-- UCLA will face the Houston Cougars at the Rose Bowl Saturday night. Kick-off is at 7:37 p.m., with the game televised by the Pac-12 Network. Announcers Ted Robinson and Glenn Parker are in the booth, and former Bruin linebacker Ryan Nece is on the sideline.
-- UCLA is 2-0, with wins over Rice (49-24) and over then-16th-ranked Nebraska last week, 46-30.
-- The Bruins are ranked 22nd and 23rd (AP and USA Today Polls). It will be the first time UCLA plays a game as a ranked team since September 15th, 2007. On that day, it traveled to Utah under Karl Dorrell and lost 44-6.
-- In a statistic nicely indicative of Rick Neuheisel's tenure at UCLA, the last time the Bruins were ranked was 2008, when the Bruins were No. 23 during the bye week after beating Tennessee 27-24 in overtime. UCLA lost that ranking before being thrashed 59-0 by BYU.
-- Jim Mora has UCLA ranked after his second game as head coach.
-- Houston is 0-2 on the season, having lost to Texas State (30-13) and Louisiana Tech (56-49).
-- Texas State, by the way, is in its first year as an FBS program, officially joining the WAC in July. Going into the 2012 season it was considered by many prognosticators to be the one of the worst teams in the FBS for 2012.
-- If you put any stock in power rankings, Texas State has now moved up and Houston has plummeted.
-- UCLA and Houston have faced each other 6 times, with the series currently even at 3-3. The game Saturday will wrap up a three-game series for the last three seasons, having played in 2010 (UCLA won, 31-13) and 2011 (Houston won, 38-34). In 2010, UCLA knocked out Houston quarterback Case Keenum and knocked off the 23rd-ranked Cougars. Last season, Keenum got his revenge in beating the Bruins.
-- Houston is coached by first-year man Tony Levine, who was named head coach in December when Kevin Sumlin left for Texas A&M. Levine was Houston's receivers and special teams coach and took over on an interim basis to coach the team in the TicketCity Bowl after Sumlin left. Houston conducted a ten-day search at the time, but ultimately settled on Levine. Levine has said repeatedly he'll continue Houston's tradition of a high-flying offense, which was evident in their game with Louisiana Tech.
-- Some of the Houston faithful are already putting Levine on the hot seat, after just two games as a head coach. The Cougars are making the move to the Big East next season, and a poor season in 2012 could fuel the flames of dissension. They're a bit spoiled, coming off their best season in some time in 2012, going 12-1 and ending the season ranked 14/18. In Sumlin's four seasons as head coach, Houston went to three bowl games, had just one losing season and two seasons of 10+ wins.
-- After Houston's first loss of the season to Texas State, Levine replaced offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt with assistant coach Travis Bush.
-- UCLA and Houston both have their conference's Offensive Player of the Week, respectively. UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin was named it for a second straight week, the first time that had ever been achieved by a Bruin. Houston's sophomore quarterback David Piland was honored by Conference USA after completing an astounding 53 passes on 77 attempts for 580 yards and four touchdowns. HIs 77 attempts set an NCAA record for the most in a game without an interception; his 53 completions are the fifth-best single game mark in NCAA history; and his 584 yards of total offense is the second-best single-game total in Conference USA history.
-- Houston is 2-8 with Piland as its starting quarterback. Both of those wins, however, were on the road, in 2010.
-- Franklin, of course, is making his mark in the record books also. Franklin is 7th on UCLA's all-time career rushing list with 3,100 career yards. This week he'll have a chance to really jump up the chart, being just 4 yards behind Skip Hicks, 81 behind Wendell Tyler, 82 behind Karim Adbul-Jabbar, 94 behind Deshaun Foster, and 95 behind Freeman McNeill. He, conceivably, with a good day against Houston, could move into second place on the all-time list. Gaston Green is at the top of the list with 3,731 total yards.
-- Franklin leads the nation in rushing, averaging 215.5 yards per game after two games. He also leads the nation in all-purpose yards (249.5).
-- Franklin's 215.5-yard average would have him ranked 31st in the nation as a team.
-- His 3,100 yards rushing total ranks fifth among active FBS players (#1 is WIsconsin's Montee Ball, 3,491).
-- UCLA has won 22 of its last 27 non-conference match-ups in the Rose Bowl.
-- The Bruins were 5-1 at the Rose Bowl last season (overall 6-8).
-- UCLA has started a season well before in recent years, but only to collapse. In Neuheisel's first season in 2008, UCLA beat #18 Tennessee but then lost the next three in a row and finished 4-8. In 2010, the Bruins beat two ranked teams on consecutive weeks, #23-ranked Houston and #7-ranked Texas, but then lost six of its last seven games. Last season, the Bruins defeated #20 Arizona but then lost four of its last five games.
