For two weeks, UCLA players have enjoyed the lingering contentment that resonates from a victory. Now they are shooting for something even rarer -- winning consecutive games for the first time this fall. Times staff writer David Wharton looks at some of the key issues and matchups as the Bruins travel to the desert to face Arizona State tonight:
One and done
The similarities abound. Both teams are 4-6 overall. Both are 3-4 in Pacific 10 Conference play with victories over the same three teams. And both will be mathematically eliminated from postseason play if they lose.
Is there any wonder this game has been dubbed the "Survivor Bowl"? Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter called it "a very important game for us to win. Obviously we're playing one-week seasons right now, to stay alive."
UCLA and Arizona State find themselves in this predicament largely because of subpar play along the offensive line. Though the Bruins' ground game showed improvement against winless Washington two weeks ago, they still rank 116th in the nation at 85.7 yards a game.
The Sun Devils are a little better at an average of 101 yards but have given up 2.8 sacks a game, a fact not lost on UCLA's defensive linemen looking to boost their tackles for loss. "We know they've been struggling," defensive tackle Brigham Harwell said.
UCLA's pass defense represents a bright spot in a rebuilding season, ranking second in the conference. It will be tested tonight by Carpenter, the Pac-10's top passer, who averages 226.8 yards a game.
"Rudy's a very talented player, a cerebral player, has great touch," UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said. "When he's protected, he's very dangerous."
Carpenter was equally complimentary when talking about the Bruins' defense: "They struggled a little bit early in the year, and as the year has gone on, they've gotten a lot better . . . they were 3-3 with Oregon State at halftime."
This game offers another intriguing matchup that starts with UCLA punter Aaron Perez averaging 44.5 yards. That's best in the Pac-10 and seventh in the nation. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, return punts for a healthy average of 14.6 yards.
Despite his noteworthy stats, Perez has been working on consistency. Neuheisel called him "the victim of his own ability. Sometimes when he doesn't hit a great punt you're mad at him . . . we just want so much because he's such a factor in the field position of the game."
Rest or rust?
It's a familiar argument: Do teams get healthy with a week off or do they get rusty? For UCLA, the answer seems fairly evident. The Bruins, coming off their third open date of the season, lost by lopsided scores to Brigham Young and Oregon State after the first two. Neuheisel said this time could be different.
"We're coming off a win, so there was a rejuvenation, an excitement," he said. "I think the guys are eager to line up and try to do it again."
A victory didn't help the first time, when the Bruins defeated Tennessee and lost to BYU, but receiver Terrence Austin says he has noticed a changed mood in practice: "Guys are fired up. Intensity is really high."
Home-field advantage hasn't meant much to these teams in recent years. Arizona State won at the Rose Bowl last season; UCLA won in Tempe in 2006.
Arizona is home to Neuheisel, who grew up not far from the Arizona State campus. There will be a family contingent at the game, though that can prove distracting. "It creates a lot of 'How are you?', 'How are you doing?', 'Nice to see you,' " he said. "But it's always fun to be back in Arizona."
By the numbers
*--* UCLA CATEGORY ASU 19.6 Scoring 23.0 28.6 Points given up 23.3 207.9 Passing off. 241.9 85.7 Rushing off. 101.0 293.6 Total offense 342.9 164.2 Passing def. 200.3 180.7 Rushing def. 132.4 344.9 Total defense 332.7 *--*