1. What a difference a year -- and JIm Mora? -- makes. What have been the biggest factors in UCLA's turnaround this season?
I think you have to start with Mora. He brought a new attitude and a new style of leadership, along with a great coaching staff with the same ideals, with him to Westwood, and he has really succeeded in changing the culture around Bruin football. I also think the players were tired of the past and were ready to buy-in. The past decade of mediocrity by Bruin football falls on the institutions that were here all along, the Athletic Director and his department. It took Mora, an outsider with no preexisting loyalties to the U.C.L.A. way to come in and start running the program with the discipline and professional-like manner it needed to in order to compete. It also helped a ton that Rick Neuheisel, for all his shortcomings as a coach, was a great recruiter, and left Mora a fantastic roster to start with. The great talent combined with the right system has made all the difference this season.
2. Brett Hundley has had a rather remarkable freshman season. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
He is physically very talented. with a strong arm and very good running ability. More importantly, he also has all those intangibles - intelligence, toughness, leadership, a great work ethic, that make him a very effective quarterback. What has surprised all of us is how quickly he became a good decision maker in terms of reading defenses and running the offense. He still has a tendency to hold the ball too long in the pocket, and that has contributed to a high number of sacks. Aside from that, he has played above and beyond what we could have expected from a redshirt freshman learning a brand new scheme. He is also benefitted by a lot of great talent at the skill positions around him.
3. Johnathan Franklin struggled against Oregon State, which boasts the Pac-12's second-best rushing defense. Do you think he'll be able to find any more success against Stanford?
He'll need to if the Bruins want to have a shot this weekend. Watching what the Stanford D did to the Oregon running game was really impressive to everyone, and pretty sobering to Bruins fans. While I think the Bruins have a a better passing attack and a better offensive balance than Oregon, the Bruins definitely rely on the run game to keep the defense tight in the box to open up the quick outside routes. They also depend more on sustained drives of multiple plays, rather than having the big play capability that Oregon has. That makes establishing the run even more important to the game plan. Our two losses were the two games where our run game never really got going. Also, with Damien Thigpen out with an ACL tear last week, an even greater burden falls on Franklin and the O line, as well as on Hundley to tuck the ball and run himself and keep the defense honest.
4. How has the Bruins' defense fared against tight ends in the passing game this year?
Why? Do you have another great one or two? Ah, why yes, you do! As you know, the tight end spot isn't featured by the spread offenses that have become so prevalent in college football, so the Bruins haven't seen a lot of pro style or west coast offenses which might use the TE more. We did face a good TE last week in Xavier Grimble at Southern Cal, but he wasn't targeted much at all. The Bruins secondary has been the soft spot on defense all season, but most of the big plays against them have come from the opponents' WR's. Facing the two great Stanford TE's will be a relatively new challenge for our safeties and linebackers. While our LB's are great athletes, keeping up with Ertz and Toilolo will be quite a task, and the defense needs to specifically scheme for it.
5. The Bruins are an interesting position, having already clinched the Pac-12 South title. You already know that the Pac-12 title game will be on the road; as a fan, who do you hope the Bruins end up playing next Friday and why?
Personally, the thought of travelling to either Stanford or Eugene isn't particularly appealing, as both will find great teams on their own turf and make the Bruins job that much harder. I don't believe in not playing your best in order to influence a future opponent. You just play to win every week, regardless. And actually, there is still a possibility that the Bruins can host the title game. That scenario involves a Bruin win this Saturday combined with an OSU win over Oregon. This gives you the Pac-12 North title - good for you - and gives U.C.L.A. the home field for the Pac-12 title - good for us. Even though the concept of a rematch 6 days later on the same field for the title seems kind of strange, it makes both of us happy, so let's root for this one.
6. What's your prediction for Saturday's game?
I'm taking the Fifth here...(Editor's Note: I should've done this last week.) I never pick against my team, and I never pick against my host, so there's my cop-out on prediciting a score. Sorry! I will say that Stanford has much more riding on this game than the Bruins, and that will count for something. The Bruins are also coming off a major high after beating Southern Cal, so it will be interesting to see how well they can turn around and face an even better opponent right away. As I siad, I don't believe in not playing to win, and Mora has emphasized that all week, and since home field for the title game is still a possibility, I expect the Bruins to play their best game. Though the styles are different, both teams are well coached with balanced offenses with solid defenses. I think both defenses will have the advantage over their opposing offenses this weekend, so I expect a relatively low scoring game that will come down to which side can exploit a matchup here and there and execute those advantages. Franklin versus Taylor, Hundley versus Hogan, Ertz versus Fauria...sounds like fun!
Happy Thanksgiving weekend to all the Cardinal faithful. Good luck this weekend, and I hope we get to do it again in Pasadena next Friday.