-- UCLA travels to Houston to take on the Cougars Saturday at 12:30 PT in the season opener. The game will be televised nationally by FSN with Craig Bolerjack and Joel Klatt in the booth, and Petros Papadakis on the sideline.
-- Being the season opener for both teams, both have bad tastes in their mouths from last season, with UCLA coming off a dismal 4-8, while Houston went 5-7 in 2010.
-- UCLA leads the overall series, 3-2. The last time UCLA played in Houston was in 1998, when the Bruins were ranked #4 in the nation and beat the Cougars, 42-24. Houston started the series with two wins, the first one in Houston in 1977 (17-13), and in 1979 in Los Angeles (24-16).
-- Last year UCLA beat Houston in the Rose Bowl, in a fairly easy victory, 31-13. UCLA was 0-2 at the time. Houston was ranked #23 in the nation at the time.
-- The Bruins are 3-2 in their last five road openers, including a loss last year to Kansas State.
-- Keenum was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, returning to a team that has won 24 games with him in two-plus years as a starter.
-- Keenum has the chance to set a few NCAA records: All-Time Total Offense (currently 7th with 14,448), All-Time Passing Yardage (currently 5th with 13,586), and All-Time Touchdown Passes (currently 8th with 107).
-- Kevin Sumlin is in his 4th season as Houston's Head Coach, posting a 23-16 record with the Cougars. Before not making a bowl appearance last season, Sumlin was the only head coach in Houston history to lead the team to two bowl appearances in his first two seasons. Under Sumlin, the former offensive coordinator with Purdue and Oklahoma (under Bob Stoops), Houston, is now known as an offensive juggernaut. In 2009, the Cougars were only the third team in NCAA history to have a 5,000-yard passer and three 1,000-yard receivers (Texas Tech did it in 2007 and Tulsa in 2007).
-- Rick Neuheisel enters his fourth year at his alma mater, UCLA, with a record of 15-22. So much has been written about him being on the hotseat. In the off-season he went out and hired two new coordinators, Mike Johnson on offense and Joe Tresey for the defense.
-- The sentiment in Houston is that Sumlin had the program on the right track in his first two season, then got bumped off-course in 2010, due a great deal to a unfortunate UCLA game. If revenge ever figures into a college football team's motivation, this would be a potential example of it.
-- Robertson Stadium seats 32,000.
-- The weather forecast is for the low- to mid-90s, which is a relief compared to the triple-digit temperatures Houston has been experiencing. Also good news is that the forecast is for only 40% humidity at game time, with a 35% chance of thunderstorms.
HOUSTON'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
If you just do the stat game, it doesn't look good for the Bruins. In 2009, when quarterback Case Keenum (SR, 6-2, 210) was able to play the entire season for the Cougars, they led the nation in total offense (563.4 yards per game), passing yards (433.7 per game) and scoring (42.1 points per game).
Put that up against UCLA's defense from last season, which was ranked 94th in the nation, and it looks like a long, hot day in Houston.
But there are reasons you don't just go by stats.
Houston's offense is a good one with Keenum at the helm. He's poised to set a few NCAA passing records; he's smart and efficient and he runs Houston's spread very well.
|Receiver Patrick Edwards.|
There is a pretty accomplished backfield, too, which features Bryce Beall (SO, 5-11, 215), who made the 2010 Conference USA first team; Michael Hayes (SR, 5-9, 195), a solid back-up, and then the 2010 Conference USA Freshman of the Year in Charles Sims (SO, 6-0, 206).
There is no doubt that Houston will put up some pretty lofty numbers again this season, with Keenum having all of these skill guys at his disposal.
Perhaps the one spot on offense where the Cougars could be a bit suspect is the offensive line. They have two returning starters, left tackle Jacolby Ashworth (JR, 6-4, 300), and Chris Thompson (SR, 6-2, 285), who was actually at guard last season but has moved over to center because their projected starting center is out. Ty Cloud (SO, 6-4, 315) is slated to start at left guard, even though he's been banged up this fall. The right guard spot has been a bit of a question, with Kevin Forsch (SO, 6-5, 301) looking like he's nailed it down. A redshirt freshman, Rowdy Harper (6-6, 290), will plug in at right tackle, after another prolonged battle for the starter spot.
