Game Week: Texas Preview

SEP. 11 -- UCLA heads to Arlington, Tex. to take on the Longhorns in a "neutral" site game...

Facts and Factors

UCLA heads out on the road again this weekend, this time to face the Texas Longhorns at the ostensibly neutral site of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. The game will kickoff at 5:00 p.m. PST on September 13th, and will be televised by FOX, with Gus Johnson, Charles Davis, and Molly McGrath on the call.

• UCLA (2-0) dropped once again in the polls, this time to #12 in both the AP Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll after a second consecutive too-close victory (beating Memphis 42-35).

• Texas (1-1), unranked, lost 41-7 to BYU last week after trouncing North Texas in the season opener.

• UCLA and Texas have played six times, but two of those meetings have come in the last five years, with UCLA beating Texas 34-12 in Austin in 2010 and then losing 49-20 in Pasadena in 2011. Each team is 3-3 against the other, making this a rubber match of sorts in the series.

• Texas, for the first time since the late 1990’s, has a new coach, with Charlie Strong taking over for Mack Brown. Strong, who has a 38-17 record as a head coach, helped to turn Louisville into a major power in college football and brings a substantial defensive background to the Longhorns. The Longhorns need all the help they can get after the long descent to mediocrity over the last five years of the Brown era. Texas lost 21 games in the last four years. For context, in the previous four years, the Longhorns lost just eight games.

• Strong inherited a bit of a mess, and he’s spent most of the offseason trying to clean it up. He has dismissed seven players from school and has suspended four, which is by far the most of any first-year coach in the country this year. There’s some speculation that most of the suspensions and dismissals have been drug-related, and it’s clear that Strong is having to engage in some pretty substantial culture change.

• Just last week, Strong suspended his two starting offensive tackles, and both players are out for the UCLA game as well. Starting quarterback David Ash, who has had significant issues with concussions throughout his career, suffered from post-concussive symptoms after the opener against North Texas, and he too will be out indefinitely.

• Strong called last week’s 34-point loss to BYU an “embarrassment” and in his teleconference this week said that he wished he had dragged his team back into the locker room before the game because he could tell they were not mentally engaged. The loss was the worst for Texas since being blown out by No. 13 Oklahoma 63-21 in 2012, and the worst to a (then-)unranked opponent since, you guessed it, losing 66-3 to UCLA in 1997.

• The game should be a bit like a home game for Texas, which has to travel just under 200 miles from Austin to Arlington for the game. UCLA, by contrast, must travel almost 1500 miles.

• The game will be the first time that UCLA has played in AT&T Stadium, but the second for Texas, which beat Nebraska in a 13-12 barn-burner in the 2009 Big 12 title game.

• Texas’ defense was impressive in game one, limiting North Texas to just 94 yards of total offense. That’s just the 14th time in UT history that the Longhorns have held an opponent to under 100 yards of offense. Of course, in week two, the defense was much less impressive, giving up 429 yards to BYU including 248 on the ground (on 59 carries, it should be noted).

• UCLA has not been particularly impressive through two games, which has led to the Bruins dropping two straight weeks in the polls, a pretty rare occurrence for a team that’s 2-0. In looking at the remaining schedule, it looks unlikely that any wins over the last ten games, no matter how ugly, would result in UCLA dropping in the polls further. The Bruins have been excellent in non-conference road games over the last few years. In the Mora era, UCLA is 8-0 in regular-season, non-conference play, with road wins over Nebraska, Virginia, and Rice by a combined 53 points. UCLA will get its first bye week after the Texas game, and will open the Pac-12 schedule on a Thursday night against Arizona State on Sept. 25th.

• UCLA opened as 6-point favorites over Texas, and the line has climbed to 8 points at the time of this writing.

• The weather forecast for Saturday calls for a high of 75 degrees, with cloudy skies and a 10% chance of rain. The temperature could drop into the high 60s by the end of the game, and the humidity could climb as high as 60% by the evening. Of course, none of that will matter during they game, since you'll be in the friendly domed confines of AT&T Stadium. But if you're partying afterward, dress however you would for cool humidity.

