we will see that UCLA is going to blitz seven and play man-to-man behind it (the three circled in yellow will rush the passer). The safety circled in red, who has Bunkley-Shelton in man-to-man, due to the motion at the snap is recognizing that he needs to get to the sideline quickly to either cover him, or defeat a block and tackle him on a screen pass. This looks like a pretty advantageous situation for ASU, as two of the three UCLA defenders on that side are well off the line of scrimmage and not in great position to immediately make a play on a bubble screen. It’s going to get worse for UCLA, though.

At the snap, Conyers moves to block the man across from him as expected, but Bunkley-Shelton, instead of continuing to the sideline to receive the bubble pass, moves up field to block for Pearsall, who has taken a step back to receive the screen pass himself:

Our safety, who was circled in red before, is now on a mission to get to the sideline even though the facts on the ground have changed since his pre-snap assessment. Things look pretty good for ASU at this point, as Conyers has his man under control, and the only other two players who could possibly make a play on the ball are still several yards off the line of scrimmage, with an available blocker (Bunkley-Shelton) for one of them. Because of the blitz, all eight other defenders have completely taken themselves out of the play.

Below, Pearsall has received the pass. Conyers is still smothering his blocking assignment, and Bunkley-Shelton is in position to block at least one of the two other UCLA defenders in the area:

Our safety, who is circled in red again along with the corner who was lined up over Pearsall, is still focused on defeating the block and getting to the sideline to make a tackle. The problem is that the corner is trying to get outside of the block as well, leaving absolutely no one to make a tackle if Pearsall cuts inside.

This is the moment our poor safety realizes he’s made a huge mistake:

He’s over-committed to the outside, and now that Pearsall has decided to cut inside his blocks and is gaining steam, cannot change direction in time to make a play on him, even though he was unblocked. I can’t say for sure what exactly each defender’s assignment was in this situation, as I’m not in UCLA’s coaching room and this is not a common blitz look, but the most likely scenario is that it was the corner’s job to secure the outside and the safety was supposed to play it inside-out, forcing Pearsall to the sideline so that either he or the corner could make the tackle. However, because of the misdirection created at the snap by Hill’s play design, he over-committed to the outside because he thought it was Bunkley-Shelton who would receive the pass, and since he was already in motion, would beat him to the sideline if he did not. This was a good play call and design in this situation, but it was compounded by the fact that UCLA blitzed seven men, leaving no room for error and requiring that all three play-side DBs execute their assignments perfectly in order to prevent a long touchdown. If they had just blitzed six, there likely would have been a safety or LB in the area to make a play 10-15 yards downfield, or make Pearsall think twice about cutting inside.

One final note on this play - go back to the second screenshot and find Jaylin Conyers - he’s on the near hash starting his block on the DB that was lined up across from him. Now see him below:

He’s 10 yards farther downfield, still in complete control of his blocking assignment. ASU’s receivers have been great all year when it comes to blocking, and this is a perfect example of it. Additionally, Conyers has seen limited playing time so far this year, and this type of effort will go a long way in gaining the coaching staff’s trust.

PAC-12 South Implications

As noted above, ASU now sits alone atop the division, with a win in hand against one of the other division favorites. ESPN’s FPI ratings now not only have ASU as the favorite win the division (57.3% likelihood), but the entire conference as well (29.3%, just ahead of Oregon at 26.6%). ASU is also the highest-rated PAC-12 team in SP+, ranked at 14th.

Stanford Preview

Arizona State takes on Stanford on Friday night in Tempe. The Cardinal are coming off a big victory at home against Oregon, and are 3-2 on the year, with additional wins against Vanderbilt and USC. They opened the season with a loss to Kansas State, and lost to UCLA two games ago. Despite the two big wins against USC and Oregon, SP+ does not see Stanford as a good team. They are ranked 85th, with a rating of -1.8, and Colorado and Arizona are the only PAC-12 teams ranked below them. They are mediocre on offense, ranked 66th, and poor defensively, ranked 94th. After the win at UCLA, ASU is ranked 14th1 by SP+, and is projected to beat Stanford by 20.8. This is much bigger than the Las Vegas spread, which has ASU as a 13-point favorite. What this means is that Stanford has underperformed relative to their actual record. Their wins against USC and Oregon are at least somewhat due to randomness and/or luck. They have not actually played very well so far this season.

On offense, even though they are running the same system they always have under David Shaw, Stanford has a little different identity this season. They only rush on 46% of their offensive plays, which ranks 98th in the FBS, and average 4.2 yards/attempt, which is 61st. They pass the ball more effectively, averaging 7.8 yards/attempt, 50th in FBS. If you remember what I wrote about run/pass balance last week, this goes a long way in explaining why Stanford has decreased the amount they run the ball this year. In fact, if they really wanted to maximize their yards/play, they would pass even more, as the difference between their run and pass yards/play is 3.6, and the typical premium placed on passes because of increased risk is around one yard. This shows that David Shaw is more risk-averse than the typical college football coach.

On defense, they allow 5.1 yards per rush attempt (108th in FBS), and 6.3 yards per pass attempt (30th). Despite having a decent pass defense, they don’t rush the passer well, as they are 94th in FBS in sacks per game. They also haven’t created very many turnovers - their 0.8 takeaways per game ranks 101st.

This sets up well for ASU. ASU’s pass defense has been elite so far this year, and should have an advantage against Stanford’s passing attack, which has been decent. While ASU’s run defense has been good but not great, Stanford’s run game doesn’t appear to be good enough to really exploit any weakness there. On offense, ASU should be able to take advantage of Stanford’s less-than-stellar run defense, which will then open up some opportunities for big plays in the passing game, which they showed they can do against UCLA last week.

Prediction

As long as ASU avoids the sloppiness that has occasionally plagued them this season, they should control this game. I see the Sun Devil offense playing confidently coming off the UCLA performance, and while the defense will give up passing yards as Stanford will probably be playing from behind most of the game, they won’t give up very many points, especially touchdowns. ASU wins 38-20.

Question of the Week

What are your predictions for the Stanford game, and what do you think about ASU’s chances to win the PAC-12 South Division?

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ASU is down to 14th from 9th last week, despite the good performance against UCLA. Bill Connelly made some conference adjustments after week five, resulting in PAC-12 teams dropping in the rankings.