-- UCLA's 653 yards gained against Nebraska last week was the sixth-best total in school history and most since 2005. It marked the first time -- ever -- that UCLA put together back-to-back games with at least 645 yards of total offense (646 yards at Rice).
-- Nick Ekbatani a UCLA offensive lineman from 2006-2009, will be the game's honorary captain. In July, Ekbatani was involved in a motorcycle accident which resulted in his left leg being amputated below the knee. A website devoted to raising funds for a prosthetic (Big Nick Fund) has raised over $61,000.
-- UCLA is favored by 17 1/2 points.
-- Saturday calls for a hot day in Pasadena, with a high projected temperature of 98 degrees. But, with the late start, it should be comfortably in the 70s for most of the game.
UCLA's OFFENSE VS. HOUSTON'S DEFENSE
Houston's defensive coaching staff has undergone dramatic changes since Kevin Sumlin lit off for the greener pastures of College Station, with the former defensive coordinator, Brian Stewart, leaving for the Maryland defensive coordinator job. In his place, Jamie Bryant (who coached the linebackers last season) took over as defensive coordinator. Bryant's last experience as a defensive coordinator was at Vanderbilt in 2010, when the Commodores gave up over 31 points per game.
With a new defensive coordinator, the Cougars have also unveiled a new defensive scheme, dropping the three man front of last year for a more traditional 4-3 defense. As of now, the change in defensive front has yet to pay off—Houston has allowed 43 points per game through the first two games of the young season, allowing Texas State of all places to drop 30 points on the Cougars, in addition to Louisiana Tech's 56 from last week. To put that in perspective, last year's 3-4 defense gave up just 22.4 points per game.
A fundamental issue for the Cougars against Louisiana Tech was an inability to tackle. Watching the game, actually, it was a bit like watching any number of UCLA teams from the last 10 or so years. Louisiana Tech ran a lot of bubble screens and near-laterals to wide receivers, and then allowed those players to make plays after the catch. Largely, those plays went to the second level altogether too much, with safety Chris Cermin (5'11, 187) (who has since been replaced in the starting lineup by Trevon Stewart) frequently taking poor angles on ball carriers and not wrapping up effectively.
On paper, a big part of Houston's problems defensively stem from a lack of experience. The Cougars return just five full time starters from last year's defense, although, aside from the aforementioned Stewart, every one of their starters has played significantly in the past. If there is a strength to the Cougars' defense (and we're not certain there is), it would be the linebackers. Houston is led by senior linebacker Phillip Steward (6'0, 223), who is a tremendous athlete from the outside linebacker spot. Steward recorded six interceptions a season ago, ranking first among linebackers in the nation. This year, he is second on the team in tackles and tied for second in sacks, with one. Another senior, Everett Daniels (6'0, 223), takes over the starting middle linebacker role after backing up last year. He has yet to make much of an impact for the Cougars, and he was one of the culprits against Louisiana Tech in terms of poor tackling. On the other side, sophomore Derrick Mathews (6'0, 207) gets the start after earning All-Conference Freshman honors last year. Mathews leads the team in both tackling and sacks, after leading the conference's freshman in tackling last year. He also had three interceptions last year as a freshman, which means opposing teams must have really enjoyed throwing the ball to linebackers.
Mbu (6'2, 310) played in all 12 games last season, but didn't play much, recording only four tackles on the season. He has already matched that total through two games, and the hope is that he can help shore up the weak line. He's a bulky kid, at about 300 pounds, and acts as more of Houston's nose tackle than anything. Next to him, at the other tackle spot, is Radermon Scypion (6'3, 278) who, despite being a member of the great name All Stars, hasn't made much of an impact in his four years in Houston. He was largely a defensive end a year ago, but has moved inside with the switch to the 4-3. He got pushed around quite a bit by Louisiana Tech. At defensive end, Houston returns Lloyd Allen (6'3, 235), who played most of last season, and Zeke Riser (6'4, 255), who started as a freshman in 2009, but has battled injuries over the last two years. During his freshman campaign, Riser was one of the most impressive freshman players in Conference USA, recording 36 tackles, three sacks, and five total tackles for a loss. The hope this year is that he can regain some of that form.
The secondary has been a significant weak spot for the Cougars this year, like most of the defense, and has been noted especially for its poor tackling as a whole. With Cermin being replaced at free safety with the freshman Stewart (5'9, 183), the Cougars are hoping to generate more playmaking out of the unit. Interestingly, it might be one of Houston's most experienced units, with both cornerbacks having started last season. Zach McMillian (5'10, 172), a junior cornerback, started every game a season ago, but this season he's had issues in coverage. He actually has 18 tackles as a cornerback, which is something you never want to see. D.J. Hayden (6'0, 192), a junior college transfer, is the other starting cornerback, and he won newcomer of the year honors last year. He's much more of a playmaker from the corner spot, with two interceptions a year ago to go along with eight tackles for a loss and a sack.