Texas Offense vs. UCLA Defense

Charlie Strong made several interesting hires when filling out his offensive coaching staff. First, he pulled his Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson to Austin, but this time with the titles of assistant head coach (offense) and quarterbacks coach. As the Longhorns’ actual offensive coordinator, though, Strong tapped Joe Wickline, the former offensive line coach at Oklahoma State. It’s an interesting move in many respects, since Wickline has never been a coordinator at the college level, while Watson was the OC at Louisville for the last three years, Nebraska for the four years before that, and at Colorado from 2000 to 2005. Watson’s background is much more with pro-style schemes, while Wickline has more experience with the spread that Oklahoma State runs, so the dynamic between the two should eventually result in a varied, multiple-look offense.

But that’s for down the road. Right now, Texas is not well-equipped to do many different things offensively, whether due to depth at receiver, a lack of experience at quarterback, or suspensions along the offensive line. The focus through two games has clearly been to spread the field horizontally to open running lanes. It hasn’t worked, largely due to significant issues along the offensive line, but Strong and his offensive staff are clearly trying to build an identity around those running backs, as evidenced by Texas rushing 35 times against BYU even though the Longhorns averaged just 2.3 yards per carry.

It’s easy to see why, given the other issues on the offense, Texas is turning to its running backs to carry the load. Junior running back Johnathan Gray (5'11, 215) has returned from a devastating Achilles injury that occurred last year, and doesn’t look much the worse for wear. He has been a workhorse through his Texas career, averaging about 4.7 yards per carry on 338 carries in his career. He’s joined in the backfield by Malcolm Brown (5'11, 222), the senior, who has had an impressive career in his own right, averaging 4.35 yards per carry on 474 career carries. Between the two, Texas has the powerful backs it needs to generate a consistent running game — as long as it has an offensive line to open some holes for them.

And that’s where the issues really start. Before the season even began, Texas lost its mainstay in center Dominic Espinosa, who broke his ankle at the end of training camp and will likely miss the season. Espinosa was the most experienced player on the offensive line. Then, last week, prior to the BYU game, starting tackles Kennedy Estelle (who was the next-most experienced lineman on the team) and Desmond Harrison were suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Both players are out for this weekend. It leaves Texas scrambling for answers, and judging by just this past weekend, the Longhorns haven’t found any suitable ones. Sophomore right tackle Kent Perkins (6'5, 330) is probably the best of the bunch, and has played decently through two games. Most of the issues against BYU, actually, came on the interior, with junior offensive guards, Taylor Doyle (6'4, 298) and Sedrick Flowers (6'3, 320), having huge difficulties picking up their assignments in the run game and redshirt freshman center Jake Raulerson (6'5, 281) looking a bit lost at times. The starting left tackle, junior Marcus Hutchins (6'5, 278), has bounced between defensive line and offensive line throughout his career, and plays about as well as you’d expect for a journeyman who has bounced between positions throughout his career.

Tyrone Swoopes.
Texas hasn’t yet shown an ability to scheme around the depleted offensive line, but it’s early. Against BYU, though, the Longhorns’ seemed content to run the ball up the middle for minimal gain, seemingly not recognizing how much difficulty the interior linemen were having. It’ll be very interesting to see what adjustments Texas makes heading into Saturday’s game, because it’s going to be a struggle for the Longhorns to control the clock through interior runs considering their weakness up front.

It’s been a bit of a sad story at quarterback for Texas. David Ash, who finally progressed back to nearly full health after suffering repeated concussion issues over the last year and more, again experienced concussive symptoms after the North Texas game and is out indefinitely. Luckily, Texas does have some talent in the depth chart at quarterback. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes (6'4, 243) actually looked pretty good against BYU when you take into account the significant difficulties the Longhorns were having running the ball. He’s a talented quarterback with a strong arm and very good athleticism. Swoopes likely played well enough last week to get the nod again this week, but freshman phenom Jerrod Heard (6'2, 199) is waiting in the wings, and if Swoopes falters, he’d likely be next in line.

And just in case you thought the wide receivers were free of turmoil, don’t fret — Texas is missing plenty of its stars there as well. Junior receiver Daje Johnson, who’s arguably the Longhorns’ most gifted playmaker, has been suspended for a violation of team rules and has yet to be reinstated. In addition, senior receiver Jaxon Shipley, who is the team’s second leading receiver after two games, is questionable for Saturday’s game after hitting his head during the BYU game. On top of all that, two players who were expected to contribute significantly this year, Kendall Sanders and Montreal Meander, were charged with sexual assault in the offseason and have been suspended. The combination of all of those injuries, suspensions, and dismissals has left the receiving corps without much elite talent.

