Game 2 Preview – UCLA Bruins

As the Houston Cougars have begun the 2012 season with their first 0-2 start since 2004, things won't get any easier this week as they face the 22nd ranked UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Game time is set for 9:30pm (CST) and will be televised by the new Pac-12 Network.

During Tuesday’s weekly media press conference, head coach Tony Levine commented on what has been ailing his team thus far on the young season, Defensively, tackling is something we are going to continue to stress and that is going to be the number one point of emphasis this week. We counted on the video we had 29 missed tackles that accounted for 196 yards after the missed tackle and that is unacceptable and we're not going to stop very many people or win very many games tackling like that. Offensively, it's about not turning the ball over. We had the ball on the ground six times Saturday night. We lost two fumbles and when you lose the turnover battle it makes it hard to win a football game. As a whole it's about penalties, and we had way too many penalties.”

Before the Cougars can defeat the Bruins, they must first stop defeating themselves. UCLA has too much talent for the Cougars to help them out with these silly mistakes. Speaking of the Bruins, I recently emailed Scout.com ‘West Field Reporter’ Annabel Stephan to ask her about the Bruins. The following are her replies to a few questions I asked:

1.) What seems to be the difference between the coaching staffs both philosophically and also with game strategy?

A.) Jim Mora is nothing but business when it comes to the Bruins. He emphasized after both the Rice and Nebraska games that the team would get 24 hours to celebrate the win, and then it would be back to work in preparation for their next opponent.

He has instilled a sense of discipline into his team, which has translated onto the field very nicely. Though it’s still very early in the season, the biggest difference between years past and this team under Mora is a sense of pride and confidence within the team.

As far as game strategy, many things are different this season. The defense, under defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, has switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which the team has adapted to nicely. Offensively, Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone have done a nice job with their redshirt freshman quarterback, Brett Hundley, and have incorporated a few new players into the offense in new roles that highlight their talents (including Damien Thigpen and fan favorite Steven Manfro).

The staff also hasn’t shied away from using freshman talent, and a few of those guys have already stepped up and made an impact this season, especially on defense, including Ellis McCarthy, Simon Goines, and Randall Goforth.

2.)  How is the UCLA quarterback doing health-wise? I heard he sprained his ankle vs. Nebraska?

A.) Hundley, who had quite the Rose Bowl debut (21-33 for 305 yards and four touchdowns, no interceptions), did tweak his ankle during the Nebraska game, but as far as anyone has heard, will be playing versus Houston.

3.)  What seems to be the difference on defense from the first to second halves of both games? I've noticed that the defense has shut down both Rice & Nebraska in the 2nd half.

A.) Again, it’s still early on in the season, so it could be that it takes the defense until the second half to fully get into their rhythm, but the attitude among the players is, in my opinion, what has made the biggest difference on the field.

Even if there is a misstep or a penalty, the team has developed the ability to shake it off, as opposed to years past when it could have been their derailment. Motivation and leadership also plays a key role here, as the older players are doing a job of mentoring some of the underclassmen.

4.) Who are the playmakers Coogfans should look out for on offense and defense?

A.) Running back Jonathan Franklin has made quite the statement this season and has been named Pac-12 Player of the Week for two weeks in a row. He’s currently 7th on the list of all-time rushing leaders, but is on point to break that record this season.

If Hundley is healthy for Saturday’s game, he’s another one to keep an eye out for. Things have come together beautifully for the offensive line and they have done a fantastic job so far of giving him enough time to read the field and make smart decisions.

Defensively, lineman Datone Jones had a big game on Saturday, scoring the safety that Mora called “the play of the game," which ultimately turned the momentum in the Bruins favor.

The Bruins also have a talented secondary that really stepped it up last weekend, and features cornerback Andrew Abbott, as well as safeties Tevin McDonald and Randall Goforth, all who covered well throughout the game and contributed to the defense’s success on the field.

5.)  Are the Bruins looking for revenge from last seasons’ loss to the Coogs or do the players just see this as another game?

A.) Last year’s loss to the Coogs will definitely be on their minds, and some players would even say that yes, they are looking for revenge. However, the new mentality of the team is to take everything week by week and focus on nothing but preparing for whatever opponent comes next.
That philosophy, I believe, is really what has helped the team get to 2-0.

Anytime you get a chance to check her work out, please do so. She posts many recruiting tidbits to the Premium board on potential recruits from the West Coast. Back to UCLA, this new coaching staff led by Mora has 98 years of combined NFL coaching experience and six Super Bowl rings. Offensively, they run a multiple scheme mainly out of the shotgun. If their offense looks familiar, it should as Levine commented on how Mazzone has a little of what former Cougars offensive coordinators (Dana Holgorsen and Kliff Kingsbury) ran and how “people will see similarities between both offenses with the motions and the quick game.”

