-- The UCLA Bruins travel to Houston for its season opener against the Rice Owls Thursday, at 4:36 PT. The game will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network with Dave Ryan and Ron Zook in the booth.
-- This will be the fifth time in school history that UCLA has played Rice, being 4-0 against the Owls. The last meeting was in 2006 at the Rose Bowl, with the Bruins prevailing 26-16 behind 338 yards on the ground, mostly from UCLA running backs Chris Markey (208) and Kahlil Bell (102).
-- UCLA was 6-8 last season, and Rice was 4-8.
-- UCLA, of course, starts a new era under new head coach Jim Mora. Mora has 25 years of coaching experience in the NFL, was head coach of the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons, but is in his first season ever as a college head coach.
-- UCLA fired Rick Neuheisel after last season, when he posted a 6-8 record for 2011, including a 50-0 loss to USC. Neuheisel was 21-30 in four seasons at UCLA.
-- UCLA has gone through the worst stretch in its football history in the last 13 seasons, with an overall record of 81-80.
-- UCLA opened its season last year in Houston also, when it faced the Houston Cougars.
-- It's the third straight year that UCLA has opened its season on the road, and it's 3-3 in its last six season openers.
-- Rice, which plays in Conference USA West, is a small university (6,082 undergrad) with a good academic reputation, but a history of a mediocre football program, with an all-time record of 428-548-32 since 1912. In 100 seasons of college football, it's only had 7 conference titles and 6 All-Americans, and played in just 8 bowl games (4-4).
-- In fact, Rice for so long epitomized the little guy in college football that President John F. Kennedy used Owl football as an example of overcoming great odds in sending a man to the moon when he spoke in Rice Stadium on September 12, 1962: " But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?"
-- Rice is coached by David Bailiff, who is in his sixth season, having gone 23-38 in his first five. Bailiff, in 2008, led the Owls to perhaps the best season in its history, when it went 10-3 (its first 10-win season since 1949), 7-1 in conference, and led Rice to a victory in the Texas Bowl, its first bowl title in 50 years. Since, however, Bailiff and his Owls have struggled, going 10-26 in the last three years and, after giving Rice fans that taste of success, the natives are getting a little restless. Bailiff is a coach with a defensive background, but his calling card in 2008 was a potent offense. Generally the opinion on Bailiff is that he's a good coach but he just can't get the talent at Rice to sustain success.
-- Bailiff has re-shuffled his staff since last season, which includes hiring a new defensive coordinator (actually, promoting his cornerbacks coach, Chris Thurmond).
-- Johnathan Franklin is ninth on UCLA's all-time career rushing list with 2,669 yards. Gaston Green holds the record with 3,731, which he gained in 1984-87.
-- UCLA is 7-24 in road games in the last five years.
-- Rice Stadium seats 47,000, and utilizes artificial turf.
-- The weather in Houston calls for a high of 94 on Thursday, with a 30% chance of thunder storms as a peripheral result from Hurricane Isaac.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. RICE'S DEFENSE
There's far more margin for error when you're writing a preview of the season opener rather than for a game in November. It's especially difficult when both units -- UCLA's offense and Rice's defense -- have new coordinators this season.
UCLA, of course, brought in Noel Mazzone from ASU, and Rice promoted its cornerbacks coach, Chris Thurmond.
It had to do something because last season the Owls were atrocious defensively. The Rice defense was ranked 111th in the country (out of 120 teams), allowing 462 yards and 33.3 points (99th) per game. So, depending on your outlook on life, it could either be good or bad that they return five starters from that defense.
Up front they have to replace three starters (again, perhaps good or bad). Senior defensive end Jared Williams (6-2, 250), who is really a glorified linebacker, has good quickness, registering six tackles for loss in 2011. Junior Cody Bauer (6-4, 250), who was a solid player in his first two seasons, returns after sitting out all of last season due to knee surgery. There are two new starters inside in junior nose tackle Hosam Shahin (6-3, 300) and redshirt freshman tackle Christian Covington (6-3, 295). Shahin is one of the team's strongest players and Covington is considered a good interior rusher. Pass rush, in fact, is an area that Thurmond hopes will dramatically improve over a season ago when the Rice defense recorded just 21 sacks on the season. The problem is that 8 of those were from graduated DL Scott Solomon.