Going up against UCLA's offense is going to be extremely difficult for the inexperienced defense of Houston. The Bruins just have so many weapons, and run so many different types of plays, that there's nothing the Cougars can really key on. Against Louisiana Tech, the Cougars entered a special sort of hell trying to defend the flat, and the Bruins have much better playmakers than Tech, and run many of the same kinds of plays.
Johnathan Franklin, Damien Thigpen, and the offensive line should have a very easy time of it running against this front seven. Although there are a couple of playmakers for Houston at outside linebacker, the interior of the Cougars' defense is especially weak, and could allow for some significant yardage on dives. Middle linebacker is a weak spot for the Cougars, and so the outside linebackers could have to shade in, which could open up the defense for a few devastating swing passes.
Brett Hundley, who went down with an ankle injury last week against Nebraska, probably won't have to run much against the Cougars, as they've had trouble generating much of a pass rush. Of course, if Jeff Baca, who looked shaken up against Houston, is hurt for the game, then there might be some cohesion issues along the offensive line that could free up some pass rushers.
Honestly, any UCLA team from the past ten years would have the advantage over this hapless Houston defense. Houston's one hope is to stack the box and pray that Hundley's ankle is in pretty bad shape, preventing him from throwing accurately or running effectively. If they can stack eight in the box and actually inhibit the running game a little, they may hang with the UCLA offense.
Odds are, though, that they're going to be steam-rolled. Stacking the box against UCLA is almost an impossibility with how Noel Mazzone stretches the field vertically and horizontally. The Bruins are firing on all cylinders and have a more potent offense than either Louisiana Tech or the vaunted Texas State. Even if Hundley is still feeling the effects of the ankle injury, the Bruins should be able to generate a credible running attack which, coupled with swing passes to electric players like Damien Thigpen, should be enough to bury the Houston defense.
It's an incredible thing to think, but after generating over 600 yards of offense in each of its first two games, this could be the game where UCLA's offense really explodes.
HOUSTON'S OFFENSE VS. UCLA'S DEFENSE
This season has been a very weird one for the Houston offense. First, the Cougars lost head coach Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Klingsbury (another great name All Star). Klingsbury was then replaced by Mike Nesbitt, who was previously the offensive coordinator at Stephen F. Austin. After one furiously inept game by the Cougars offense, Nesbitt resigned, which was shocking, and was replaced by current offensive coordinator Travis Bush, a former quarterback for Texas State.
Then, in the first game under Bush, the Cougars gained over 600 yards of total offense, which was impressive, and passed the ball 77(!) times, which was stunning. The Cougars run what they call a version of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, which has a lot of the same elements as Noel Mazzone's offense at UCLA. Swing passes and short slants are the name of the game, with some vertical passing thrown in.
Two big issues for the offense against Louisiana Tech were turnovers and dropped passes. Amazingly, despite completing 53 of 77 passes, quarterback David Piland (6'3, 192) probably could have completed another eight to ten passes if not for drops. In addition to the drops, Houston ball carriers gave up the football twice to Louisiana Tech. Watching the game over again, Houston probably should have won, despite its defense being an absolute sieve.
|Receiver Daniel Spencer.|
At receiver, Houston has a fair amount of talent, including speedster Daniel Spencer (5'11, 189). Spencer was Piland's favorite target against Louisiana Tech, and they hooked up for seven catches for 157 yards. Spencer's touchdown catch was impressive. He took a short slant and then knifed his way through the secondary before running down the sideline for the score. He's very fast, and could cause some matchup problems for the UCLA defense. Dewayne Peace (5'11, 186) had a breakout game against Tech, catching twelve passes for 141 yards ,and he too has pretty good speed. Deontay Greenberry (6'3, 193) is probably the most talented of the receiving corps. If you remember, he was a five star recruit out of Washington Union in Fresno who was expected to go to Notre Dame but elected to pick the Cougars, making him the first five star recruit Houston has ever had. Expect Greenberry to be the red zone threat for the Cougars, as he can use his big body to create space in the endzone.
Houston might be weakest along the offensive line. The Cougars have already lost two starting offensive linemen this year, in center Kevin Forsch (6'3, 308) and right tackle Ralph Oragwu (6'3, 318), which leaves them extremely thin along the line. After allowing only four sacks through the first two games, there's a good chance that number could double as the Cougars try to break in DeAnthony Sims (6'3, 322) at right tackle and Bryce Redman (6'1, 285) at center. It's not a dominant running unit, which forces Houston into more passing plays than could reasonably be considered sane.