What you can take from this is that Houston's offensive line is probably not as good and more inexperienced than it was last year against UCLA. In that game, Houston ran for 108 yards, and averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Beall was held to 52 yards. Houston's quarterbacks were constantly harassed, to the point that both of them were knocked out, with Cotton Turner suffering a broken collar bone on a hit from UCLA's middle linebacker Patrick Larimore. Keenum tore his ACL trying to chase down Akeem Ayers on a 77-yard interception return.
You can easily cite the fact that Keenum was injured in the second quarter and then Cotton went down in the third quarter.
You could also make the case that UCLA was up 21-3 when Keenum was hurt.
So, regardless of stats, it's not hard to see that Houston's young and less experienced offensive line will be facing a bigger, better and more experienced UCLA defensive line from a season ago -- after it dominated Houston a year ago.
UCLA is talented and deep on its DL, with a budding sophomore star, Cassius Marsh (6-3, 289), at one d-tackle spot, and veteran Justin Edison (SR, 6-4, 285) at the other. Veterans Donovan Carter (JR, 6-2, 295) and explosive Nate Chandler (SR, 6-4, 292) back them up, and there won't be much drop-off. UCLA's defensive ends are led by Datone Jones (JR, 6-5, 275), who missed out on the Houston game and the entire 2010 season due to a fractured foot. He was poised to be a star in 2010 and now has had a monster spring and fall. Damien Holmes (JR, 6-3, 270) came on at the end of last season and won back his starting spot. And then there aren't too many teams in the country who can boast someone like Owamagbe Odighizuwa (SO, 6-4, 266), one of the premier DE recruits in the nation for 2010, as a back-up.
The defensive star of last year's Houston game was Bruin middle linebacker Patrick Larimore (JR, 6-3, 250), who wreaked havoc on the Cougars, with 12 total tackles, a couple for loss. He was, perhaps, the biggest force on the field in last year's game. UCLA has its second-leading tackler from last season, Sean Westgate (SR, 5-11, 225), on the weakside, and a new starter, veteran Glenn Love (SR, 6-4, 213) on the strongside. But what's perhaps most impressive are the first two guys off the bench for UCLA at linebacker, stars-in-the-making Jordan Zumwalt (SO, 6-4, 236) and Erick Kendricks (R-FR, 6-1, 228). Petros Papadakis, who will be reporting from the sideline of the game, said that UCLA's linebackers are more talented than USC's this season.
Keenum is going to put pressure on UCLA's pass defense, which returns three starters: Safety Tony Dye (SR, 6-0, 216), who is on the Nagurski, Bednarik, Thorpe and Lott Trophy Watch lists; and both cornerbacks, veterans Sheldon Price (JR, 6-1, 180) and Aaron Hester (JR, 6-1, 206). The new starter is a guy that's being heralded as perhaps one of the most talented defenders on the team, Dalton Hilliard (JR, 6-0, 200), and he won the spot from one of the most heralded safety recruits in the nation in 2010, Dietrich Riley (SO, 6-1, 205).
Houston does have Keenum, and he's a good, efficient quarterback. But he hasn't taken a snap in a real game since the UCLA game last year. And to be blunt, his lofty numbers are inflated because of the Conference USA competition; if he were in the Pac-12, he'd probably be about the 5th best quarterback in the league.
What's crazy, though, is that because Houston has Keenum, but probably is at a disadvantage at every other spot in the match-up between Houston's offense and UCLA's defense, most pundits are giving Houston's O the nod. What they simply don't get – and assuredly don't know – is the talent, experience and depth that UCLA has developed on defense since last season.
Last year what was particularly striking in the UCLA/Houston game was the disparity in size and athleticism. UCLA was simply bigger and faster, especially in the match-up between its defense and UH's offense.
Expect UCLA's Defensive Coordinator Joe Tresey to operate quite a bit from the nickel, to offset Houston's spread. And then also expect UCLA's athletes to be coming from every angle to put pressure on Keenum. If the big advantage Houston has is Keenum, if he doesn't have time to operate he can't be much of an advantage. Houston will make some plays, because the combination of Keenum and its small but quick receivers can be effective on any level of college football. But given how UCLA pressured Houston's quarterbacks a year ago, and how the UCLA defense is so much better – more athletic and more experienced – and Houston's OL isn't, we just can't see how Houston is going to give Keenum enough time to consistently get the ball into the hands of those receivers.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. HOUSTON'S DEFENSE
Last year in the Houston game preview, we wrote that, even though this is the less marquee match-up, it could be the one that decides the game. And it was, because UCLA ran for 266 yards and possessed the ball for 32 minutes, five more than Houston.
