Holiday Bowl: Baylor Preview

Baylor and UCLA will face off in San Diego on Thursday for the Holiday Bowl. Both teams boast powerful offenses, but it could be one team's defense that tips the balance...

Facts and Factors

• UCLA will face the Baylor Bears December 27th in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

• Kick-off time schedule for 6:45 and the game will be televised by ESPN.

• In the Pac-12 bowl hierarchy, the Holiday Bowl is third, behind the Rose Bowl and Alamo Bowl.

• For information on tickets, go here: official UCLA site bowl central.

• Baylor is 7-5 overall this season, and 4-5 in the Big 12, tied for 5th in the conference.

• A year after losing Heisman Trophy Winner Robert Griffin III, the Bears started the season fast, going 3-0 out of the gates, before losing four straight. By early November, the Bears were 4-5, and 1-5 in the Big 12, but then won their last three games. One of those was a huge upset of #1-ranked Kansas State November 17th, 52-24, that essentially knocked out the Wildcats from the BCS Championship Game. The two other victories were over Texas Tech (52-45, OT) and #23-ranked Oklahoma State (42-34).

• Baylor has the #1-ranked offense in the country, averaging 578 yards per game. They are #5 in scoring (44 points/game), and #3 in passing offense (353/game).

• They are led senior quarterback Nick Florence (6-1, 205), who ranks fifth in Baylor history in career passing yards and is second in single season passing yards.

• The Bears' defense, on the other hand, is 119th in the nation (out of 120), allowing an average of 513 yards per game. They are 114th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 38 points per game.

• Baylor is 112th in the nation in sacks, having just 13 on the season. UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, who leads the nation in sacks, has more than the entire Baylor defense, with 13.5.

• Baylor is coached by Art Briles, in his fifth year with the Bears, possessing an overall record in Waco of 32-30. Briles turned around the Houston program before took the Baylor job for the 2008 season. He's best known for his high-octane offenses. The season he had in 2011 was perhaps the best in Baylor history, going 10-3 (tying for the most wins in a season in Baylor history). The win over Oklahoma that year was the fist for Baylor in its history, having lost the previous 20 meetings.

• For the Bruins, they've had their most successful regular season since going 9-2 in 2005, winning the Pac-12 South before falling to Stanford 27-24 on Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game, missing out on the Rose Bowl.

• It's the first time UCLA and Baylor have ever played against each other.

Baylor's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense

After lighting up the world last year behind the arm and legs of Robert Griffin, Baylor was expected to go through a bit of a rebuilding phase. Through the first seven games of the year, the Bears stood at 3-4, and it looked like that rebuild was in full effect. However, Baylor underwent a certain transformation over the last five games of the season, winning four of its last five, including victories over Kansas State and Oklahoma State. In those games, the big difference was the discovery of a dynamic running game led by sophomore running back Lache Seastrunk (5'10, 205). Seastrunk, if you'll remember, attended Oregon for his freshman year, but left in the wake of the investigation into Oregon's relationship with Willie Lyles, with whom Seastrunk had a pre-existing familiarity.

In any event, Seastrunk's play over the last five games has given the Bears some newfound life. The running back has averaged nearly 140 yards over those games—coincidentally, the one game in which he didn't break 100 yards was the one game Baylor lost in the stretch (Oklahoma, by eight points). He adds a significant speed dimension to the offense, as he is arguably one of the fastest players in all of college football. The only real question at this point is why he didn't play more to start the year.

Running Back Lache Seastrunk.
Of course, Seastrunk is not the only aspect of this high powered offense that bears mentioning. Quarterback Nick Florence (6'1, 205) is the NCAA leader in total offense, as Art Briles' Baylor offense is beginning to show that his system can replace even extremely dynamic players with little drop off. Florence is not quite the running threat that Griffin was out of this offense, but he still is the third leading rusher on the team and averages over four yards per carry, so there isn't a huge amount of drop off. He's also shown the ability to be just as effective in the passing game. Baylor's offense is predicated in a lot of ways by stretching the field horizontally, with receivers lined up very close to the sideline, and then attacking the seams that are created. Florence isn't shy about throwing deep, either, as eight of the Bears' 32 touchdown passes have gone for over 50 yards.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Baylor's system is predicated, much like Oregon's, on operating at a fast tempo between plays. Except for a few moments against both Arizona and Arizona State, this will be the most up tempo offense UCLA has faced this year. The big difference between this offense and Oregon's is that it is built to emphasize the pass more than the run, but the similarities in tempo are easy to find. Many times, Baylor's short passing game basically doubles as a running game, with plenty of screens and quick slants built in.