At running back, the main back for the Houston offense is Charles Sims (6'0, 213). Sims, a junior, rushed for over 800 yards last season but has had a difficult beginning to the year. Against Louisiana Tech, he averaged just 3.1 yards per carry on 21 carries, and caught 11 passes for just 53 yards. He's not super fast, and he fumbled twice during the Louisiana Tech game, although the Cougars only lost one of those. Most of the 11 passes he caught were screens or swings out of the back field, but he did get split out once or twice, much like how Mazzone uses UCLA's tailbacks. Behind Sims are Kenneth Farrow (5'11, 206) and Ryan Jackson (5'10, 175). Farrow is most of a bruising type running back, while Jackson acts as kind of a scat back type. Neither has done much as of yet this year.
Much of the game is going to hinge at the line of scrimmage, however. Houston has not dealt with a real, consistent pass rush yet this year, nor anyone close to the talent of Anthony Barr or Datone Jones. If Houston can somehow find a way to contain the Bruins' pass rush, which would be no small task, then it could be a very long day for UCLA.
For once, though, UCLA's inside linebackers (Eric Kendricks and Damien Holmes) shouldn't be the massive liability they have been through the first two games, because Houston simply doesn't run the ball as much.
Advantage: Even Until the UCLA defense puts together a complete game, we can't give them the advantage, especially not against an offense as potentially potent as Houston's. The Bruins have allowed 24 points in the first half of each of their two games, and it remains to be seen exactly how good either Rice or Nebraska's offenses are. We have a pretty good idea that the Cougars offensive scheme works, as we've seen at UCLA through two games, and it would be foolish to assume that it will stop working simply because of a talent differential.
However, if the Bruins can generate a consistent pass rush, force Piland into some tough throws, and tackle effectively, they can probably stunt the Cougars attack. Houston's receivers are talented, and they can potentially make game breaking plays, but a consistent pass rush could make it very difficult to get them the ball in space.
If we had to guess, we'd say the Bruins will come out blitzing much like they have through the first two games of the year, give up a few big plays, and then tighten up as the game wears on. It looks like that's the M.O. for Jim Mora, Lou Spanos, and Co., and after years of bend but don't break, we're probably OK with that.
Houston, like UCLA, has a very effective punter in Richie Leone, who is averaging 49 yards per punt on ten punts this season. Unlike UCLA, the Cougars also have a pretty good kicker in Matt Hogan, who's 4 of 4 on the year, with a long from 50. Last year, his long was 38 yards, so the 50 yarder may have been a bit of a fluke. In any case, this shouldn't be a game where the Cougars are doing a whole lot of kicking.
Ryan Jackson and DeWayne Peace handle the kick and punt return duties respectively for the Cougars, and neither has broken a big return yet. Both players are decently fast and shifty, so they'll have their chances.
For UCLA, special teams has been a bit of an adventure thus far this season. Ka'imi Fairbairn, the freshman kicker, has proven to be…a freshman kicker. He's missed three extra points and two field goals so far this season, and hasn't looked good on some of his makes. Jeff Locke has been his usual self, booming punts and kickoffs. At punt return and kick return, the Bruins are still trying to figure out the best combination, but there's a good chance that Damien Thigpen gets increased time at both slots, based off the ability he's shown through two games.
No matter what, though, there's not much chance this game is decided by special teams.
Through two games, UCLA has looked nearly dominant on offense, gaining over 600 yards in total offense in both games. The Bruins ran over Nebraska's defense, which was expected to be a very good unit, and pounded Rice, which wasn't expected to be very good. It's safe to say, at this point, that UCLA's offense is good.
Houston has played a bad Texas State team and a middling Louisiana Tech team and been unable to stop the offenses of either team. Through a combination of poor tackling, a soft scheme, and no pass rush, the Cougars defense has allowed over 1000 yards this season, and has generated just two turnovers.
The Cougars offense is probably more like the one it showed against Louisiana Tech than the one it showed against Texas State, but neither Tech nor Texas State has the defensive talent nor the aggressive scheme of UCLA.
Long story short, UCLA is going to score a lot of points against this Houston defense, no matter how familiar that defense is with this type of offense. The only way that Houston is going to stay in this game is if it can score effectively on the Bruins' defense. Given what we've seen in recent weeks, our guess is that Houston will manage to score pretty effectively in the first half before UCLA's pressure begins to wear on Piland in the second half.
In exciting news, Houston's defense might be worse than Rice's, which could mean some impressive offensive numbers for UCLA.