Colorado Preview

UCLA heads to Colorado this weekend to take on Jordan Webb and the Buffaloes, who took down Washington State in their first conference game...

FACTS AND FACTORS

• The UCLA Bruins travel for the first time nearly a month when they go to Boulder to take on the Colorado Buffaloes Saturday at 3:00 PT. The game will be televised by the Pac-12 Network with Ted Robinson and Adam Archuleta in the booth.

• UCLA, which is now 3-1 after losing to Oregon State last week, fell out of the AP and USA Today Polls.

• The two-week, top-25 ranking was the first time UCLA was ranked in four years. In a statistical loophole, the Bruins were ranked No. 23 in 2008 but never actually played a game as a ranked team. They were ranked during a bye week after beating Tennessee 27-24 in overtime, but then lost the ranking before being thrashed 59-0 by BYU. It was the only time the team was ranked under Rick Neuheisel.

• The last time UCLA actually played games as a ranked team was to start the 2007 season, the last season under Karl Dorrell, for the first three weeks. In 2005, UCLA was ranked for 9 consecutive weeks.

• Before that, of course, UCLA was a program that was very familiar to the top 25 rankings. From 1980 to 2001, UCLA was ranked for a big portion of the season in 19 of those 22 years.

• Colorado comes into the game 1-3, coming off their first win of the season, a pretty big one for what was a winless team, going to Pullman to beat Washington State, 35-34. The Buffs came back from a 17-point deficit with 7 minutes left in the game. Colorado quarterback Jordan Webb scored with 9 seconds remaining to tie the score 34-34, setting up placekicker Will Oliver to win it with his PAT.

• UCLA leads the all-time series 5-2, going back to just 1980. UCLA won last year's match-up, 45-6, in the Rose Bowl, with Johnathan Franklin rushing for 162 yards and two touchdowns.

• It will be Colorado's home conference opener and UCLA's first conference road game for 2012.

• On the road in the conference has not been a welcoming environment for UCLA in recent years. UCLA has won only three conference road games in four seasons, and those three wins were Washington State in 2009, a team that finished 1-11, Washington in 2008, a team that went 0-12, and Oregon State last year, which was 3-9. In Neuheisel's four seasons, UCLA got trounced on the road in conference, losing by an average of 24 points. Last season, in UCLA's conference road losses, it averaged losing by 31 points.

• Colorado is the Pac-12 team UCLA has played the least in its all-time history.

• Speaking of a history of being ranked, Colorado was ranked for a majority of the season in 10 out of 13 seasons from 1989 to 2002.

• Neuheisel, actually, had Colorado ranked quite a bit more often than UCLA, his alma mater. Neuheisel was Colorado's head coach from 1995 to 1998, and the Buffaloes were ranked for a majority of each of those four seasons. Interestingly, though, in his last two seasons in Boulder, the Buffaloes began the season ranked but ended it unranked. And then, after he left, Colorado experienced its first two seasons of not being ranked for a majority of the season for the first time in a decade.

• UCLA is 2-1 in Boulder, having lost its most recent game there, in 2003, 16-14. It did, however, win its other two match-ups against Colorado in Boulder during the 1980s. In 1984, freshmen running backs Gaston Green and James Primus combined for 169 yards and quarterback Matt Stevens threw for 193 to prevail, 33-16. UCLA also won in Boulder in 1982.

• Colorado's program is in a slump, to put it mildly. For 21 years, from 1985 to 2005, the Buffaloes had 17 winning seasons and 10 in a row. It has, now, not had a winning season in the last six years, going a combined 24-50.

• Jon Embree is in his second year as head coach in Boulder trying to resurrect the once-successful program. He was a long-time assistant, in both the college ranks and in the NFL, before getting the head coaching job at his alma mater in December of 2010, succeeding the woeful Dan Hawkins. He was, of course, an assistant at UCLA for three seasons under Dorrell, and is the father of the former UCLA receiver, Taylor Embree. After he left his job in 2010 as tight ends coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, Embree was trying to be brought on as a graduate assistant at UCLA when he was then hired as Colorado's head coach. Embree and Eric Bieniemy, his offensive coordinator and running backs coach, played at Colorado during its heydey in the '80s. Bieniemy, of course, also coached at UCLA under Dorrell.

•UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin ranks fourth in the nation in rushing, averaging 146 yards per game. He led the nation after the first three weeks.

• Freshman quarterback Brett Hundley is the first UCLA quarterback to throw for at least 300 yards in three straight games.

• The most 300-yard passing games in a season was set by Cade McNown in 1998, when he did it six times. McNown also holds the record for the most 300-yard passing games in a career at UCLA, 11.

• Hundley's 404 yards of total offense against Oregon State ranks fifth all-time at UCLA. He currently ranks 10th in the nation in total offense (337).

• Saturday calls for a 30% chance of rain in Boulder, with a high of 73 degrees.

UCLA's Offense vs. Colorado's Defense

If you watched Colorado's game against Washington State this past weekend, or, really, watched any Buffaloes game from this year, you might have experienced some nightmarish flashbacks to various terrible UCLA defenses over the past fifteen years. It really is uncanny how much this Colorado defense looks like various iterations of Bruins' defenses over the past couple of years, and certainly under Larry Kerr. You know the hallmarks: weak pass rush, emphasis on zone coverage, very conservative play calling.

Generally, Colorado runs a 3-4 front, but with very little blitzing—on the vast, vast majority of plays, the only players who rush are the down linemen. Often, on key third downs against Washington State, the Buffaloes rushed two players and dropped nine into coverage, including the nose tackle, Josh Tupou, who would set up in a no man's land zone about 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.

With eight to nine guys in coverage, you'd figure that at least most of the field would be covered, but that hasn't been the case this season. Against the Cougars, Colorado left the flats more or less wide open, and somehow still allowed single coverage on deep balls. Again, this was with eight to nine guys in coverage.

What it boils down to is that the Buffaloes defense is not talented, and the coaching staff compounds the lack of talent by running a very conservative scheme that requires much better execution than its untalented players can accommodate. Opponents are completing nearly 62% of passes against Colorado, and averaging over 300 passing yards per game, which is good for 114th in the nation.

On the defensive line, Colorado plays with 3 down linemen most of the time, but will work in a few four down linemen formations. Probably the best player of the bunch is defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe (6'3, 250), who is a pass rush specialist, and already has five sacks on the season. Uzo-Diribe is actually pretty skilled, and uses a variety of spin and swim moves to get to the quarterback. He'll generally line up across from Torian White, but the Buffs did stunt him once on one of the few times they blitzed. Generally, the Buffs have opened games with Uzo-Diribe, defensive tackle Nate Bonsu (6'1, 280), and defensive end Will Pericak (6'4, 285) across the line of scrimmage, but depending on the play, they'll either work in a true nose tackle, like Tupou (6'3, 325) or go smaller, with another true defensive end in Kirk Poston (6'2, 250).

Despite running a 3-4, Colorado uses its linebackers primarily in pass coverage, which is in direct contrast to UCLA, which rarely uses its outside backers in any situation other than pass rush.

Linebacker Jon Major.
In the absence of the injured Doug Rippy (6'3, 245), Jon Major (6'2, 235) has led the unit from the outside linebacker position. Major, a senior, is currently the leading tackler, but, to give you an idea of how conservative the scheme is, has just one sack. Against the Cougars, he spent the majority of the game in a zone, and actually managed an interception in the late stages of the game. Since Rippy has been out the Buffaloes have been playing a lot more nickel, with only three linebackers. Depending on the formation, the Buffs will actually drop one of the defensive ends back as a linebacker, with the unit rounding out with Brady Daigh (6'2, 250) and Derrick Webb (6'0, 230) at inside linebacker. There is an expectation that Rippy could make it back for this game after being injured in the Buffaloes' loss to Sacramento State. He practiced with full contact this week, but has had a history of injuries. If he is able to make it back, he would slide into Daigh's place at inside linebacker, pushing him to the outside. Rippy is a key player for the Buffaloes, and makes many of the defensive calls, so his return could be critical for the Buffaloes.

