Defensively the Cougars aren't coming off their best collective effort after playing against Washington a week ago. However, they look to make up for it this week against a Bruin offense that has been decimated by injuries but is nevertheless coming off what many term as a "breakthrough" second-half performance against Tennessee.
This is likely the marquee matchup of Saturday's game. While the Cougars return a lot of experience and talent along their offensive front, the Bruins are in good shape as well, as they return two outstanding defensive tackles and their middle linebacker, among other pieces that worked together to effectively neutralize the Cougar ground game last time around.
Brigham Harwell (who was injured in the first BYU-UCLA matchup last year and missed the rest of the season) and Brian Price hold the middle of the Bruin defense together, and they're very tough to run on. At middle linebacker will be defensive leader Reggie Carter, who has been very vocal this week regarding his desire to stick it to the Cougars after his team's loss in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The Cougars return their offensive line practically intact from a season ago while presenting Harvey Unga once again as their primary ball-carrier. Leading the way for Unga at fullback last game was Fui Vakapuna, who was a much needed addition to the Cougar rushing attack.
Prognosis: It's going to be one heck of a battle up front, to put it mildly. While the Cougars hit their stride last week against Washington, putting forth a dominating run attack throughout the game, they're likely to find that UCLA doesn't give way as easily as the Huskies.
So don't expect the type of effectiveness on the ground that the Cougars saw against Washington. On the flipside, the Cougars should be able to fare far better against the Bruin run defense than they did last year in the Las Vegas Bowl.
What I'll be Watching: In the Las Vegas Bowl UCLA stacked the box, taking away any threat of a run game and forcing Max Hall to beat them downfield. I'll certainly be watching again just how often UCLA chooses to stack the box this time around.
Fui Vakapuna was nothing short of a revelation last week while lead blocking for Harvey Unga. Vakapuna was able to serve a blow to a Husky defender on virtually every play and I'll be looking to see if he can be as effective this week against the mighty Bruin defensive front.
I'll also most certainly be watching the attack up the middle of the field. UCLA was able to get backfield penetration on almost every run play last time around, which probably didn't sit too well with Travis Bright, Ray Feinga and company. The interior of the Cougar offensive line will seek redemption this time around and I'll certainly be watching how effective Feinga, Bright and Dallas Reynolds prove to be against UCLA's outstanding defensive tackles.
BYU passing attack vs. UCLA
The Bruins are led in their secondary by cornerback Alterraun Verner. Verner is considered one of the top cover corners in the country and will likely be assigned to Austin Collie during Saturday's game. Michael Norris is stout and experienced as the cornerback opposite Verner.
The Bruins return a lot of experience at strong safety in senior Bret Locket, and free safety Aaron Ware will be making the second start of his career, the first being the Bruins' season opener against Tennessee.
With Max Hall at the helm, the Cougar passing attack is obviously humming along as well as it ever has. But much like with the running attack, the Cougar passing attack will be facing its sternest test yet thus far into the season.
Prognosis: While UCLA fared very well during the season opener against Tennessee, the Volunteers are a far cry from what the Bruins will face this week against BYU in regards to passing effectiveness. The Cougars will be testing the Bruin secondary often come Saturday.
Expect defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker to once again stack the box and leave his trusted secondary in man-on-man matchups, daring the Cougar receiving corps to beat his players. You can also expect UCLA to once again be very physical while covering Dennis Pitta which frustrated him the last time around.
The assumed man-on-man matchups will allow guys like Austin Collie to shine, and he'll need to if the Cougar offense hopes to improve on its subpar outing the last time around against the Bruins.
What I'll be watching: The Collie vs. Verner matchup is a good one, and Collie is raring to go after a poor performance a week ago. No one is as competitive as Collie, and look for him to have a big game this Saturday.
I'll also be watching how the Bruins choose to cover Pitta. The Bruins will be accounting for Pitta much better than Northern Iowa and Washington did. They'll likely stick Locket on him once again, and he'll be very aggressive and physical in defending Pitta. How Pitta responds this time around will factor in immensely in regards to how effective the Cougar passing attack will be.
BYU run defense vs. UCLA
UCLA lost a lot when Khalil Bell went down with an injury against Tennessee two weeks ago. Bell is not expected to play against BYU, and in his place the Bruins will count on junior Chane Moline and freshman Raymond Carter to handle the primary run duties. Up front along the offensive line, the Bruins feature a lot of inexperience.
Prognosis: The Cougars meanwhile effectively defended against the run against Washington, although defending Jake Locker presented all sorts of challenges. While facing an inexperienced Bruin offensive line and very inexperienced backs, the Cougars should be able to effectively neutralize the Bruin ground game.
What I'll be Watching: I'll be watching the effectiveness of Russell Tialavea up the middle of the Cougar defensive front. Tialavea hasn't really imposed himself yet after returning from his ACL injury, and this is a game where he'll need to work to stuff the UCLA running game at the point of attack.
BYU pass defense vs. UCLA
Kevin Craft couldn't have put together a worst first half throwing the football against Tennessee last game. Craft was nothing short of a disaster, throwing four interceptions and not seeing much in the coverages Tennessee threw at him.
During the second half Craft rebounded when offensive coordinator Norm Chow dummied down the playbook, allowing Craft to be effective against Tennessee's soft zone.
At receiver the Bruins lost the services of Carl Everett and will have to make do with speedster Terrance Austin and sophomore Dominique Johnson. Both players proved effective in the second half against the Volunteers.
Meanwhile the Cougars looked very susceptible to the long ball last week against Washington and will certainly look to improve upon that this week against UCLA. Given the classic formations run by Norm Chow, the Cougar secondary should be able to settle down and rebound effectively.
Prognosis: Given his inexperience, it's difficult to know which Kevin Craft will show up against the Cougars come Saturday. Chow will likely call a lot of rollouts and quick hitters to the flat to help his quarterback out in his first road game as a Bruin.
Look for the Cougars meanwhile to tighten up their coverages considerably given the lack of a running threat from Craft opposed to what they saw last week against Washington and Jake Locker.
What I'll be Watching: I'll be watching for what type of pass rush the Cougars are able to mount against a suspect UCLA offensive front. When Craft had to sit back in the pocket and go through more than one progression he struggled mightily. Should the Cougars take away his first progression and force him to speed up his release and decision making, they should force Craft into making some bad decisions and some subsequent turnover opportunities.
To Sum Up
While a lot of fans are nervous about Norm Chow and the assumed-to-be-improved Bruin offense, I feel the Bruins will encounter a lot of problems come Saturday. Gone are the Bruins' top running back, receiver and tight end, and they'll have their work cut out for them on Saturday.
On the other side of the ball is where the marquee matchups lie. Look for offensive coordinator Robert Anae to put forth a much better offensive game plan than he did in the Las Vegas bowl, and look for Max Hall to exploit UCLA's man coverage down the field. Austin Collie is set for a huge game, and that will likely come on Saturday.
Final Score Prediction: BYU 31, UCLA 13