Facts and Factors
• UCLA will face Virginia in its opening game of the 2015 season on Saturday, September 5th, at 12:30 p.m. in the Rose Bowl. The game will be televised by Fox.
• UCLA is ranked 13th and 14th, respectively, in the pre-season AP and Coaches Poll.
• The Bruins were 10-3 in 2014 and ended the season ranked #10.
• The Cavaliers in 2014 were 5-7, marking their third losing season in a row.
• This is only the second meeting all-time between the two schools in football, the first being last year’s season opener in Charlottesville, with the Bruins holding on for a tough win on the road, 28-20. UCLA took advantage of three defensive touchdowns in the second quarter.
• Virginia wasn’t necessarily as bad in 2014 as the 5-7 record might indicate. They started out 4-2, with a win over then-ranked #21 Louisville, with their two losses coming on a good effort against UCLA and BYU on the road. They then went on a four-game losing streak, getting beat by some good teams – @ Duke, by one point against North Carolina, @ Georgia Tech and then @ then-ranked-#2 Florida State. They then beat Miami pretty soundly, but suffered a tough loss to end the season against rival Virginia Tech, and just missing that sixth, bowl-berthing win.
• UCLA returns nine one-time starters on offense from 2014, and nine starters on defense. Virginia returns 10 starters on both sides of the ball total from last season.
• It is just the second home opener for UCLA in the last six seasons. In 2013, the Bruins beat Nevada to start the season, 58-20.
• UCLA has won 11 of its last 12 non-conference matchups, and eight in a row since losing to Baylor in the 2012 Holiday Bowl. It has won all nine regular-season non-conference games in that time.
• Virginia is coached by Mike London (54), who is in his sixth year with the Cavaliers. In that time, he’s posted just one winning season, in his second year in 2011. In the off-season there were some questions of whether London would be replaced, but Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage publicly confirmed that London would be retained as the head coach for 2015. London’s background is in defense, coming up through the ranks primarily as a defensive line coach and then getting his first defensive coordinator job at Virginia in 2007 by then-Virginia head coach Al Groh. Since being at Virginia, his defenses have generally been pretty good, with UVA’s defense last season being ranked 28th in the nation overall (UCLA’s was 63rd). If he was thought to be on a hot seat last season, however, London is definitely sitting on a skillet for 2015.
• UCLA head coach Jim Mora has, obviously, transformed the UCLA football program, not just off the field, but on. In Mora’s first three years, his 29 total wins are the most-ever by a UCLA coach in his initial three seasons on the job. Finishing the season ranked 10th in the AP Poll was the highest season-ending finish for the program since 1998. In his 4th year, Mora still needs to push through some roadblocks, namely beat Stanford and Oregon (the Bruins don’t play the Ducks in the regular season this year), and win a Pac-12 championship.
• One of the most amazing stats in the Mora era is that UCLA is 25-0 under him when leading at halftime.
• Under Mora, UCLA has started each of his three seasons with winning streaks. In 2014, it started with four wins; in 2013, five and in 2012 it started the season with three straight wins.
• Despite a projection of starting just four seniors going into the 2015 season, UCLA is one of the most experienced teams in the country, being among the teams in FBS with the most cumulative starts among its players.
• The Virginia game, of course, is the first game in the Jim Mora era without Brett Hundley starting at quarterback.
Jim Mora and Brett Hundley
• UCLA is 18-13 all-time against the current Atlantic Coast Conference.
• Virginia hasn’t won a bowl game since 2005.
• Although the Cavalier is the official mascot of Virginia, they often referred to themselves as Wahoos, or even Hoos for short. The story goes that in the 1890s they were dubbed “Wahoos” by students from the in-state, then-rival school Washington and Lee University.
• The betting line opened at UCLA -14, and has since moved to just about -19.
• Despite a recent heat wave, there is a cooling trend in Southern California this week, with a very mild projected high of 81 degrees at the Rose Bowl for Saturday.
