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UCLA football focuses on rushing defense ahead of Arizona State matchup

Senior lineman Odua Isibor is part of a UCLA football defense that ranks fifth in the country in terms of stopping the run, allowing 64 rushing yards per game. Isibor has two tackles on the season, including one that went for a six-yard loss against Stanford a week ago. (Sakshi Joglekar/Assistant Photo editor)

By Sam Settleman

Oct. 1, 2021 1:05 p.m.

Sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South will be on the line when the Bruins and Sun Devils go head to head.

No. 20 UCLA football (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) will make its return to the Rose Bowl to take on Arizona State (3-1, 1-0) on Saturday. The Bruins are coming off their first road trip of the season, taking down Stanford 35-24 to open Pac-12 play with a victory.

Despite beating the Cardinal for only the second time in the last 13 years, coach Chip Kelly said his team went straight back to the drawing board to prepare for the Sun Devils.

“We had a really good week last week, Monday through Friday, and it paid off for us on Saturday,” Kelly said. “We’ll just start the same process over again this week. We’re trying to climb a mountain each week, so we’re right at the bottom of the mountain again.”

Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson appeared to injure his throwing arm in the win over Stanford, but he returned to practice Monday with no limitations. Thompson-Robinson said after practice Monday that the injury occurred in his non-throwing arm and will not impact his availability moving forward.

With the senior a full participant in practice, UCLA’s defense had a chance to practice against a quarterback with some similarities to the one who will be visiting Pasadena this weekend.

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels ranks in the top 10 in the country among quarterbacks in rushing yards per game with 62, while Thompson-Robinson is two carries shy of the Bruins’ team lead on the season.

Kelly compared Daniels’ ability to extend plays to the talents of some of the top quarterbacks at the next level, including Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson. The former NFL coach added that UCLA’s defensive line will need to be especially disciplined to limit Daniels on the ground.

“Jayden is the key to that offense, and we need to contain him because he’s explosive in the run game,” Kelly said. “A lot of it’s not designed runs, it’s just when things are covered, he can take off and go, and he can eat up some chunks of yards because he’s a really productive runner and is obviously a very accurate passer.”

Daniels is 0-2 against the Bruins in his career, but the quarterback threw for 267 yards and ran for 67 more while accounting for four total touchdowns the last time he visited the Rose Bowl as a true freshman in 2019.

Kelly said his team will look at film from years past, but noted that this year’s matchup with Arizona State will present a different challenge. Sun Devil offensive coordinator Zak Hill – hired prior to the 2020 season – has converted Arizona State from a spread offense to a team that primarily lines up in multiple tight end sets.

With more than one tight end on the field, head coach Herm Edwards has made a commitment to the run game, according to Kelly. Including Daniels, the Sun Devils boast three rushers with over 200 yards on the season, and Arizona State ranks No. 23 in the country with 211.5 yards on the ground per game.

But on Saturday, the Sun Devils’ three-pronged rushing attack will square off against a Bruin run defense that slots in at No. 5 in the nation, allowing 64 rushing yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry.

“Our performance now is just a culmination of everything we’ve done these past few years,” said senior defensive lineman Odua Isibor. “It’s been a long time coming, but I think we’ve started to get to where we want to be. There’s still a lot more work to do, but this is just all of our work coming to fruition.”

The winner of the duel between UCLA and Arizona State will stand alone atop the Pac-12 South leaderboard, but Kelly said his team is simply preparing for one game at a time.

“You get a test every week,” Kelly said. “If you look at the sports psychology studies, if you look too forward into the future, you’re too anxious, and you can reduce 80% of your anxiety if you just live in the process.”

The next test for the Bruins will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.

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Sam Settleman | Assistant Sports editor
Settleman is currently an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, women's water polo and men's water polo beats. He was previously a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
Settleman is currently an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, women's water polo and men's water polo beats. He was previously a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
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