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Win over UCLA crucial to Sun Devils’ Pac-12 South hopes

TEMPE, Ariz. — After consecutive wins over USC and Utah, Arizona State finds itself in the thick of the Pac-12 South race. The Sun Devils need a victory over UCLA on Saturday to stay there.

Arizona State (5-4, 3-3) would win the Pac-12 South title by beating UCLA, Oregon and Arizona in its final three games of the season.

First come the Bruins (2-7, 2-4), who have struggled in their first season under coach Chip Kelly and are coming off a 42-21 loss at Oregon in Kelly’s return to Eugene, where he once led the Ducks to national prominence.

Arizona State coach Herm Edwards, also in his first year on the job, said his team faces a big challenge.

“I told our players after the (Utah) game that they have never won three straight. That was the challenge I offered to them,” he said. “I did not know what they were all excited about because they had not won three in a row. Maybe I should be giddy, but it is always the next game for me.”

This will be the final home game for 16 Arizona State seniors, including quarterback Manny Wilkins. It also likely is the last at home for dynamic wide receiver N’Keal Harry, one of the best in the country who is widely expected to leave school for the NFL.

“N’Keal Harry is probably the best receiver that we’ll face all year long and we faced some really good ones at Oklahoma,” Kelly said, “but he’s a really difficult matchup because not only is he athletic, he’s the biggest guy we’re going to play.”

Here are some things to ponder when the Bruins meet the Sun Devils in an early start (noon, MST) on Saturday.

EXPLOSIVE TRIO: Wilkins, Harry and running back Eno Benjamin all had big games in Arizona State’s 38-20 victory over then-No. 16 Utah last weekend.

Wilkins completed 19 of 24 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. Harry caught nine passes for 161 yards and those three TDs. Benjamin gained 175 yards and scored two TDs in 27 carries.

In all, Arizona State gained 536 yards, by far the most given up this season by the Utes, who entered the game with the No. 1-ranked defense in the Pac-12.

WHO’S THE QB?: Freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, bothered by a shoulder injury, returned to start against Oregon but didn’t finish the game. Senior transfer Wilton Speight is the other option. Thompson-Robinson returned to practice this week. Kelly said Thompson-Robinson is medically cleared to play but wouldn’t say who would start.

Speight completed 12 of 25 for 147 yards and a touchdown against Oregon. Thompson-Robinson was just 9-of-23 for 135 yards and a TD, with one interception, before leaving the game.

BENJAMIN RUNS: Expect to see a lot of Benjamin against the Bruins, who rank 107th in the nation in rushing defense. Two games ago, Utah’s Zack Moss rushed for 211 yards and three touchdowns in the Utes’ 41-10 win at UCLA.

Benjamin, meanwhile, has rushed for 1,113 yards this season, with three games to go. He needs only 117 yards to pass Ryan Torain’s mark for most yards by an Arizona State running back in the school’s Pac-12 era.

WILKINS CAREER: Wilkins is a three-year starter who’s had four offensive coordinators.

He said it will be an emotional day playing in his final game at Sun Devil Stadium.

“I’ve put (in) a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, and I grew up tremendously here,” Wilkins said. “This place will forever be special to me. I know when I walk out of that tunnel for the last time it’s going to be hard to comprehend it.”

BRUINS OFFENSE: As one-sided as the score was, UCLA did outgain Oregon 496 yards to 492. The difference was three turnovers — one interception and two lost fumbles.

The Bruins’ Joshua Kelley rushed for 161 yards and a touchdown in 26 carries.

“This is a good football team,” Edwards said. “They can move the ball. They can do some things on defense to discourage you. We have to be prepared, there are a lot of distractions like Senior Day. All these things become part of how do you deal with that, and I think so far I think our players are focused on football on the field.”

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