The Owls have been trying to find some depth in the front four during fall, and their depth chart is filled out with young, inexperienced and generally under-sized guys. The back-up defensive ends are the size of linebackers and the back-up defensive tackles are the size of defensive ends, and they've already lost a couple of second-stringers to injury.
|Linebacker Cameron Nwosu.|
The Owls' 4-2-5 defense is very dependent on good play from its two linebackers, and it has a pretty good one in junior Cameron Nwosu (5-10, 235), who led the team in tackles (108) while earning honorable mention All-Conference USA as a sophomore. He's low to the ground and good at holding his own against the run. Joining him is LSU transfer, senior Kyle Prater (6-1, 230), and the Owls are hoping he brings some athleticism to the field.
But again, Rice is vastly under-experienced and undersized behind Prater and Nwosu. None of the back-ups at linebacker have played even a slight bit of meaningful minutes in a college game.
It's kind of a similar story in the secondary, with some decent talent at the top of the depth chart, but little depth. In fact, the secondary looks pretty established next to the front six. Rice utilizes what they call the KAT, a safety/linebacker hybrid, and that's manned by junior Paul Porras (6-1, 190), a converted wide receiver who showed some toughness last season. Senior Corey Frazier (6-1, 215), the son of Minnesota Viking's head coach Leslie Frazier, starts at free safety and, after a pretty disappointing junior year, will be trying to rediscover the better play of his sophomore season when he lead the team in tackles (83). A sophomore, Gabe Baker (6-1, 215), looks to have won the strong safety spot, and he's actually considered one of the guys with the biggest upside on the defense.
Perhaps one of the only bright spots on defense last season was Bryce Callahan (5-10, 180), the sophomore cornerback who last season led the country's freshmen with six interceptions and collected a team-high nine break-ups. He has some nice athleticism, and Rice is hoping he'll have an All-Conference USA type of season. Junior Phillip Gaines (6-1, 185), a good-sized player who is a former starter coming back from injury, showed vulnerability last season allowing receivers to get behind him.
Across the ball is a UCLA offense that is implementing a new scheme with a redshirt freshman quarterback, a patchwork offensive line and has many questions to answer itself.
Brett Hundley has all the tools to be a big-time college quarterback, but it's his first college start, and the first time he's played in a game in two years. If there weren't some hiccups in this game it'd be surprising.
UCLA's offensive line has been the biggest unknown of fall, with a number of bodies, but many of them in various states of recovering from injury. Even the mainstay of the offensive line, Xavier Su'a-Filo, everyone should remember, will be playing in his first game since returning from a two-year Mormon Mission. The veteran of the group, Jeff Baca, recently recovered from a concussion, which put him out for the majority of fall practice. The starting center, who most observers have put in the category of a known quantity, is Jacob Brendel, who is a redshirt freshman playing in his first game. The other two starting spots could then be manned by two neophyte tackles, redshirt freshman Torian White and true freshman Simon Goines, who, obviously, have never taken a snap in a college game.
Again, if there weren't some hiccups we'd be surprised.
What UCLA's offense does have going for it is a very deep crew of skill guys. Johnathan Franklin could be among the best dozen or so running backs in the nation; Y receiver Joseph Fauria, at 6-8, should be almost unstoppable, especially in the new offense; quick and elusive tailbacks/f-backs Jordon James and Steven Manfro will be tough if UCLA can get them isolated in space; and the receiving group has everything -- size,
Since we're talking about surprises, we'd be very surprised if UCLA's receivers didn't have a big day.
The Bruins' offense has some questions, no doubt. And they actually might not get even slightly answered in the season opener, on the road in potentially tough weather. But the Bruins' generally should be bigger and faster than Rice and, in very simple terms, that should be enough. And then, throw in that UCLA's offense has some depth and Rice's defensive depth falls off the cliff after a few of its starters, and you could see UCLA's offense, in a hurry-up no-huddle, wearing down Rice's defense.
Also, we're going to say that a major factor in this game is going to be the scheme of UCLA Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone. There are going to be some mishaps, undoubtedly. But we expect the scheme to succeed very simply, and that's in getting some of UCLA's skill guys in space in favorable match-ups.
Rice, too, has a new defensive coordinator in Chris Thurmond, who was promoted from cornerbacks coach a year ago, and the Owls are hoping he can shake up things a bit.