With Shipley out, there’s a chance that talented true freshman Armanti Foreman (6'0, 189) could get the start at his receiver spot. Foreman has very good speed, but his ability to catch the ball in traffic and body control are exceptional for a player his age. Junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson (6'1, 193) will also start at receiver, and while he hasn’t been productive yet this year, he’s one of the experienced cogs in the group. At the other receiver spot, senior John Harris (6'2, 218) has been hit or miss, dropping a few balls in the last couple of weeks. Senior tight end Geoff Swaim (6'4, 250) rounds out the group, but he’s probably more of a blocker than a receiver.

UCLA’s defense was not without its own issues this past week. Thought to be on the upswing as a unit, particularly after an impressive opening performance against Virginia on August 30th, the defense struggled mightily against Memphis, giving up 28 points and looking nothing like the aggressive, fast defense that many UCLA fans expected going into the season.

It wasn’t a single area that broke down, either. You could point to several culprits, from over pursuit and poor tackling by the linebackers, to a lack of pass rush from the line, to below average play in the secondary. To compensate for some of those issues, if we had to guess, UCLA will likely be more aggressive against Texas, and perhaps utilize different pressure packages now that the coaches have seen the difficulty the line had in generating consistent pressure against Memphis.

Probably one of the bigger concerns for UCLA going into the game is the health of Randall Goforth. As of right now, the junior safety is very unlikely to play after suffering a shoulder injury, which leaves a few options for UCLA. Tahaan Goodman has been the primary fill-in through the first two games, but he struggled knowing his assignments and taking proper angles at ball carriers against Memphis. Jaleel Wadood, who played significantly in the opener against Virginia and not as much against Memphis, could also get the nod at safety.

Fabian Moreau, who was almost unanimously thought to be one of the better players on the team coming out of fall camp, has not played anywhere close to his billing through two games. He looks oddly tentative, typically playing way off receivers and allowing them to catch balls without much of a challenge. On the opposite side, Ishmael Adams has been better, but his size occasionally presents some difficulties, with teams that have bigger receivers targeting him. Priest Willis is the third corner in the primary rotation, and he stepped up against Memphis and was probably the best or second best defensive back on the field.

Kendricks & Moreau.
The linebackers also played poorly against Memphis, with Eric Kendricks uncharacteristically looking very undisciplined. He over pursued constantly, and his counterpart in the middle, Kenny Young, looked very tentative in his first major action. Myles Jack also took himself out of way too many plays. If all three of those guys have bad games at once, it generally means the defense is going to look pretty awful. On the bright side, Aaron Wallace looked strong and effective against Memphis’ running attack, and could prove dependable again this week.

The defensive line is quickly turning into the Kenneth Clark show, and that’s no real knock on the other guys. Clark has been very impressive through the first two games, looking every bit the player the coaches have been raving about all offseason. His strength and ability to leverage interior offensive lineman, combined with his very good quickness, has already made him somewhat of a pass-rushing threat on the interior, as well as a complete run-stuffer. He’s got some wheels, too, and looked like he could have run down Paxton Lynch a couple of times if he’d had a bit more space.

Owamagbe Odighizuwa has also had a good start to the season, and Eddie Vanderdoes, who’s been a bit inconsistent while he rounds back into game form, has also had moments of brilliance. Those three have had to carry the load, though, as the true freshmen get acclimated and Ellis McCarthy plays himself into game shape.

Advantage: UCLA

One of the major reasons that UCLA had difficulty with Memphis was the scheme; the Bruins just weren’t ready for the multiple different looks, formations, and plays that Memphis had ready for the game. That really shouldn’t be the issue against Texas; the Longhorns simply don’t have the experience on the offensive line, at quarterback, or in the skill positions to be that multiple.