The main difference between what Mazzone tries to accomplish compared to Cougars offensive coordinator Travis Bush, with the motions is that while both want to confuse opposing defenses, Mazzone will run a true power game with the aforementioned Franklin, who leads the NCAA in rushing through two games (215 yards per game). He has torched the Cougars defense the past two seasons for more than 100 yards each game. Mora has said that Franklin reminds him or former Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn, in that both are smaller physically (Franklin is listed at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds), but can be very punishing running downhill as well as elusive enough on the edge. The Bruins rushing game doesn’t feature just Franklin, however, as Damien Thigpen and Jordon James are often used as change of pace backs. Thigpen, a 5’8, 178 pound redshirt junior is listed as a receiver, but often starts out motioning out of the backfield. He has great hands in catching passes on swing routes and will be quite difficult for any of the Cougars line backers to keep up with. Also look for the Bruins to hit him on ‘wheel routes’ as he gets lost in coverage. James is a 5’8, 193 pound redshirt sophomore who was ranked as the 8th best running back out of California’s Corona High in 2010. With all of that talent in the Bruins backfield, it’s no wonder that little used Malcolm Jones decided to transfer despite being named the Gatorade National High school player of the year coming out of famed Oaks Christian High out of Westlake Village, California in 2009. If the Cougars defense (ranked 114th in the nation allowing 246 yards per game), can somehow manage to bottle up the Bruins backs (who are second ranked in the nation averaging 343 yards), they still have to worry about Hundley and their QB read option game. As Coog fans, we all know how our defenses have faired over the years against running quarterbacks. As I mentioned to Annabel earlier, Hundley’s sprained ankle will be a key if the Cougars hope to upset the Bruins, who enter the game as a nearly 17 point favorite.

Assuming Franklin doesn’t run as often as he has in their first two games (19 rushes for 145 yards including a 72 yard scamper versus Rice on his first collegiate touch), he still has a very nice arm and shows tremendous poise for an underclassman. Receivers the Cougars will have to be cognizant of include Jerry Johnson who only has three catches for 21 yards on the young season, but at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds will be a matchup nightmare for any of the Cougars smaller cornerbacks. Speaking of matchup nightmares, Y receiver Joseph Fauria leads the team with seven receptions for 95 yards and three touchdowns. At 6-foot-8, 255 pounds the former tight end is a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, especially in the red zone where he basically uses a basketball move and “boxes out” his would-be defender making an easy target for his QB. Speaking of athleticism, redshirt freshman Devin Lucien has made two spectacular catches in each of the Bruins first two games where he absolutely skied for balls catching them over the outreached arms of opposing cornerbacks. The 6’0, 200 pound speedster leads the team at 23 yards per reception.  Shaq Evans is another athlete that could have a breakout game who at 6’1, 200 pounds poses yet another physical threat for the Cougars smaller corners. Steven Manfro is a redshirt freshman who plays at both running back and wide receiver and excels at making plays all over the field. Among the depth chart changes made for the Cougars defense this week include Chris Cermin exiting stage left as the free safety to be replaced by Trevon Stewart. The true freshman has been making play after play all over the field as opposed to Cermin who, although at third on the team with 18 tackles, has mainly been on tackles 10 to 15 yards downfield. Colton Valencia also makes his return at strong safety replacing the injured Kent Brooks as the defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant looks to shake things up for obvious reasons. Unfortunately I don’t see Bryant challenging the speedy Bruins receivers at the line of scrimmage as he doesn’t want to get beat deep.

A key matchup for the Bruins offense will be how much pressure the Coogs defensive line can place on the young Bruins QB and offensive line. Other depth chart changes for Saturday’s game include Joey Mbu replacing Dominic Miller at one of the defensive tackle spots along side Radermon Scypion. Miller will definitely play though along with true freshman Tomme Mark. One of the main goals stated by Bryant entering the season was for his defense to force three turnovers and sack opposing QBs three times per game. This is not happening thus far as the defensive line is not bringing the pressure needed to affect either opponents run or pass games. While the Bruins are second in the nation with nine sacks (they only had 14 all of last season), the Cougars four have them tied with 25 other teams for 46th. Lloyd Allen, Desmond Pulliam, Zeke Riser and Kelvin King need to step up their collective games against a stout but young Bruins offensive line making their third straight start consisting of Torian White (a 6’5, 285 pound redshirt freshman), Xavier Sua-filo (6’4, 295 pound sophomore making his return off of a 2 year Mormon mission), Jake Brendel (A 6’4, 295 pound redshirt freshman from Plano, Tx)  Jeff Baca (a 6’3, 295 redshirt senior who is the leader of the line having made 33 career starts) and finally Simon Goines (a monster of a man at 6’7, 325 pounds from Keller, Tx and also a true freshman) from left to right.