It's going to be difficult, though, when you just don't have the horses. Rice gave up 278 yards per game through the air last season, which had it ranked 112th in the nation. And that was established mostly playing against Conference USA competition (well, Houston did skew it all by racking up 534 passing yards and 73 points). The Owls will go to a nickel and dime package throughout the night against UCLA's spread, and that essentially will be putting a couple more inexperienced Rice DBs on the field, and you'd have to like the chances of Fauria, James and Co. against them.
Then, on top of that, the Owls gave up 183 yards on the ground per game, and you'd have to think, with so much inexperience on the DL, that someone like Franklin is going to get his.
What could be a huge key in this match-up is whether Rice's inexperienced front six can mount any kind of pass rush. If the young Hundley has even a decent amount of time to throw the ball you can expect him to get pretty comfortable, especially with Mazzone making it easy for him with simple passes. Expect Hundley, too, to make good use of his ability to run since he'll probably be wanting to tuck it and go sometimes, and Rice was pretty susceptible to scrambles for big gains last season.
It could be a matter of Rice starting off decently, and UCLA's offfense, with Hundley, faltering a bit to get the new scheme up and running. But by the second half the Owls should be worn down. UCLA should scoff at Houston's heat and humidity after spending a couple of weeks in San Bernardino for fall camp.
RICE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
We know a little bit more about Rice's offense and UCLA's defense, but it's still a crapshoot trying to predict how these two units will do in their first game of the season.
In terms of returning from last season, Rice's offense is much better off than its defense. It actually ran the ball pretty decently in 2011, while it struggled putting the ball in the air, gaining 151 yards per game on the ground (67th) and 197 passing (82nd).
The offensive scheme should be a little familiar to UCLA fans, being very close to UCLA's pistol offense from the last two seasons.
The Owls are hoping a few additions to the offense are going to give it a boost. The primary one is senior Sam McGuffie (5-11, 200), the explosive running back/wide receiver who missed most of last season due to an injury after being Rice's big playmaker in 2010. He'll mainly line up as a receiver in 2012, but he'll touch the ball in many ways, on fly sweeps, anything, to try to get him into space.
Rice also gets back what are probably its two best running backs, juniors Charles Ross ( (6-1, 230) and Turner Petersen (6-2, 220), both of whom missed most of last season due to injury. It enables Rice to utilize a fairly effective power running game, since
|Quarterback Taylor McHargue.|
At quarterback is junior Taylor McHargue (6-1, 212), who returns after a pretty mediocre 2010 season, one in which he completed just 57% of his passes for just 1,072 yards. He has a decent arm and is pretty mobile, but he wasn't the best decision-maker a year ago. He's been pushed by athletic redshirt freshman Driphus Jackson (6-0, 200), who is a good runner, and he'll probably be on the field in the "Wild Owl" and other packages that can utilize his legs. Petersen was the guy used in the Wild Owl last season.
Rice has some decent targets besides McGuffie, who will line up most of the time in the slot. At the Y are two fairly tough outs in two experienced seniors, Luke Wilson (6-5, 250) and Vance McDonald (6-5, 260). Wilson is a good athlete for his size while McDonald, another good athlete with good hands, led the team in receptions a year ago (43). Both are probably NFL prospects and will be used extensively in trying to find match-up advantages with smaller opposing defensive backs. There are then a group of guys who are solid but not spectacular: junior speedster Donte Moore (6-0, 180), big sophomore target Jordan Taylor (6-5, 210) and junior Klein Kubiak (6-1, 195), the son of Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak.
The offensive line has been just about as uncertain as UCLA's, and has had to sort through just as many inexperienced players. The most known quantity is its only returning starter, sophomore guard Drew Carroll (6-4, 295), and you know it's not good when you say a sophomore guard is the most known quantity (much like UCLA). He did start 10 games last season. The other guard position has seen a few different names vie for the starting spot. It looked like sophomore Drew Carroll (6-4, 295) would be slated for it but then he had his knee scoped a few weeks ago. The most recent word is that he's expected to play. JC transfer junior Nate Richards (6-4, 305) has stepped into the center position, and then they'll all be book-ended by two new starters at tackle, junior Jon Hodde (6-7, 305) and redshirt freshman Caleb Williams (6-3, 280). Hodde is the veteran, having four starts last fall. There isn't much depth behind the starters, with the Owls already having lost a key second-stringer and their depth chart populated with six true or redshirt freshmen.