A big key in this game will be UCLA’s ability to take advantage of Texas’ inexperience on the interior, and, luckily for the Bruins, that’s probably the strength of UCLA’s defense, with big Kenny Clark manning the middle. It’s a fair bet that he’ll be taking up permanent residence in the nightmares of Messrs. Doyle, Flowers, and Raulerson after the game. Though we’re reluctant to say it after watching three- and four-man rushes most of the last two games, UCLA should be able to generate pressure against that offensive line with just its front four. If Clark, Vanderdoes, and McCarthy are able to win those match ups on the interior, it’ll significantly inhibit Texas’ ability to run the ball, which will force the game into the hands of Swoopes. Swoopes definitely has the ability to run, and could hurt an undisciplined team with his ability to scramble. Kendricks, Young, and Jack will have to play significantly better to keep Swoopes contained to a pocket. Our guess is that they will play better and mostly contain Swoopes, forcing him into playing mostly from the pocket. With the Longhorns’ receiving corps being as depleted as it is, they’re probably going to have some difficulty getting open, which could lead to the first multi-sack game of the year for UCLA’s defense.

In short, Texas simply doesn’t have the experienced depth at most positions to take advantage of some of UCLA’s issues defensively. The Bruins should be able to win this side of the matchup fairly easily, and if they don’t, that’ll be a real concern heading into Arizona State in two weeks.

Texas Defense vs. UCLA Offense

Texas hired Strong to run the program, obviously, but with his defensive background, he was also brought in to revamp a defense that had become increasingly porous in the last years of Mack Brown. Strong’s background as a defensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer, in addition to his work building Louisville into a solid defensive team, speaks for itself. Scheme-wise, Strong ideally likes to use a mixture of 4-3 and 3-3-5, with the 4-3 acting as the base and the 3-3-5 building off of it. Strong likes to blitz, and he’ll often use the 3-3-5 to disguise where the fourth and fifth pass-rushers will come from.

So far, Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford have seemingly already made an impact on the defense, though it’ll be difficult to say how much of one before the team gets into Big XII play. The numbers have been generally impressive through two games, though. Last year, Texas gave up an average of 5.3 yards per play, which is a middling-to-poor number. This year, through two games, the Longhorns are giving up 3.4 yards per play, which is elite level. Of course, that includes a dominating performance against North Texas where the Longhorns gave up just 94 yards, but even last week, against BYU, when the Longhorns were seemingly steamrolled to the tune of 41 points, Texas gave up just under 4.9 yards per play — not a good number, by any means, but not horrible. Considering how long the defense was on the field given how poorly the offense performed, it wasn’t a poor showing.

It’s early, but if you had to describe the strength of the Texas defense, it would be its ability to stop the run. The defensive line is a stout, talented group with plenty of experience. The group is led by senior strong-side defensive end Cedric Reed (6'5, 272), who established himself as one of the premier ends in the country last season with 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. He did gain some weight in the offseason, coming in at closer to 275 pounds than the 260 he weighed last year, and that may have slowed him some, as he has only one TFL and just half a sack through two games. The other Malcom Brown (6'2, 320), the junior defensive tackle, has been easily the most impressive defensive lineman for Texas so far this season, and seems to be taking advantage of the new opportunities from Strong’s aggressive defense. Through two games, he has five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He’s very good against the run, but has good enough quickness to cause trouble as a pass rusher as well. Junior Shiro Davis (6'3, 253), the lone new starter in the group, occupies the speed rush/fox end side of the defense, and he took advantage of the new position to record 1.5 sacks against BYU. Senior Desmond Jackson (6'0, 298) occupies the other defensive tackle position, and he is much more of the traditional run stopper at that spot. Between the four starters, Texas has a combined 53 starts, making it a pretty experienced and talented unit. Also factoring prominently into the rotation at defensive tackle will be Hassan Ridgeway (6'4, 307), who switched from defensive end to defensive tackle in 2013, and has already made an impact as a pass rusher inside.

