September 11, 2004 (11 AM Central)
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
The UCLA Bruins football website is quick to point out that the 2003 team won six of its first eight games. What the Bruins fail to touch on is the fact that the team lost 5 straight games to close out the season, including a 17-9 defeat at the hands of Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Football Classic. A 6-7 record under a first-year coach isn't always a cause for panic, but when your cross-town and conference rival (USC) wins a share of the National Championship, the programs boosters can get antsy. Bruins coach Karl Dorrell needs a strong season and a bowl win to quiet down the folks out in Los Angeles.
Last year, the Bruins and the Illini met in the historic Rose Bowl and set offense back 100 years. UCLA prevailed 6-3 when John Gockman missed a 43-yard field goal late in the game. Illinois QB Jon Beutjer completed 26 of 42 pass attempts, but threw 3 interceptions. Let's hope Beutjer remembers that fact and picks apart the Bruin defense out of spite.
In 2003, the Bruins were led by their defense, which is rare in the Pac-10 conference, also known as The Land That Defense Forgot. Last year, the Bruins ranked 18th nationally and 2nd in the Pac-10 in total defense. The bad news for UCLA is that 6 of the starters from that defense are gone, including all 4 starters from a very talented defensive line.
Former defensive linemen Dave and Mat Ball, Ryan Boschetti and Ryan Leisle will not be around to stop running backs and chase after quarterbacks. Also gone are key reserves Asi Faoa and David Tautofi. Inexperienced players such as C.J. Niusulu and Kevin Brown will be expected to fill the void at the tackle positions.
Returning starters Justin London and Spencer Havner anchor the Bruins at the linebacker position. Middle linebacker London is the team's leading returning tackler with 98 tackles, with 8.5 tackles for loss. Outside linebacker Havner made 82 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and also grabbed 3 interceptions.
The Bruins secondary has three returning starters, but must replace three-year starting cornerback Matt Ware. Returning safeties Ben Emanuel II and Jarrad Page provide veteran leadership and strong playmaking abilities. Emanuel II had 80 tackles, while Page had 55 tackles and 3 interceptions. Senior cornerback Matt Clark finished the 2003 season with 53 tackles.
The Bruins offense returns 8 starters from a system that failed to excite the UCLA fans in Coach Dorrell's first-year. QB Drew Olson should start for the Bruins, but junior college transfer David Koral could find his way onto the field.
Olson started 9 games for UCLA and saw action in 12 games last year. Olson completed 173 passes of 325 attempts (532.%) for 2,067 yards and 10 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Against Illinois last year, Olson completed 11 of 31 pass attempts for 94 yards. Those are not exactly numbers that scream all-conference quarterback.
UCLA expects big things from their running back tandem of Manuel White and Maurice Drew. White started the first 8 games of 2003 before being knocked out with a fractured right scapula against Arizona State. White ended the season with 379 yards on 96 carries 3 touchdowns. In White's absence, Drew toted the ball 135 times for 582 yards and 5 TD's.
The cream of the crop for UCLA is senior wide receiver Craig Bragg. The All-American candidate hauled in 73 passes for 1,065 yards and reached the endzone 5 times. If the Illini can keep Bragg in check, they should be able to limit the Bruin passing game.
Nationally, not much is expected out of UCLA this year. Nearly all of the focus in the Pac-10 is on USC's quest to repeat as National Champions. The Bruins could sneak under the radar, but having to replace their entire defensive line will not help their cause.
If Illinois plays a solid, fundamental game, they can win this contest. Unfortunately, it has been a little while since the Illini played a solid, fundamental game. This game shouldn't be an instant classic, but it should be a better watch than last year's defensive struggle.
The outcome of this game could depend on how the teams fare in their season opener. Illinois opens up at home against Florida A & M and could finally get that much needed win to boost their confidence. UCLA starts their season at the Rose Bowl against an Oklahoma State program that has been rejuvenated by coach Les Miles. If the Bruins take some lumps at the hands of the Cowboys, an early morning (9 AM Pacific) matchup against the Illini might be enough to send them into a season-long freefall.