Virginia’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
Somehow, some way, Virginia head coach Mike London was able to stave off those calling for his firing after his 5-7 performance last year, despite plenty of buzz before the season that Virginia would need to get to a bowl game for London to maintain his job status. Heading into this season, London is once again firmly on the hot seat, and the Cavaliers will have a very tough road in the non-conference, with games at No. 13 UCLA, against No. 11 Notre Dame at home, and against No. 23 Boise State at home all in the first month of the season, before hitting an ACC slate that could prove difficult for the Cavaliers to navigate.
That the Cavaliers were even able to go 5-7 a year ago was pretty spectacular, given that the offense was quite bad for the second year in a row. Virginia averaged just five yards per play last season, good for 96th in the country. Shockingly enough, that was actually a substantial improvement for second-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who put together an offense in 2013 that somehow managed to average just 4.2 yards per play. Most of that was due to improvement in the passing game, as the running game continued to struggle, averaging just 3.6 yards per rush for the second straight year.
Fairchild, perhaps deciding that a 3.6 yards per rush number simply won’t do, has opted this offseason to emphasize the idea of being a power-running team, albeit without any major formational changes (the Cavaliers will still likely operate primarily out of the shotgun). It’s obviously going to be interesting to see exactly how successful Virginia can be building its offense around the run game when it hasn’t run the ball well in years.
The quarterback is junior Matt Johns (6'5, 210), who lost a close competition with Greyson Lambert to start last year, replaced Lambert quickly in the opener against UCLA, and then was on-again, off-again as he and Lambert battled it out the remainder of the year. Johns then won the job decidedly in the spring, to the point where Lambert transferred to Georgia, where he has now been named the starter. The Bruins should well remember Johns from last year, since he came into the game at the point where UCLA seemed to comfortably be on its way to a rout, up 21-3. Johns then quickly led a 75-yard touchdown drive and, by the end of the game, put the Cavaliers within a score of tying the game.
Johns isn’t quite the strong-armed statue that Lambert is. Though 6’5 and 210, he doesn’t have the biggest arm, but he makes up for it by being a little bit more of a gamer. He keeps plays alive with his feet and does a nice job of checking down to open receivers. He ended up only completing 55% of his 162 attempts last year, but rushed for 107 yards on 22 carries, which is more than respectable. He’ll also have a good deal more job security than Lambert did last year, since he has a very inexperienced and untested group of quarterbacks behind him.
The offensive line is still a little unsettled heading into the season, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an experienced group of about eight players battling for five spots, and with London matching Jim Mora in not releasing a depth chart this week, it’s uncertain how those battles have shaped up. We’re pretty certain that the starting tackle tandem of junior left tackle Michael Mooney (6'6, 290) and junior right tackle Eric Smith (6'5, 305) from last year will enter this year as the starters again (despite Smith being pushed by redshirt freshman Jake Fieler), and that senior Ross Burbank (6'4, 300) will probably start at one of the guard spots. What’s less certain is who starts at the other guard spot. Left guard Ryan Doull (6'5, 300) was at the top of the depth chart in spring, so he could start at one of the guard positions, but junior Sean Karl (6'6, 305), sophomore Eric Tetlow (6'6, 305), and senior John Pond (6'3, 320) could all factor into that competition as well. Junior Jackson Matteo (6'5, 290), the center, exited spring as the first-string center, so he is probably in line to start there.
The point is there is a good amount of talent and depth on the offensive line, and it makes sense that Virginia is opting more for a run-oriented scheme this year, since the group as a whole projects better as run-blockers than as pass-blockers. What was a young offensive line still figuring things out last year should be a unit more capable of accomplishing what Fairchild wants.