Johnathan Franklin ran for 158 yards, and quarterback Kevin Prince for 60. Prince threw the ball just 17 times.
Houston's defense was 103rd in the nation last season, and its rushing defense was 114th – and this was against mostly Conference USA competition.
It's Déjà vu all over again.
It's tough to see how Houston's 3-4 defense is any better than it was a season ago, and there are more indications that it will be worse.
|Linebacker Marcus McGraw.|
But after that, the other two defensive units aren't Pac-12 level. The defensive line has lost some guys they were counting on, especially at nose tackle. They are hoping that JC transfer Dominic Smith (JR, 6-3, 301), who just got eligible a couple of weeks ago, will be able to do the job, even though he's new to the system. That's key, since it's critical the nose tackle knows what he's doing and is able to take on double teams. The Cougars then return two starters to the end spots, David Hunter (SR, 6-2, 297) and Kelvin King (JR, 6-2, 260). Hunter is a good one, and probably the second most consistent defender on the team behind McGraw, and King was switched from linebacker in spring.
Behind those three are two redshirt freshmen and a redshirt sophomore for depth.
The secondary will field four new starters. In fact, the one returning starter at free safety didn't win his spot back this fall. Two of the new faces are JC players, cornerback D.J. Hayden (JR, 6-0, 190) and free safety Chevy Bennett (JR, 6-1, 190). Nothing against JC players at all, but there is a learning curve, so you have to factor in that they've only been in the program for a few weeks, and that's a particularly big issue when you're a defensive back, facing a BCS conference offense in your first-ever game. The other two DBs are cornerback Zach McMillan (SO, 5-10, 175) and strong safety Kent Brooks (SO, 5-11, 205), who have played some but have to be a bit green, starting for the first time as true sophomores.
UCLA's offense returns nine former starters, a unit that is now one more year into running the Pistol.
For the Bruins, it's not a mystery that they will rely on what they did last year that dominated Houston, and that's run the ball. In last year's game, it was Franklin's break-out performance that won him the starting job, and he went on to run for 1,100 yards on the season. Last season, though, Derrick Coleman was hurt for the Houston game, so the Cougars will have him to contend with, and another year of experience and maturation for Malcolm Jones. What the Cougars have never seen is the guy who is probably the most talented among all the tailbacks, redshirt freshman Jordon James, who will also be utilized at the F-back spot.
UCLA's offensive line last season against the Cougars was good, and this line is comparable. The thing to watch is how the new guards perform, Greg Capella and Chris Ward – and possibly JC transfer Alberto Cid. Luckily, against Houston, they go up against a 3-4 in their first start, which puts less pressure on the interior OL.
It will put more blocking responsibility on the tight end and the F-back, and those are two positions UCLA blocked well last season. Tight end Cory Harkey is a good blocker, as is starting F-back Anthony Barr. Last season, Houston didn't put much pressure on the UCLA quarterback, but they really didn't even have many chances.
If the spring and fall are any indication, the UCLA passing game is on the verge of turning the corner, with a better system under new Offensive Coordinator and wide receivers coach Mike Johnson, and a load of talent catching the ball. Nelson Rosario is 6-5 and talented, and besides senior veteran Taylor Embree, there is now Shaquelle Evans, the transfer from Notre Dame, who looked like the best receiver on the team in fall, Josh Smith, the talented senior who has recovered from the injuries that limited him in 2010, and one of the fastest players in the country in Randall Carroll. Throw in Ricky Marvray and true freshman Devin Lucien, who was good enough this fall to get into the rotation given all of this depth, and that's a lot of talent.
Then, also, 6-8 Joseph Fauria has emerged this fall as a unique weapon at tight end, being able to catch balls in traffic with his height. And the F-back spot has been utilized a great deal more, with Barr catching the ball well out of the backfield and running the ball from the offset spot. Then, because of the injury to Damien Thigpen at the F-back this fall, James filled in, and was a revelation there as a weapon that UCLA will undoubtedly have to get the ball.
So much has been made of the mediocre play from the UCLA quarterback spot in the last couple of years. And there is no doubt that it has limited Neuheisel's program. But there are factors to consider: Prince is now in his third year as the veritable starter, and is in his second year in the Pistol. Richard Brehaut, who Neuheisel says will get time in the Houston game, has improved in his grasp of the position considerably. Both of them are capable of being solid quarterbacks, and it's just a matter of time until the critical mass of all of the experience, maturity and talent comes together to make it so.
