UCLA Preview Part I: An Overview

In the week leading up to the match up with UCLA, Jeff Murdock looks at the Bruins, and where the UCLA program sits at this point. The Bruins come to Champaign after losing 31-20 to Oklahoma State in the Rose Bowl and on a six game losing streak dating back to last season. In just his second season UCLA Head Coach Karl Dorrell is already on the hot seat. Will he have his team prepared when they take on the Illini in Champaign?

In a return game for last year's tilt in the Rose Bowl, UCLA is traveling to Champaign, IL to take on the Fighting Illini. This game pits two programs against each other that are looking to rebound from seasons that were far below the expectations of fans, players, and coaches just a year ago. In fact, UCLA coach Karl Dorrell declined to take a one-year extension on his contract after last season (even though his contract stipulates that it can be extended by one year each January) because the Bruins did not accomplish enough of their goals last season. The Bruins finished the season at 6-7, losing their last five games including a loss to Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Classic.

2004 is supposed to be a new year for Dorrell and the Bruins, but he will have to turn around the program with just thirteen returning starters (eight on offense and five on defense). On offense the Bruins return quarterback Drew Olson, receiver Craig Bragg, running backs Manuel White and Maurice Drew, and the entire offensive line from a year ago. In an effort to continue the rebuilding process in Los Angeles, Dorrell also brought in a new offensive coordinator, former Idaho coach Tom Cable. Defensively, the Bruins are looking to replace their entire starting defensive line who helped anchor the Bruin defense that was second in the Pac 10 last season in total defense (317.6 yards per game). While defensive coordinator Larry Kerr is looking to replace his entire defensive line, he is happy with the progress of junior CJ Niusulu and red shirt freshman Junior Lemau'u.

On Saturday, UCLA welcomed Oklahoma State into the Rose Bowl, and suffered a 31-20 defeat. The Bruins jumped out to a 14-7 lead at the end of the first quarter before surrendering the next 21 to the Cowboys, who never looked back after that. The Achilles' heel for the Bruins on Saturday was their inability to stop the run. The Bruins allowed 426 rushing yards to Oklahoma State, 261 of them to junior Vernand Morency. Morency averaged nine yards per carry and scored two touchdowns on Saturday. The Cowboys were so successful on the ground, they only attempted eight passes all game, completely just two of them for 23 yards. The Cowboys saw a fatal flaw in the Bruin defense and took advantage of it. They Cowboy offensive line punished the young Bruins up front allowing Morency to blast through the line untouched until he reached the Bruin secondary.

Offensively, the Bruins totaled 453 yards against the Cowboys, but they were not able to keep a hold of the ball as the Bruins had four turnovers. The Bruin offense was much more balanced than the Cowboy offense, as they had 252 yards in the air and 191 yards on the ground. Junior quarterback Drew Olson was 16-36 for 252 yards, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions. Manuel White returned to the starting lineup after last year's injury and rushed for 145 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns, including a long run of 60 yards.

This will be a trying year for Dorrell and the Bruins. Rumors are already circulating that Steve Spurrier would be interested in taking over the UCLA program were Dorrell to falter this year. Dorrell, just like Illinois' Ron Turner, knows his job is on the line this season. Heading into Champaign, the Bruins are looking to even out their record, but based on last week's game it will not be easy. To beat Illinois, the Bruins will need to play a near perfect game, and cannot turn the ball over four times like they did against Oklahoma State. The Bruins offensive line should be able to give Olson time and create holes for the Bruins' running backs, but their defensive line will be hard pressed to actually bring pressure to Illinois' Jon Beutjer, or stop the Illini rushing attack of EB Halsey and Pierre Thomas.

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