Defensive back is where the Buffaloes really struggle. Free safety Parker Orms (5'11, 295) is probably the best player of the bunch, and actually had a couple of nice cover plays against Washington State. But after that, the depth, talent, and experience among the unit leaves much to be desired. Kenneth Crawley (6'1, 170) is a freshman, and it's hoped that he'll develop into a very good cornerback down the road. Thus far, though, he and right cornerback Greg Henderson (5'11, 185) have had considerable struggles is coverage, and against the Cougars, they were overmatched. Terrell Smith (5'9, 190) at strong safety has had issues staying in position, and a few of the big plays from Marquess Wilson were due to blown coverage on his part. Beyond the starters, the depth chart is extremely shallow, with plenty of freshmen and not much experience.

UCLA's offense sputtered a bit this past weekend, after averaging about 600 yards through the first three games of the season. Running back Johnathan Franklin, who found himself in the Heisman conversation after a stellar start to the season, came back to Earth a little running against Oregon State's stout defensive line. The running game as a whole, after putting together huge games in the first three contests of the year, rushed for only 72 yards last week.

Still, there is a lot to like about this Bruins' offense, and reason to believe that the issues last week were due to a confluence of factors that are unlikely to repeat themselves. First, and foremost, the Beavers have a very good defense, built around a strong front seven that presented issues for UCLA's very young and inexperienced offensive line. Second, the coaching staff may have overestimated their own talent in relation to the Beavers, expecting their young offensive line to get a push against the experienced Oregon State defensive line. And third, Brett Hundley continues to excel at quarterback.

Shaquelle Evans.
Hundley has been a revelation as just a redshirt freshman. Through four games, he's averaging nearly 300 yards per game, with nine touchdowns against just three interceptions. What's been quietly impressive about him is how he's spread the ball around. Five receivers have caught over 10 passes, seven receivers have over 100 yards receiving, and 13 receivers in total have caught passes. Shaquelle Evans, who hadn't gotten much thrown his way prior to this past Saturday, had a huge breakout game, and leapt to the top of the receiving leaderboard with 225 yards. In this offense, though, it's easy to expect a different player could step up each week.

Advantage: UCLA

Colorado is coming off of an important win over Washington State this past weekend, but that win had very little to do with the Buff's defense. Colorado's defense really doesn't have much of anything going for it, and this matchup isn't exactly favorable for the Buffaloes. Colorado's front seven is as close to a polar opposite to Oregon State's as you can get, and it shouldn't present as many challenges to UCLA's young offensive line.

Additionally, the Buffaloes have had trouble guarding the flats this season, generally electing to play deeper zones and keep the ball in front of them. As you can imagine, this doesn't match up well against what the Bruins like to do, which is throw swing passes—lots and lots of swing passes. It's easy to imagine that Franklin could have a significant bounce back game against the Buffaloes.

The Buffaloes most likely will stack the box against UCLA, if the coaching staff has watched any game tape from the past two weeks, but they simply don't have the team speed that Oregon State had, and certainly don't have the talent up front to dictate their will against UCLA's offensive line. Unless, the Bruins elect to run up the middle, not throw swing passes, and try to complete lower percentage passes down the middle of the field, this matchup should be decided in favor of UCLA.

Colorado's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense

Through four games, Colorado's offense has been, statistically, as bad, if not worse than, its defense. Despite the offensive explosion this past weekend against Washington State, when the Buffaloes gained over 500 yards of offense, the Buffaloes offense is hampered, again, by some of the same issues that faced UCLA the past decade or so. The offense is a conventional, pro-style, West Coast offense built on short passing and runs mostly between the tackles, which demands precision execution difficult to achieve in college football.

As we all know, such an offense demands a very accurate quarterback who can read a progression and check down effectively. For most of this year, Jordan Webb (6'1, 205) hasn't been that guy, but he had a bit of a break out performance against the Cougars, completing 29 or 42 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns. Although Washington State doesn't have a great defense, Webb's performance was impressive. He completed passes to a wide variety of receivers, checked down to his tight ends, Kyle Slavin (6'4, 245) and Nick Kasa (6'6, 260), and was extremely accurate.