As if Seastrunk and Florence weren't enough, Baylor also possesses one of the finest receivers in the country in Terrance Williams (6'2, 205). Williams led the country (we're sensing a theme) in receiving this year at 147 yards per game, and is very fast, oftentimes taking short passes for long gains. He's bookended by Tevin Reese (5'10, 165), who's arguably faster than Williams, and has developed into another player who's a threat to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball. Lanear Sampson (5'11, 205) and Levi Norwood (6'1, 190) round out what is effectively a five man rotation of receivers, and both are similar types of receivers—very fast and shifty. There isn't a slow, plodding receiver among the bunch, so it's going to be an interesting matchup for UCLA's defensive backs.

Baylor also doesn't give up a lot of sacks at just 17 per game, with an experienced interior offensive line, bookended by a sophomore right tackle in Troy Baker (6'6, 300) and a redshirt freshman left tackle in Spencer Drango (6'6, 310). Over the last six games, in fact, the Bears have given up just four sacks, which is a combination of them gelling as an offensive unit and not having played many teams with great pass rushers. They have had tremendous continuity on the line, with only a couple of spot starts for other players throughout the year.

UCLA's defense this year was markedly better over the last half of the year, thanks to some reorganization of the personnel. Damien Holmes and Jordan Zumwalt essentially switched positions, with Zumwalt moving inside and Holmes moving outside, which greatly improved the interior of the defense. UCLA also began playing much more nickel during games, which moved Dalton Hilliard and Stan McKay into the lineup as nickel linebackers. The move drastically increased the speed of the defense. Perhaps most importantly, UCLA's defensive staff stopped blitzing as considerably as they were to start the year, which has allowed the Bruins to shore up their weaknesses in the defensive secondary.

That secondary took a hit to its personnel this week, with Tevin McDonald being left home for what is being reported as a marijuana suspension. In point of fact, though, the move might not have a wholly negative effect on UCLA's defense. McDonald hasn't had a strong year, showing poor tackling technique and all too often being out of position. Randall Goforth will likely start in his stead, and Goforth, despite his youth, has shown much more disciplined play this year than McDonald. Behind the starting safeties, Goforth and Andrew Abbott, Coach Mora has said to expect a committee of players that could include Hilliard, McKay, and Marcus Rios.

UCLA's defensive line has been, by far, the strength of the team this year, but the Bruins will be without first year defensive lineman Ellis McCarthy, who had surgery this month on his knee and will be out until spring. McCarthy, though, wasn't playing considerable time before the injury, and his loss shouldn't affect the rotations of the defensive linemen. Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh have both had very impressive seasons, with the two presenting unique challenges for opposing tackles (Marsh with his quickness and Jones with his hands and strength). Between them, Sealii Epenesa has had a quietly good year at nose tackle. It's an unheralded position, given that even a great nose tackle will rarely make tackles, but Epenesa has done his job well, holding up multiple blockers at times and keeping offensive linemen from getting to the second level. Owamagbe Odighizuwa is the other player who factors prominently into the defensive line rotation, and, with his play this year, he is the presumptive favorite to take Jones' spot at defensive end next season. At times this year, he's looked good enough to split reps with either Marsh or Jones. To get him on the field more, UCLA even has used him as an outside linebacker, although it remains to be seen if that was just a formation to face off against Stanford.

Eric Kendricks.
At linebacker, UCLA has its most impressive player in junior linebacker Anthony Barr. Barr, a converted offensive player, led the nation in sacks this year, his first at outside linebacker. He's already shown tremendous athletic ability, but what's been most impressive is that he already has great instincts for the position, looking good against the option and generally handling containment fairly well. From what we've heard, Barr is expected to return to UCLA for next year, which would be a huge coup for next year's team. Kendricks and Zumwalt will man the inside linebacker spots, with Zumwalt coming off one of his best games as a Bruin in the loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game. After taking a few games to get his legs under him, Zumwalt has shown some of the ability he showed in spot work as an inside linebacker two years ago. Kendricks, though, has been even more impressive. After taking six games to get a feel for the new defense, and going through a pretty rough adjustment period, Kendricks has been one of the best linebackers in the Pac-12 over the last half of the season. He's pursuing sideline to sideline much like he did last year, and looks much more instinctual.

Advantage: Baylor

In many ways, UCLA's defense was designed to handle offenses like Baylor's. Since the spring, UCLA's coaches have worked the defense ragged throughout practice to instill in them a level of conditioning and mental strength to prepare them for up tempo offenses like Oregon, Arizona, and Arizona State. Then, formation changes that UCLA has made since the beginning of the season, with Hilliard and McKay moving to inside linebacker on about half the plays UCLA runs defensively work to put even more speed on the field.