Defensively, the Bruins look just as good as their offense, though the stats might not suggest as much as they have allowed 215 yards per game rushing with 182 yards through the air while allowing 29 points per game on average through two games. Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos has moved personnel around to maximize their athletic ability including moving 6’4, 235 pound tight end Anthony Barr to one outside linebacker spot and former defensive end Damian Holmes (6’2, 250) to an inside linebacker spot. The other outside linebacker is 6’3, 235 pounder Jordan Zumwalt who has applied as much pressure on opposing QBs as has Barr. Along the interior are 2012 Hendricks Award Watch list recipient Cassius Marsh and Datone Jones at defensive end and 330 pound true freshman Elis McCarthy at noseguard (with 310 pound plus veterans Brandon Tuliaupupu and Seali’i Epenesa caving in the QB pocket inside).

How the Bruins front seven lines up against a revamped Cougars offensive line will be interesting to say the least. Lower leg injuries to right tackle Ralph Oragwu and center Kevin Forsch have forced DeAnthony Sims and Bryce Redman to take their places respectively. Sims and Redman have played plenty in their Cougar careers but what gets affected is the depth along the offensive line. Backing up Oragwu and Redman will be true sophomores Emeka Okafor and Austin Lunsford, respectively. Okafor has at least received plenty of snaps during spring and summer practices as he was beat out by Oragwu. How Rowdy Harper from his left tackle spot plays the 6’4, 275 beast (Jones) as the Bruins rush specialist will play a huge roll in QB David Piland’s play. They key as always will be in getting the ball out of Piland’s hands quickly, especially to running back Charles Sims on many of the same swing routes the Bruins use. Establishing the running game will help from keeping the Bruins from teeing off on Piland. Bush must not give up on Sims, Ryan Jackson (the change of pace back) and Kenneth Farrow (the between the tackles bruiser) even if they do not have success against the Bruins early on in the game. Jackson how shown some potential, but must make amends for fumbling the ball last week versus Louisiana Tech. Farrow needs more carries as Sims cannot be expected to touch the ball 30 plus times each game and remain fresh for the entire season.

The Bruins defense seems to have sure tacklers in the secondary, led by Sheldon Price and Andrew Abbot at cornerback with Tevin McDonald and Aaron Hester at safety. Price didn’t play last week for unspecified reasons but is back this week, replacing the true freshman Goforth (who is third on the team with 11 tackles, one behind McDonald). The smaller Cougars receivers cannot allow the Bruins corners to jam them on the line of scrimmage, as this will throw off the timing of the routes which is key in the Cougars offense. Daniel Spencer versus Price should be worth the price of admission. Piland must spread the wealth around to his veteran receivers Ronnie Williams and Dewayne Peace along with youngsters Andrew Rodriquez and Deontay Greenberry in order to keep the Bruins defense honest. It will be interesting to see how Greenberry plays in returning to his home state (he played in Fresno) and if Rodriquez can continue his stellar play in a big time environment. The offense is going to need fearless players such as Rodriquez if they hope to score the upset. The receivers cannot back down to the physicality of the Bruins secondary.

If the game is close, the Cougars will have the edge in special teams play, particularly the kicking game. Bruins true freshman Ka’imi Fairbairn has missed two of his four field goal attempts on the season along with three extra points. If he falters, then Jeff Locke will take over. Locke, as Cougars Richie Leone has, excels as a punter as he averages nearly 42 yards per punt and has placed 14 of his 16 kicks offs in the endzone for touchbacks. We all know that Cougars kicker Matt Hogan will not falter to pressure kicks. Neither team has excelled in kickoff or punt returns on the young season between Manfro for the Bruins and Peace and Jeffrey Lewis for the Coogs.

Can the Cougars win this game?? On paper, no, but that’s why the games are played. The Cougars have not through two games and if they can score first, the Bruins might begin to feel the pressure.

Regardless of the outcome, the team will continue to fight as Steward, one of the defensive team captains, said it best during the weekly media presser (when summing up the Coogs slow start), "I've been here through the ups and the downs, so I'm telling them we still have the chance to go out there and play again. I tell them to keep their head up, keep fighting and let's go out there and play again."


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