Notre Dame (0-5) is making its first trip to the Rose Bowl since they beat Stanford on January 1, 1925. That win clinched Knute Rockne's first National Championship. A win over UCLA (4-1) definitely doesn't have those ramifications, but it would certainly keep the Irish's small bowl hopes alive. More importantly, it will be a well needed breath of fresh air.
Here are the keys to Saturday's game.
***Protect and Throw: UCLA's defense has a glaring weakness. They've struggled against the pass. The Bruins are allowing 273 yards per game through the air, which ranks 100th nationally. They counter that however by playing great rush defense, ranking 16th nationally at 89 yards per game, and by sacking the quarterback. Led by defensive end Bruce Davis, the nation's active sack leader, the Bruins get to the quarterback over three times per game, which is good for 16th in the country. If they don't finish the signal-caller off, they definitely force a lot of pressure. Just ask Brady Quinn last season, and this defense returns 10 starters from the unit that pressured the Irish record-holder on nearly every pass attempt.
On the flip side, the Irish rank 106th nationally in passing offense (164 yards per game), and are dead last in the country in sacks allowed (29 total). The reason for optimism goes back to those strides and improvements.
Against Purdue last Saturday, the Irish pass offense woke up. Jimmy Clausen and Evan Sharpley combined to complete 34-of-52 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns. The first three touchdown passes of the season. Nine different players caught a pass, and the offensive line allowed just two sacks. If the Irish can protect Clausen, they'll have a chance to put points on the board.
***Special Improvement: If Notre Dame hopes to pull off the upset, they'll have to win the battle of field position, and take advantage of all scoring opportunities.
Punter Geoff Price lost his job to walk-on Eric Maust. Against the Boilermakers, Maust punted three times for a 44-yard average, and had two go inside the 20. The Irish will need more of that against the Bruins.
Notre Dame's kickers left seven points on the field against Purdue. Freshman Brandon Walker won the kicking duties this week in practice. The Irish can't get burnt by missed extra points or field goals in this game.
***Make UCLA one dimensional: The Bruins like to run the ball with their two-headed monster of Kahlil Bell and Chris Markey. With Markey questionable for Saturday's game with turf toe, the Irish should load up against Bell and the Bruins attack that ranks 27th nationally at 199 yards rushing per game.
Notre Dame's pass defense ranks seventh nationally, allowing just 146 yards passing per game. But teams haven't had to throw much, being that the Irish are allowing 210 yards rushing per game. If the Irish can load up against the run and force UCLA to throw, this plays into the strength of the defense.
Prediction: UCLA 28, Notre Dame 24: The Irish continue to get better, but fail to get off the snide. I see Notre Dame moving the chains through the air, and the excitement continuing to grow around Clausen and freshman receivers Duval Kamara and Golden Tate. However, the defense will struggle to get off the field on third down, because they will have issues limiting UCLA on the ground.