All that said, though, Baylor's offense presents some threats that are going to be difficult for the Bruins to cover—namely, those electric receivers. Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester have been much maligned this year, but they've been asked to do one of the hardest things in football time and time again: cover receivers one on one. While they won't be matched up one on one quite as much in this game as they were in, say, the Oregon State or Cal games, they'll still have difficulty covering those players.

The combination of Florence and Seastrunk in the running game will present some significant challenges as well. UCLA probably hasn't dealt with a running back as fast as Seastrunk, and Florence presents enough of a running threat that UCLA will have to account for him as well. If there's one shining light, it's that Baylor's offense looks most similar to Arizona's, which UCLA handled quite well. If UCLA is able to shut down the Bears offense, it will be an incredible credit to the coaching staff, and arguably one of their more impressive feats of the season.

UCLA's Offense vs. Baylor's Defense

In the same way that many aspects of Baylor's offense represent the best of college football, many aspects of Baylor's defense represent the worst. Baylor ranks second to last in the country in total defense, and is bad defending both the pass and the run. The Bears also give up 38 points per game, which is good for 115th in the country, just ahead of such luminaries as Idaho, Colorado, and Marshall.

The Bears run mostly a nickel, 4-2-5 defense, with hybrid safety/linebacker Ahmad Dixon (6'0, 210) replacing the traditional linebacker role. Occasionally, Baylor will drop down to just three down linemen, but that'll mostly happen to get another defensive back on the field. The Bears have a mostly non-existent pass rush, generating just 13 sacks on the year, and they compound their lack of pressure by not blitzing very much, or very effectively.

If there is a star for this defense, it's undoubtedly middle linebacker Bryce Hager (6'1, 235), who leads the team in tackles, is tied for the lead in tackles for loss, and is tied for second on the team in sacks, with three. On the very rare occasions that Baylor blitzes, Hager is usually the one doing the blitzing. He is flanked by Eddie Lackey (6'0, 220) at weak side linebacker, who leads the team in interceptions, weirdly, with four. Lackey has actually returned two interceptions for touchdowns this year.

Linebacker Bryce Hager.
The defensive line has generally been a sieve this year, getting pushed around frequently by large offensive lines. The unit is led by defensive ends Terrance Lloyd (6'3, 235) and Chris McAllister (6'2, 255), who have a combined seven sacks between them. On the interior, Baylor is a little undersized, with a 265 pound defensive tackle in Gary Mason (6'4) manning one of the spots, and senior Nick Johnson (6'2, 295) manning the other. Again, we should reiterate that Baylor's players aren't being helped much by a scheme that is designed much more toward a bend-and-don't-break philosophy.

The secondary, despite having at least one additional player at its disposal in Dixon on nearly every play, has had a very rough season, giving up 323 yards through the air per game. Much of that, of course, is due to playing in the pass-happy Big 12, but the Bears have also gotten some pretty mediocre play from their relatively experience secondary. Baylor starts two juniors in cornerback Joe Williams (5'9, 190) and safety Sam Holl (6'1, 200), and two seniors in cornerback Chance Casey (5'11, 185) and safety Mike Hicks (5'11, 200). Again, though, a lack of pass rush has made it nearly impossible to have success in the secondary, as quarterbacks have generally had all day to throw against the defense.

UCLA's offense, led by quarterback Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin, has been, generally, very good through Noel Mazzone's first year at UCLA. Despite having a redshirt freshman at quarterback, the offense has purred along the season, looking explosive at times in the non-conference and then later in the conference schedule once Hundley started to hit deeper passes with more regularity.

Franklin, in many ways, has been the engine that's driven the offense, though. He has 1700 yards in this, his best season as a Bruin. He's combined his usual propensity for getting five to six yard gains with a newfound ability to maintain his feet after contact, generating significant gains on plays where he seemingly should have been tackled after a few yards. He also has had an added burst this year, looking harder to catch in the open field. With Damien Thigpen now out for the season with a torn ACL, Jordon James not looking particularly effective against Stanford, and this being Franklin's last game as a Bruin, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for Franklin to get the vast, vast majority of the carries on Thursday.

UCLA's receivers have been up and down this year, but Joe Fauria has emerged as a consistent first down and touchdown threat. It's a credit to Fauria that in his senior season, he has settled into being a much more consistent performer. Shaquelle Evans has also been fairly consistent both catching the ball and blocking down field. He's actually been responsible for at least four or five touchdown runs this year thanks to his excellent blocking.