The thing is – it doesn't have to be against Houston. The UCLA quarterback, really, only has to be adequate for the Bruins' offense to be successful against the Cougars, because everyone in the building knows UCLA is going to run the ball.
Houston is going to have to put more tacklers in the box to stop UCLA's running game. The problem, though, is that it will be leaving young, inexperienced defensive backs on lonely islands. I'm sure the Houston defensive coaches are willing, at this point, to make Prince or Brehaut beat them rather Franklin and Co. But the UCLA passing game is now easily effective enough to exploit young, inexperienced cornerbacks in one-on-one situations. Heck, even if UCLA can't throw effectively, there will still be a huge question whether Houston can stop the Bruins' running game.
Last season Houston went up against a zone-read offense in Tulsa, and it completely befuddled them. The fact that Prince is very good at the zone read and runs the ball well is the biggest reason why he got the nod as the starter in this game.
UCLA is going to try to play a possession game. If it can keep Houston's offense off the field, Keenum can't beat them. The Bruins will try to eat up the clock by running the ball, while keeping Houston's defense honest with an easy, short passing game that won't necessitate too much pass protection, while also taking shots long on occasion to test the Cougar DBs and stretch the field. The plan is for UCLA's running game, and considerably bigger offensive line, to wear down the Houston D and their DL in the Texas heat.
I can't completely recall, but I don't think I've ever picked a UCLA opponent to have the advantage in Special Teams in any game preview of the last several years. But here it is.
UCLA's special teams, usually stellar, are going to be a huge question mark. The tribulations of the field goal kicking game are well known, with redshirt freshman Kip Smith struggling mightily in practice. Punter Jeff Locke has been recruited to place kick, but he hasn't been much better. It's bad enough that UCLA very well could opt to go for it on 4th down more readily.
Locke is an excellent punter, so that should be reliable.
But UCLA's punt and kick-off return coverage is a huge question mark at this point. UCLA did significantly less work on it this fall than I can ever remember.
Its punt and kick-off return, too, should be interesting to watch. It seems like a very conservative move to have Taylor Embree fielding punts, but not if you've been to practice and seen how suspect Josh Smith, Shaq Evans, Jordon James or anyone else is at just catching the ball. And, again, it seems like UCLA spent a great deal less time on it in practice than in years past.
Houston should have good special teams. They have a consistent place kicker in Matt Hogan (JR, 6-1, 196), and punter Richie Leone (SO, 6-3, 200) is expected to be better after an inconsistent freshmen year. Where Houston's special teams stand out is on their return units. Kick-off returner Tyrone Carrier needs just 57 yards to break UH's all-time all-purpose yards record. In his career, he's returned 6 kick-offs for touchdowns. Patrick Edwards ranked 7th in the nation last year for punt returns, averaging 15 yards per return. That's not a good scenario given UCLA's mystery at punt and kick-off return coverage. Houston very well could get some points off its special teams.
If you take Keenum out of this equation, Houston is a very average–to-mediocre team. We understand the importance of a quarterback and how he impacts the game. But until the quarterback covers receivers or plays middle linebacker, we don't see how Keenum will be such a huge, deciding factor in the outcome of this game. If UCLA and Houston were fairly even in every other match-up, or Houston had just a formidable defensive or offensive line, say, we might concede that Keenum would be the tipping point.
On paper the match-ups aren't good for Houston. Then, eyeballing the two teams on the field last season the match-ups looked considerably more one-sided. UCLA was clearly bigger and more athletic as a team.
There is always the game-planning and coaching element in every game that obviously has an impact. Clearly Houston knows its disadvantages, and it's going to have to compensate with some wrinkles, both in its offensive play calling and defensive scheme. That's the one element here that we can't predict – whether Houston will have a few wrinkles that could befuddle UCLA long enough for the Cougars to get a win. It will be a big first test for UCLA's new OC and DC.
But if Houston's coaching doesn't give it an edge over UCLA's, which might have a few kinks due to two new coordinators, the Bruins should win this game, given its advantage in talent, athleticism and depth.
With Keenum in the game, we'll give the Cougars two more touchdowns than they scored last year. But it shouldn't even be this close.