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Three and Out: Pretender UCLA badly exposed in home loss to Arizona State

UCLA got exposed as a pretender in its 38–23 loss to Arizona State on Saturday.

PASADENA, Calif. — Arizona State throttled UCLA 38–23 on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Here are three thoughts on the upset:

1. UCLA produced a dud and got exposed as a pretender

Pick an apathetic adjective for UCLA—flat, listless or disinterested. The Bruins lived down to all of them against Arizona State. The Rose Bowl had less energy than the Pasadena Knitting Club, as UCLA managed nine drives that didn’t last more than three plays.

The No. 7 Bruins entered the day in the national title conversation, the highest ranked team in the Pac-12 and the favorite to win the Pac-12 South. They ended it exposed as a pretender. The final score doesn’t indicate just how hapless UCLA was for most of the day, as it somehow managed to hand Arizona State four points on two safeties.

This UCLA teams appears headed down the same path as the 2014 Bruins, who also entered October undefeated and in the top 10 before getting thrust back to reality.

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It’s hard to imagine this UCLA team in the thick of the Pac-12 South race, as it looked like a classic sham. Arizona State stuffed the line of scrimmage, and the Bruins kept running into the wall. When coach Jim Mora finally let freshman quarterback Josh Rosen loose in the fourth quarter, the Bruins strung together back-to-back touchdown drives.

But after rallying to within six points with nearly four minutes remaining, UCLA gave up the game for good on a play that typified the day for the Bruins. After taking an intentional safety to avoid punting from its own end zone, UCLA allowed Kalen Ballage to ice the win with a 23-yard touchdown run in which he pushed the pile for about 20 yards in to the end zone. The Bruins’ tackling on that play summed up the aggressiveness they showed on the day.

“We have to own it, which we will,” Mora said. “All of us, starting with me and our staff and our players.”

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2. It’s been a wild year so far in the Pac-12

The good folks in the Pac-12 spent the summer saying the conference had surpassed the SEC. Or, at the very least pulled even with it. One of the hallmarks of the SEC during its era of dominance was that a variety of teams could win the league every year. The Pac-12 certainly seems to be trending that way. Who could have predicted this summer that the two remaining undefeated teams in the Pac-12 on Oct. 3 would be Cal and Utah? But that’s where we are right now. And considering the tenor of the Utes’ victories over Michigan and Oregon, it’s hard to cast anyone other than them as the favorite to win the league this year.

No. 10 Utah entered the weekend with a lower ranking than the Bruins. But when the next poll is released, Utah could well be the Pac-12’s only representative in the top 10. Things line up well for the Utes, who have Cal and Washington as its Pac-12 North crossover games. Utah’s trip to USC on Oct. 24 suddenly looms as the potentially deciding game in the Pac-12 South.

Arizona State improved to 3–2 and played like a desperate team. Considering how badly USC pummeled the Sun Devils last week, the composure to win on the road was impressive. Quarterback Mike Bercovici finished 27 of 44 for 273 years with two touchdowns and an interception. After watching both teams Saturday, it’s hard to imagine either of them having a major role in the Pac-12 South race other than spoiler.

3. UCLA is too beaten up to contend this year

As UCLA’s offense sputtered for most of the day Saturday, freshman Rosen looked like a freshman. (He completed just 22 of 40 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and a pick). In theory it’s too early to write off the Bruins in the Pac-12 because of one loss. More than likely, the Pac-12 winner is going to have a loss or two.

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But UCLA’s defense is so battered that it’s difficult to foresee the Bruins winning the Pac-12 title. Three of UCLA’s four best defensive players are gone for the season with significant injuries: linebacker Myles Jack, defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau. On Saturday, the Bruins were without Jack’s replacement, Jayon Brown, and cornerback Marcus Rios didn’t start after being hospitalized for three days this week to undergo unspecified tests. Down its best linebacker, best cornerback and second best defensive lineman, it’s difficult to imagine UCLA holding up through a schedule that still includes road games at Stanford, USC and Utah.

“You don't like to blame injuries for performance,” Mora said. “But the fact that we've lost three quality starters, some of the best players in the country, that's going to affect you.”