LB Steve Edmond.
Texas also has a very experienced linebacker corps. Steve Edmond (6'2, 258) is probably the leader of the unit at middle linebacker. A two-year starter, Edmond split last year between middle and weak-side linebacker. He is generally a good tackler, with the ability to range sideline to sideline well, and very good strength that allows him to shed blockers to get into the backfield. He's had some criticism of his play so far this year, though, which could lead to more time for the two other 'backers in the starting group. Jordan Hicks (6'1, 234), who has worked as the weak-side linebacker so far this year, has been a starter entering each of the last three years, but has had his last two seasons cut short by injury (last year with an Achilles, the year before with a hip). He’s healthy now, and has shown through two games that he hasn’t been particularly slowed by the multiple injuries. He’s a very talented player, with good speed, strength, and some ability to cover out of the linebacker spot. On the other side, at strong side linebacker, Texas will start junior Peter Jinkens (6'1, 237), who started ten games last year. Jinkens is a good athlete, who’s grown considerably since arriving in Austin, adding 30 pounds over the last couple of years. The three combine to form a linebacker corps with good range and tackling ability.

The secondary is where Texas has been hit, like the offense, by some of the dismissals, suspensions, and injuries since Strong arrived. Perhaps most notably, senior safety Josh Turner’s (5'11, 175) status is still up in the air heading into the game on Saturday after being suspended during the offseason. He’s one of the most experienced players in the unit, and his addition could help the unit considerably. There are some rumblings that he could be reinstated before the game, but it’s still an unknown. Even without Turner, Texas has some talent in its secondary. Senior cornerback Quandre Diggs (5'10, 195) has seemingly been starting at Texas since Vince Young was in school. With 38 career starts, he’s a talented corner with good speed, and has shown the ability to be a ballhawk in his career, with nine total interceptions. What’s more, he’s shown himself to be an outspoken leader in Strong’s new clubhouse, saying that he doesn’t think his teammates care enough about losing earlier this week. His counterpart at the other corner position, Duke Thomas (5'11, 178), is a natural athlete, with the athletic ability to star at virtually any position on the field. He started 12 games last year for the Longhorns at corner, and, while he’s still learning to play the position at an elite level, his athleticism has already shown. At the strong safety spot, assuming Turner doesn’t play, sophomore Adrian Colbert (6'1, 206) will get the nod for this third career start, and next to him will be the experienced senior Mykkele Thompson (6'2, 191), who has had a solid, if unspectacular career manning the back line for the Longhorns’ defense.

In all, it’s a talented defense, with no great weaknesses, aside from a lack of familiarity with Strong’s scheme and the sheer fatigue of playing so many snaps due to having such a poor offense.

UCLA’s offense, which had a miserable opener against Virginia, rebounded nicely last week against Memphis, scoring 42 points and racking up several big plays en route to a good statistical showing. Brett Hundley looked very good, having one of his best games as a Bruin in completing 75% of his passes and throwing several beautiful deep balls to Thomas Duarte, Devin Fuller (not caught), and Kenny Walker.

What was probably most significant, though, for UCLA’s future prospects was the return of UCLA center Jake Brendel. Brendel sat out the opener after suffering an MCL injury in training camp, and the offensive line responded with one of its worst games of the Mora era, giving up five sacks and numerous tackles for loss against Virginia. With Brendel back in the lineup last week, the offensive line wasn’t great, but was at least passable, which allowed Hundley and his offensive weapons the necessary time to get open against the at-times passive Memphis scheme.

Thomas Duarte (Photo by Steve Cheng).
Paul Perkins got the nod at running back last week and shouldered the load for most of the game. He was very effective throughout most of the game, and doesn’t appear close to relinquishing his newly-won starting position. Myles Jack, the linebacker, got his first carries of the season, and did well to score a touchdown without much blocking on one of his two carries.

The receiving corps still struggled with some drops, most notably by Devin Lucien, but Jordan Payton and Duarte have emerged as real threats in this offense. Payton has clearly become the de facto No. 1 receiver, replacing the departed Shaquelle Evans, while Duarte has already shown off the ability to make big plays down the field from the Y position, presenting a significant mismatch for safeties and corners. With Walker catching a touchdown pass this past weekend, the hope is that his package could expand, giving UCLA a legitimate speed threat on the outside.

There will still be some questions on the offensive line heading into Pac-12 play, with Simon Goines’ and Conor McDermott’s health still in doubt, but the Bruins certainly made some positive strides in game two, and will now face the test of playing against another good defense in Texas.

