It's already been a bit of a tumultuous year for UCLA. After four consecutive wins to open the season, a loss to ASU and some devastating injuries have dampened hopes in Westwood. UCLA is still in great position to gain a major bowl berth but faces a tough test against our improving Cardinal Thursday.
I was lucky enough to ask Greg Burcham (aka gbruin) of Bruins Nation some questions regarding UCLA's interesting and talented 2015 squad. I poked around a bit at Bruins Nation and can tell you it's an excellent place for UCLA and Pac-12 information. Check it out!
1. Myles Jack is the coolest college football player on top of being pretty dang good. How has his loss affected the Bruins? Any other injuries we should be aware of?
Myles is impossible to replace not just because he was an every down linebacker, but because he was a such an incredible athlete that he was a every down multiposition player. He lined up ILB and run stopper in the Bruins base D, could shift to OLB where he played his first 2 years, covered slot receivers when the Bruins went to nickel, and even lined up as a corner and shut down legit wide receivers (like SC's Nelson Agholor last year). It created so much versatility for the defense because Myles could play all those roles himself and it freed the rest of the defense to focus on other things.
With Myles out, the Bruins have to fill his shoes with multiple players. Isaako Savaiinaea is a good run stopping ILB, Jayon Brown is a good pass defender from the LB spot, and DB Ishmael Adams can cover the slot in the nickel package. But filling those various roles requires substituting players, which can be tough against high tempo offenses, and it allows the offenses to better target certain vulnerabilities, like passing against Savaiinaea or running at Adams.
Aside from Jack, the Bruins lost one of their two really outstanding defensive linemen, Eddie Vanderdoes, to an ACL during the opener against Virginia, and lost their best corner, Fabian Moreau, with a Lisfranc fracture against BYU. That's our best DL, LB, and CB gone for the year after three games. Geez. And just this week, the Bruins lost slot receiver/DB Mossi Johnson with an ACL tear. I don't know who the Bruins pissed off, but the injury bug has been brutal this year, and we're not even halfway done. I think I just dislocated a finger typing this.
2. True freshman quarterbacks make people go crazy, and you've got a pretty good one on your hands. Some Stanford fans are a little miffed David Shaw didn't make Josh Rosen an offer when Stanford seemingly had a shot at landing the Five Star Quarterback. Has Rosen been as amazing as his ESPN highlights look? Should we be worried for at least two more years of this guy?
He has certainly been amazing at times, though we've also seen a bit of the rookie side, too. When the offensive line has been playing well and especially when defenses are selling out to stop the run, Rosen has demonstrated the skill and vision to dissect a defense with his arm. Things have gotten dicey when defenses disguise blitzes and bring extra pass rushers that the line can't account for, forcing Rosen into some poor decisions on hurried plays, but overall, he has looked years beyond his true freshman age. As long as the line stays solid in front of him, and if Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone calls a smart and creative game (which is, at best, a 50/50 proposition), Rosen will be put up big numbers for his three years in Westwood.
3. The Pac-12 has some crazy parity this year, with every team boasting talent somewhere on their roster. What do you make of the loss to an ASU team that was looking down? Is that just a product of a strong conference or does that loss have you worried?
Both, actually. The Pac-12 South is so deep, and I expected that ASU would show up eventually, and sure enough it happened at the worst time for the Bruins. The bigger worry for me is that U.C.L.A. has developed a reliable habit of starting strong and then taking an absolute dump in game 5 that starts an annual midseason swoon. Plus, neither U.C.L.A. nor ASU has won at home against the other in the last 4 years under the current coaches. So considering all that, I guess we really should have seen last week's collapse coming.
The real concern from it all is that the ASU loss makes it look like this year's team is the same old story we've seen the last 3 years under Jim Mora - a team that gets 9 or 10 wins but loses a game or two it shouldn't, falls short of a Pac-12 title and major bowl game, and settles for an also-ran in the conference. The program is certainly a ton better now than under the two previous regimes, but we haven't seen any evidence that this is the year the team takes the next step, avoids those puzzling pratfalls, and beats teams like Stanford and Oregon (well, the Oregon of previous years anyway). Unless things change, Bruins fans will need to decide if this is good enough.
4. Defensively, the Bruins have given up their share of points in every contest, which is to be expected with a young defense. Has the defense shown signs of gelling and improving? Where are their weak points?
The Bruins' defense was actually really good the first 3 weeks of nonconference play but has looked vulnerable the past couple games against Pac-12 offenses. I think the injuries have to account for some of that as we now have second stringers replacing all-conference players. But some of that also comes from Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley's inexperience with Pac-12 style offenses. Bradley has a great pedigree from his years at Penn State playing against grind-it-out power offenses, but he hasn't had tons of experience against spreads and read-options and high tempo offenses.
Mobile QBs have seen a lot of daylight running against the Bruin defense. If U.C.L.A. fans are looking for hope (and when aren't we?) Stanford's offense may be more akin to the kind of offense Bradley has had success against, though Kevin Hogan is certainly very good carrying the ball in his own right. The Bruin defense does get better as the game progresses, which is a sign of a good defensive coaching staff making adjustments (another big improvement from last season), but it still requires the right play calls to put the players in position to execute when the ball is live, and the Bruins edge in talent that existed at the start of the year has taken a pretty big hit.
5. Who's a guy we might not know about that we should keep an eye on? On a depth chart littered with younger guys, who are you most excited about going forward?
He's not young, but junior Kenny Clark at defensive tackle doesn't get the credit he deserves. The guy is an absolute beast in the center of the D line, even with Vanderdoes' replacement and another new starter on either side at the defensive end spots. Clark consistently gets double-teamed and consistently makes plays in the backfield anyway. If you want someone younger and less high profile, I'd look at a couple of running backs: sophomore Nate Starks and true freshman Soso Jamabo. Junior RB Paul Perkins deservedly gets the start and the headlines, but Starks and Jamabo have been great performers in a reserve role, especially when defenses aren't zeroing in on the RB as hard when Perkins is getting a break.
6. UCLA finds themselves at a crossroads for the season: they still have a chance to make a major bowl but also face a tough Pac-12 schedule. What are your aspirations for the season and where do you think they will end up?
It's just hard to tell which Bruin team we'll get. This is the time of year that Mora's teams seem to lose momentum and play some disappointing football for 3 or 4 games. Plus, the Pac-12 is such a good conference this year that traditional middle of the Pac teams like Utah and Cal and even Wazzu look capable of winning every week. So the margin for error is smaller than ever, and Mora and his coaching staff haven't yet shown they can make the leap to cover that margin each week. As much as I don't want to admit it, I see them being a 9 win team but losing a game they shouldn't that ends up costing them the South and a conferences title game appearance. Again.
7. Predictions for the game?
More good news for the Bruins: this game is in Palo Alto, and the Bruins have won 12 consecutive games on the road. Crazy, right? They really do seem to have better focus and intensity away from home. Having said that, Stanford has won the last 7 meetings between the two schools, and the last 3 years when I thought the Bruins finally had a better roster and the urgency and opportunity to make a statement, Stanford just steadily and inexorably pushed our team around on both sides of the ball and the game was never really close. I'd love to be surprised, but it's not logical to think there will be anything different this time around either.