What methods will Jim “Don’t Call This a Spread” Mora use to stop Stanford? What barriers stand in Josh Rosen’s way? Opposing Views welcomes two UCLA authorities: Bruin alum Blair Angulo covers the team for Bruin Report Online, where he brings experience from ESPN Los Angeles. Ben Bolch is in his first year following UCLA for the Los Angeles Times.
- This is the earliest meeting between Stanford and UCLA in six years. Does that mean the team with the more established identity will win? What have the Bruins learned about themselves through their first three games, and what about their growth has made an impression on you?
Blair Angulo: Stanford's established identity is undoubtedly a factor, so much so that it caused an offseason reaction by UCLA to turn to a more physical style and make some schematic changes. The Bruins are now going under center at times, using some heavy-package formations and incorporating endangered positions such as the traditional tight end and fullback. On the defensive side of the ball, we've learned they are more equipped to deal with the Cardinal's physicality and power run game, yet a lot of that hinges on their own efficiency on offense and keeping that defensive unit fresh. They allowed only 23 rushing yards to a solid BYU team last week in Provo and, though there won't be a repeat of that this week against Christian McCaffrey, there has been some tremendous growth with the team's mentality.
Ben Bolch: Identities can be overrated. Especially at a point in the season where you'd like to keep opponents guessing a little. UCLA has shown it can play Stanford-style with a fullback and tight ends as well as its more accustomed spread look, forming a hybrid offense that defies labels (maybe that's why Coach Jim Mora got testy when asked about it in the spring). Defensively, the identity the Bruins forged through the season's first two weeks was one of yielding to the run before they put the clamps down on Brigham Young. So UCLA remains in flux, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I suspect they've been holding some things back just for Stanford.
- It would make a memorable storyline: On the same field where he torched Iowa, against an opponent Stanford had beaten eight straight times coming in, Christian McCaffrey gets held in check and UCLA comes away with a win. How do you like the Bruins’ chances of making that happen? Considering all their common ground – academics, a history of important games, recruiting battles over the same players – would you call this a compelling rivalry?
BA: The chances of McCaffrey getting held in check by UCLA are not good simply because he has an impact in so many facets of the game. If the plan is to contain him on inside handoffs, the Bruins could be leaving themselves vulnerable off the edge. McCaffrey is a threat in the passing game as well and obviously has outstanding ability as a returner, so we're not sure there is anyone on UCLA's roster that has the ability to shadow the Heisman hopeful wherever he lines up.
And, yes, this is a compelling rivalry. Both schools go after the same type of student-athlete given the academic demands, and we certainly can't discount the old Southern California-versus Northern California-prestige.
BB: It's compelling ... and unlikely. McCaffrey is just too good not to make a big impact. Even if UCLA holds him reasonably in check running the ball, you have to figure he'll pop a return or two or catch some big passes or even throw for a meaningful completion. I've been teetering on predicting an upset just because Stanford has not looked overpowering and the Bruins can come back even if they get behind by, say, 10 points in the fourth quarter. UCLA needs to win a few more games in the series for it to become a compelling rivalry; there's nothing compelling about eight consecutive victories in any series.
- Compared to recent years, how high are the levels of anticipation and excitement in the UCLA fanbase for this season? On a scale of Olson (all hype and potential) to Aikman (proven results), how important are Mora’s accomplishments through his first four years? Three straight years of nine wins or more, record attendance and superiority over USC should earn him plenty of equity and stability, right?
BA: UCLA fans are excited to see if this is finally the year that Jim Mora is able to get over the Stanford hump, particularly since the team underwent some of the aforementioned changes in scheme and personnel. But we'd say they are approaching this battle with extreme caution and hopeful optimism, while understanding that the Bruins probably aren't on Stanford's level. This game figures to be a key one for UCLA's chances of winning the Pac-12 South, and fans recognize the importance of starting off conference play right.
On this Olson-to-Aikman scale of hype and results, we would probably place Mora's accomplishments through the first four years at “Brett Hundley”. There have obviously been some accomplishments, with UCLA consistently being inside the Top 25 nationally, but Mora knows he needs to win a Pac-12 title and get to the Rose Bowl to continue his ascent. That would echo Hundley's career at UCLA: some Heisman buzz and plenty of excitement, but he never quite managed to win that next-level game.
BB: The UCLA fan base is split over its hopes for an upset judging by the always spot-on message boards. Some are resigned to another defeat and some have predicted an upset. What's been interesting is some of the scores thrown out have the Bruins winning in a relative rout, which seems unlikely. Mora has given UCLA the most stability since Terry Donahue's 20-year run but the highs haven't been all that high. One appearance in the Pac-12 championship game (a loss) and an assortment of mid-tier bowls aren't going to leave the legacy he's seeking. On the other hand, the prevailing thought around Westwood is that he's basically saved athletic director Dan Guerrero's job and can remain at UCLA as long as he would like.
- Josh Rosen’s skills are unquestioned. He shows flashes of brilliance. Teams throughout the country would trade their quarterback for him. Yet while others like Andrew Luck and Marcus Mariota had already become great players by this stage, why hasn’t he truly emerged? What are the barriers to his success? Are the doubters missing something or treating Rosen unfairly?
BA: Rosen has struggled with consistency since he arrived on campus and a lot of that appears to involve him trying to do too much with the football. He is his harshest critic, though, and he recognizes some of his faults. But it's also difficult to pin the fault on him entirely. Rosen doesn't have a go-to receiver yet this season and the team has a whole has been plagued by dropped passes. With that in the back of his mind, Rosen has been trying to make the perfect throw every time and maybe forced some things.
BB: Well, he had a pretty nice freshman season and now he's dealing with a new offense and an underwhelming cast of receivers, so it's probably best to give him a few more games before saying he hasn't emerged. He does need to develop a better feel for secondary reads and find a couple of go-to receivers to become the kind of phenom people have been expecting.
- A lot gets made of USC football’s tradition and connection to its past. Yet UCLA has a really proud legacy, especially in football. Are there Bruin equivalents of Ronnie Lott and Marcus Allen, former players who keep a high profile either in the recruiting process or around the program during the season? Is the school as committed to football as its most passionate fans want it to be?
BA: UCLA had several alums stop by during fall camp and we'll see a former great check out practice from time to time, but there isn't anyone that holds a high profile during recruiting. A new football-specific facility is being built on campus and should be completed next summer, and UCLA has shown quite a bit of commitment to football since Mora arrived, but it's probably not at the level of other national programs.
BB: This is my first year on the UCLA football beat, so I'm not equipped to give a good answer six weeks in. I've seen Cade McNown at some events and I know Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcedes Lewis are loyal supporters, but I'm not sure of their exact involvement level. But the athletic department's commitment to football can't be questioned given the construction of the Wasserman Football Center and the salaries lavished on Mora and his assistants. Some have lamented the commitment came a little later than they would have liked, but it's there nevertheless.