While it's difficult to say whether he has completely turned over a new leaf, he's certainly playing with more confidence now, and Colorado coach Jon Embree, who has had less than flattering things to say about Webb in the past, is now firmly planted on the bandwagon, calling Webb the undisputed leader of the team.

Beyond Webb, the offense has some talent. Slavin and Kasa are two of Webb's favorite targets out of the tight end spot. Neither is particularly fast or athletic, but they both have good hands and are decent blockers. Slavin, in particular, looks like he's become one of Webb's primary safety outlets when under pressure.

The main target for Webb, though, is redshirt freshman receiver Nelson Spruce (6'2, 195). Spruce is a possession type receiver, without great top end speed, but he has tremendous hands, and catches most everything thrown his way. At the other receiver spot is Tyler McCullough (6'5, 210) who plays like a tight end, and obviously presents some match up problems for smaller defensive backs.

In terms of receiving talent, the Buffaloes don't have many game breaking threats, but their ability is pretty well suited to this West Coast offense, with most of the receiving corps having above average hands.

If there are any game changers among the skill positions on Colorado, they probably lie among the running backs.
Running back Christian Powell.
Christian Powell (6'0, 235), the freshman tailback who was committed to UCLA as a fullback before de-committing a few days before signing day, has emerged as a strong, powerful runner, running quite a bit like Derrick Coleman during his senior year. He actually has decent speed for a big guy as well, and his power helped to soften up the Washington State defense. Behind him is the lightning to his thunder in Tony Jones (5'7, 190). Jones had an 84 yard touchdown run against Washington State in the midst of the Buffaloes' 4th quarter comeback, and on just four carries accumulated 105 yards. He's very fast, and at just 5'7, he's difficult to tackle. The Buffaloes do try to get him the ball on swing passes as well, but they weren't successful connecting on any during the Wazzu game.

The offensive line is probably the biggest question mark on the offense, now that Webb has seemingly figured himself out. The Buffaloes have suffered two significant injuries at center, losing starter Gus Handler (6'3, 295) for the last two games, and then losing his backup Brad Cotner (6'4, 280), which forced the Buffaloes to slide the entire right side of the line over a position and start redshirt freshman Stephane Nembot (6'8, 305) at right tackle against the Cougars. The Buffaloes have given up 18 sacks this season, which has allowed Webb's rushing numbers to represent him as the slowest quarterback in history.

UCLA's defense has been a bit of an enigma thus far this season. In the first halves of games, UCLA has given up 65 points, and in second halves, the Bruins have given up just 22. Generally speaking, the changes between the first and second half have been scheme and personnel related. The Bruins have begun every game this season blitzing heavily and leaving their defensive backs in one on one situations with receivers. Then, once teams show the ability to drive on the defense, the coaching staff goes a little more conservative and drops into more of a nickel formation which generally stifles the offensive attack.

The main issues for the defense in the first half comes down largely to two position groups: inside linebacker and cornerback. Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester have both had significant problems this season covering fast receivers effectively, which cost the Bruins greatly this past week against Oregon State. Price, in particular, had a very bad game, and with UCLA pressing most of the game against the Beavers, the slight Price was tossed around fairly easily at the line of scrimmage.

At inside linebacker, the Bruins have not had very good containment, coverage, tackling, or pursuit out of either Eric Kendricks or Damien Holmes. Both players have shown pretty poor awareness of play action or misdirection, and they also both allow themselves to get taken out of plays too easily. The combination has been difficult to overcome.

Both issues get solved, more or less, when UCLA switches to playing more nickel in second halves. Dalton Hilliard and Stan McKay have both played significantly at inside linebacker in the nickel formation, which gets more speed on the field. Additionally, with more defensive backs and fewer blitzes, the Bruins have played more zone in the second halves of games, which has helped both Price and Hester with their coverage issues.

The question, of course, is why it has taken until the second half to make these adjustments in each of the first four games. Obviously, the Bruins have been more effective playing nickel and blitzing a bit more conservatively, yet they still have opened each game, more or less, playing their base defense. With some obvious deficiencies at inside linebacker and defensive back, it will be interesting to see if that trend continues through the next few games.