Johnathan Franklin.
Devin Lucien will make his return against Baylor, and his ability to make plays downfield will provide a dimension to the offense that has been somewhat lacking since he went down with a broken clavicle against Colorado. We've been saying it for a while, but it bears repeating: Lucien is probably the most talented receiver on the team. With a month to prepare for this game, Lucien could be up to full speed.

UCLA's offensive line has been serviceable this season, despite playing with three freshman starters and a sophomore newly returned from a Mormon mission. Simon Goines has played most of the year with an injured knee, and has actually been the better of the two freshman tackles. The strength of the line has been on the interior, where Xavier Su'a-Filo has been a master of pulling out in front of runs and also providing the one stable pass blocking force on the line. Center Jake Brendel has also looked good at times, especially in the run game, although he's had his lapses in pass protection. At right guard, Jeff Baca has been consistently good in both run and pass blocking, but has been hit by way too many penalties throughout the year, which has hampered UCLA at key times.

Advantage: UCLA

Baylor just doesn't have a whole lot going for it here. UCLA has a very balanced offense, with a great running back and a good passing attack. The Bears don't pressure quarterbacks well, which is just about the only way to make UCLA's offense stall. Hundley has also had another three weeks of camp-like preparation, which could bode well for the young quarterback's improvement for this game

. The Bruins should be able to spread the field horizontally and then take advantage of the wide running lanes that will develop off tackle. Baylor's defense is also fairly undersized, so UCLA could take advantage of that and attempt to play a bit more smash mouth than usual in an effort to keep the Baylor offense off the field.

Really, UCLA could pick several different strategies for picking apart this Baylor defense, and almost any of them would have some measure of success.

Special Teams

Baylor's kicker is Aaron Jones (6'3, 190), who has hit just 16 of 27 field goals this year. He's just not very accurate, having missed 10 kicks between 30 and 50. He has a strong leg, though, having booted a 58 yarder this year. The coaches are not shy about trotting him out there as well. Jones also handles the kickoffs, and curiously has just 38 touchbacks on the year despite kicking off 87 times.

Baylor has a very good punter in Spencer Roth (6'4, 225), who averages 44 yards per punt and has also downed 12 of 32 punts inside the 20 yard line. He's only kicked three punts into the end zone this year.

At the returner slots, Baylor has a couple of decent returners, in Norwood at punts and Antwan Goodley (5'10, 220) at kick returner. Both have had 40+ yard returns this year. Norwood averages about 10 yards per punt return, while Goodley averages 22 yards on kick returns.

UCLA's special teams have been up and down this year. Ka'imi Fairbairn has settled down as the placekicker, with his first miss in several games coming in the Pac-12 championship game, and even that was in adverse conditions. Jeff Locke has been Mr. Consistency as the punter and kickoff specialist. He's one of the best in the country at pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line, and this will be the last chance for UCLA fans to see him in a Bruin uniform.

The returner spots have been an adventure for UCLA this year. Devin Fuller got the most recent reps at kick returner, and he looked OK, if not particularly explosive. At punt returner, any number of players could man the position, including Shaquelle Evans, Randall Goforth, and Steven Manfro. Of the three, Goforth has shown the most flashes in games, and looks like he'd be the most dynamic threat. As it stands, though, Evans got the only two punt opportunities against Stanford, so we'll say he's the likely starter against Baylor.

Advantage: Baylor

Prediction

All signs point to this being a shootout between two dynamic offenses. Baylor's offense is one of the most high powered in the country, and have shown an ability to score on most everyone they've played. UCLA's offense, while not quite as up tempo as Baylor's, has looked equally good at times, and, if the Bruins went at the pace of Baylor, would probably put up equally ridiculous numbers.

Defensively, though, is where this matchup tilts a bit in favor of the Bruins. Baylor just doesn't run a scheme conducive to stopping anyone, let alone a very good offensive team. UCLA, on the other hand, has shown flashes this year of being able to stop good offenses (Arizona and USC, in particular). While it's difficult to say that UCLA will put the kind of clamps on Baylor that the Bruins put on Arizona, the speed of UCLA's defense combined with the Bruins' big play potential could very well cause Baylor some issues.

If there's any concern about this game, it's that the Bruins might still feel as if they should be playing in the Rose Bowl, and might not be up for this game. Likewise, if we've learned anything from the past lost decade, it's that UCLA is generally underwhelming in bowl games.

Still, we feel that Mora has put enough of his stamp on this team, and there is enough desire to get that 10th win, that the Bruins should be able to pull off the victory and put the final touches on a very good season.

UCLA 45
Baylor 35

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