Advantage: Even

In many ways this matchup is fairly similar to UCLA’s offense vs. Virginia’s defense, with one big change: Brendel being healthy. As we saw in the change in offensive line play from week one to week two, Brendel’s impact can’t be discounted. All of a sudden, UCLA’s offensive linemen looked like they knew where to be most of the time, and false starts dropped off dramatically.

This will be a sterner test than Memphis, though. The Texas defensive line is probably the best that UCLA will have faced this year, with good size, strength, and talent, particularly on the interior. UCLA hasn’t gotten great play out of its guards so far this year, and it’s a good bet that Texas will focus on attacking Scott Quessenberry to start the game. How UCLA responds with its protection against what will likely be a good amount of pressure from Texas will probably tell the tale for UCLA’s offensive success.

With Brendel back, we think UCLA will respond better to the Longhorns’ pressure than it did to Virginia’s, but there’s still a good chance that Brett Hundley comes under fire much of the game. If the Bruins have a game plan in place that calls for quick passing and opportunistic scrambling by Hundley, that could do enough to alleviate the pressure and allow UCLA’s offense to put up some numbers.

Special Teams

Neither team has been very good on special teams this year, but Texas might be slightly worse through the first two games. The Longhorns’ kicker, Nick Rose (6'2, 203), has missed two of his three attempts this year. On the bright side, he has nailed all six of his extra points (more than UCLA can say).

At punter, William Russ (6'3, 206) has been up and down, looking very inconsistent in terms of his power and hang time. He’s averaged just over 40 yards per punt, but that can be a bit deceptive because he occasionally is good for a long line drive that sets up a nice return.

Marcus Johnson, the speedy receiver, coughed up a kickoff return against BYU, and hasn’t looked great returning the ball, though that may be the fault of the blocking ahead of him. With Shipley potentially out, Quadre Diggs may get the opportunity at punt returner, and the hope is that he’ll provide a bit more play-making ability.

UCLA’s special teams haven’t been great either. Ka’imi Fairbairn has missed his lone field goal attempt and an extra point so far this year, and it already seems as if there’s some lost confidence there. At punter, Matt Mengel has struggled to start the year, with just a 36.8 yard average. He does generally get some hang time, though, so UCLA has been able to cover his punts well, even if they don’t go very far.

UCLA’s coverage units have been generally good, so that’s a point in the positive column. Through a combination of Mengel’s short kicks and UCLA’s coverage, neither Virginia nor Memphis was able to return a punt for positive yardage against the Bruins.

Ishmael Adams still looks potentially dangerous at both punt and kick return, and this could be the week, with how much Texas has struggled on special teams, that he finally gets his special teams touchdown.

Advantage: Even

Prediction

UCLA has struggled mightily through two games, and it’s a testament to the talent level of the team that, despite those struggles, the Bruins are still 2-0. The offense and defense have each had bad games to this point, but thankfully for UCLA, both have been bad at different times.

Texas presents a challenge similar to that of Virginia, with a strong defense and a suspect offense. The Longhorns have the defensive line to put some pressure on Brett Hundley, but the question for Texas will be whether they can score enough points with their depleted offense to keep pace with UCLA.

The Longhorns will likely make an effort to slow the game down, maintain possession with its run game, and give its defense time to rest. A low-scoring game will clearly favor the Longhorns, who probably don’t have the offensive weaponry to keep up with UCLA in a high-scoring affair. Naturally, the Bruins should try to speed up their offense, going up-tempo to both tire out the defense and keep the pressure from getting to Hundley.

In many ways, this game will be a test of coaching, whether UCLA can devise the right schemes on both sides of the ball to take advantage of UCLA’s talent. A quick-passing, up-tempo scheme on offense, combined with an effective pressure package to keep Swoopes and the Texas running game contained on defense, could give UCLA a very comfortable win.

It’ll likely be a largely pro-Texas crowd in Arlington for this “neutral” site game, and the Bruins will have to travel 1400 miles compared to the 200 for the Longhorns, so there are some soft factors that play in the Longhorns favor.

In the end, though, we think UCLA’s coaches put together effective schemes on both sides of the ball, the Bruins tackle better than they did last week, and UCLA’s offense is able to score enough on Texas’ defense to put the game out of reach of the Longhorns’ beleaguered offense.

UCLA 27
Texas 17

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