Cassius Marsh.
The issues could also simply be the case of players still getting used to the 3-4. Cassius Marsh, the defensive end who played defensive tackle last season in the 4-3, came alive this past weekend against Oregon State and started to use his quickness much more to his advantage, shedding offensive linemen and making plays at the line of scrimmage. If he can continue to improve, and Datone Jones can continue to have a very good senior season, then the pressure to blitz so heavily at the beginning of games may be lessened.

Advantage: Even

At this stage, even though the talent disparity favors UCLA, it's hard to favor the Bruins in any defensive matchup until they put together a complete game against a halfway decent team. Colorado showed signs of actually having some offensive life against Washington State, and the Buffaloes attacked the flats well, which was difficult for UCLA to cover against Oregon State. What's more, the Buffaloes offense is a conventional, West Coast offense, like Oregon State's, which could present some challenges for this UCLA defense that is built to handle spreads.

The Bruins probably present a better pass rush than any team the Buffaloes have faced this year, which must be particularly galling to the Cougars, as they have had difficulty pass blocking all season. If UCLA opts for much of the same personnel and tendencies as it has through the first few games of the season, then this matchup could come down, simply, to how quickly UCLA can get to Webb. If the Bruins can generate a consistent, effective pass rush that disrupts Webb's timing and keeps him bottled up in the pocket, then it could be a fairly easy day for UCLA.

However, given what we've seen this year from the Bruins defense, you have to expect that UCLA will get burned a few times by the Buffaloes offense.

Special Teams

We've joked for the last few years that Jeff Locke is the best NFL prospect on the team, and probably the MVP. The craziest thing about this season is that, despite the offense looking better than it has since 1998 and the defense finally playing aggressively, Locke might still have a case for both of those titles. Without his punting against the Beavers, there's a good chance that Oregon State could have racked up another couple of touchdowns. He's demonstrably better than a year ago, and even added that Aussie-style punt to his repertoire.

Ka'imi Fairbairn, right now, is a liability at kicker, and you have to imagine that Jim Mora is a few more missed kicks away from going for it on 4th and short anywhere between the 20 and the 40. At the kick return spots, UCLA has a game breaker in Damien Thigpen who hasn't popped a long return yet, but seems due.

Colorado's special teams have been a weakness for them this season, with bad kick and punt return coverage. Will Oliver has handled field goal kicking for the Buffaloes and has just 2 attempts, missing from 35 yards against Washington State.

Darragh O'Neill has been solid at punter, averaging just over 42 yards per punt, and has matched Jeff Locke on his two touchbacks.

Advantage: UCLA

Prediction

Colorado, through the first three games of the season, looked like not just the worst team in the Pac-12, but possibly the worst team in the country. The Washington State game, though, showed some signs that perhaps this Buffaloes team isn't quite as bad as it looked through the first three games. Although it was just one game, Webb seemed to hit his stride, and the offense, as a whole, looked like it did take a significant step forward.

Of course, the Cougars are probably not a good team either, and there certainly was a fluky element to Colorado making such a large comeback in the 4th quarter. Still, there is talent on the offensive side of the ball for the Buffaloes, and it would be difficult to expect them not to continue at least some of that solid play this week, playing at home, still coming off the high of winning their conference opener.

Their defense, though, is the problem. Even with the potential return of Rippy, the Buffaloes defense is not talented, and doesn't seem well-planned out. If the Buffaloes do stack the box, their players aren't fast enough to cover the flat in the same way as Oregon State, which could allow the swing pass to be an effective weapon for the Bruins. If they do not stack the box, and Brett Hundley is faced with just a three man rush most of the game, then the Bruins might very well slice their way to another 600+ yard game.

For UCLA, this game is a chance to right the ship after suffering a disappointing home loss to a good Beavers team. Against an under-talented Colorado team, this could also represent a chance for UCLA to try out some different techniques scheme-wise to see if the Bruins can shake some of the issues from the first four games.

In the end, Colorado will most likely be able to score some points against UCLA's defense, but the Bruins' offense could have another explosive day against a pretty poor Buffaloes' defense. Playing on the road in the Pac-12, though, has not been an easy thing for UCLA the past few years. Still, even with that in play, this should be a fairly easy win for the Bruins.

UCLA 38
Colorado 17

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