Just looking at it on paper, the Rice OL v. UCLA DL match-up should be the most one-sided on the field Thursday. The talent of UCLA's defensive line is on a completely differently level, with former prep All-Americans like Datone Jones, Cassius Marsh, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Brandon Willis. Now, UCLA's defensive line has, on paper, won the talent match-up many times -- but then it failed to materialize on the field. We'll go out on a limb this time and say this is the game where it clearly will.
UCLA's linebackers are led by sophomore inside linebacker Eric Kendricks and outside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, but after that there are some unknowns that will have to prove themselves, namely converted running back Anthony Barr starting at the other outside linebacker spot. And then there's safety Dalton Hilliard, all of 200 pounds, who is going to be getting a great deal of time at the other middle linebacker
The Bruins have a very experienced secondary in veteran cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester to go along with the playmakers at safety, Tevin McDonald and Andrew Abbott.
This match-up, though, is probably a bit more more even, just in terms of talent on the field. Rice has McGuffie, those bruising backs, and the NFL-potential receivers. Even though Rice doesn't have much of an offensive line, UCLA's defense will still be pressed to contain those skill guys.
The biggest mystery for UCLA's defense going into this game is how the new scheme of new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos will do. UCLA fans have seen their share of new DCs, professing an aggressive, attacking style, only to then watch, bewildered, as UCLA played bend-and-not break. It goes against all conventional wisdom that Spanos, an NFL guy, and Mora, a long-time NFL defensive guy, would sit back conservatively on their heels, especially against an offensive line like Rice's that you would think would be very susceptible to just a decent pass rush. We've been hearing about Mora's 25 years of NFL coaching experience; now's the time to finally see it manifest itself in a way that UCLA's new 3-4 defense looks light years ahead scheme-wise of the Rice offense.
Even with Rice's OL, you can probably expect the Rice running game to grind out some yards. But with their big backs, they run well between tackles but don't have anyone who can really turn the corner. Rice will probably try to wear down UCLA, especially in the heat, move the chains 10 yards at a time, trying to keep UCLA off-balance by going underneath to Wilson and McDonald, and then generally try to get the ball into the hands of McGuffie as much as possible.
Rice has Lou Groza Award candidate Chris Boswell (6-2, 210) kicking field goals, and they have so much faith in him they let him attempt a 60-yarder last season. It's also looking like Boswell will perform punting duties. Perhaps pay attention to Bryce Callahan, who is new at punt returner.
UCLA has one of the best punters in the country in Jeff Locke, who is definitely a game-changing type of influence. True freshman kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn has looked very solid in practice.
Then, UCLA begins an entirely new era with a punt returner, Jordon James (and possibly Steven Manfro) that offer the possibility of a real return.
In a pretty dismal 2011 season, the one thing that Rice didn't do poorly was hold onto the ball. It was actually 20th in the country in turnover margin, losing only 12 fumbles on the season, which is even better if you put it in perspective that Rice was attempting to run between the tackles last season quite a bit.
There are some key factors here in this game -- mostly depth and the weather. In 90-something degrees and humidity, depth is critical, and Rice doesn't have much. The Owls could very well show some fight early on, especially with its talent on offense, but we would expect UCLA's depth to wear down the Owls by the second half, if not sooner. It could, too, take UCLA a while to get going, with the new systems and new quarterback. But it's offensive system -- the quick, no-huddle -- is geared for wearing down defenses.
As I've repeated a few times throughout this analysis, with it being the first game of the season there are just so many unknowns to really hope to be accurate in any kind of game prediction. Last year, we were completely baffled by the way UCLA played in its season opener against Houston, especially how passive it was on defense after professing aggressiveness since that previous spring.
And, as we've repeated a few times, it's difficult to know if the Mora Era at UCLA will kick off by Stopping the Madness of ineptitude that UCLA football has come to represent recently. If we had to guess, we'd say that Mora is a different coach altogether than his predecessors, as are his assistants. While there might be some hiccups in this game, we think that it will look like a different, more disciplined and tougher UCLA team than fans have seen in quite some time.
We're skeptical UCLA's defense can shut down Rice's offense entirely. There are bound to be at least a number of breakdowns that Rice will be able to exploit for a couple of touchdowns, and Boswell is good for a couple of field goals.
But Rice's defense just doesn't have the horses to stay with UCLA's offense, even if it hiccups a number of times.