As his stated intention is to run the ball more consistently, Fairchild is going to lean on a trio of running backs, led by star junior Taquan Mizzell (5'10, 200), the former four-star recruit. Mizzell’s nickname is “Smoke” after the breakaway speed he showed in high school, but he’s yet to really show it off to any great extent at the college level. He actually was used more as a receiver out of the backfield last year than as a runner, and averaged a little over four yards per carry. This offseason, he reportedly put on a little more weight and is expected to be better able to withstand the rigors of running between the tackles, and as such is expected to be the lead back for the Cavaliers.
The other two running backs in the rotation will likely be sophomore Daniel Hamm (5'10, 190), a former walk-on, and incoming transfer redshirt freshman Jordan Ellis (5'11, 220). Hamm will likely be the primary backup to Mizzell, with Ellis being more of a short-yardage type of back. If Virginia legitimately wants to be a dominant running team, each of those three guys will likely see a substantial amount of carries this season.
The receiving corps has some talent, but has also been hit by some injuries this offseason. Expected starter senior T.J. Thorpe (6'0, 210) broke his clavicle during fall camp will be out until at least late October, and Doni Dowling, expected to be a rotational receiver this year, tore his ACL in February. That’s obviously a hit for a Virginia team that can use all the offensive firepower it can get. The Cavaliers do return last year’s leading receiver, senior Canaan Severin (6'2, 215), who caught 42 passes for 578 yards a year ago to go along with five touchdowns. He actually had a pretty nice game against UCLA last year, hauling in five catches for 55 yards. Mizzell will also see a good amount of work in the passing game, both catching out of the backfield and occasionally lining up in the slot. Sophomore Andre Levrone (6'2, 210) and junior Keeon Johnson (6'3, 210) are the other two returning players to watch, as they combined for 28 receptions and 386 yards last season. Among true freshmen, David Eldridge (6'1, 170), a possession receiver, and Olamide Zaccheaus (5'8, 190), a smaller, speedier receiver, are expected to contribute.
At tight end, Virginia has some good options, including big Stanford transfer Charlie Hopkins (6'6, 240) as well as redshirt freshman Evan Butts (6'4, 240). With the Cavaliers wanting to run the ball more and develop more of a power offense, tight ends are very important, and it looks like Virginia should have plenty of options in that department.
UCLA’s defense is led by a new defensive coordinator in Tom Bradley. Bradley’s last stop was West Virginia, but prior to that, he led some of the best defenses in the country at Penn State through the early years of the 2000s. Bradley is that proven defensive coordinator that UCLA hasn’t had in a long time — someone who has had success at the major college level as a coordinator. The expectation is that he should be able to take what has been a very talented UCLA defense and turn it into one of the strongest defenses in the conference and country.
He’ll certainly have some tools to work with. Starting on the defensive line, UCLA has two of the top defensive tackles in the Pac-12 in Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes. Clark is a pure nose tackle, and has quickly developed into one of the top nose tackles in the country. He is very strong, virtually impossible to move, and capable of occupying multiple blockers. Vanderdoes, who has slimmed down in the offseason, looks much more capable of providing a credible pass rush from the three-tech than he did a season ago, but even if that doesn’t happen, he combines with Clark to provide a two-man run defense that would be the envy of almost all college teams.
Book-ending Vanderdoes and Clark will be defensive end Takkarist McKinley and linebacker/defensive end Deon Hollins. It’s expected that those two players will provide the bulk of the pass rush this year, and Hollins in particular could be headed for a year with double-digit sacks. He has a very quick first step and has continued to get stronger, which has added to his capabilities as a pass rusher. He really came on toward the end of last year, and the biggest thing for him this season is to show he can hold up against the run better. McKinley also had that question mark in the offseason, and he responded by putting on about 15 pounds. The junior defensive end is now a little more seasoned than when he came in midseason last year as a junior college transfer and could become a very good pass rusher in his own right.
The linebackers lose Eric Kendricks, which is a blow. Kendricks provided a great deal of leadership to the defense, and was also a one-man clean-up crew, oftentimes making up for other players being out of position with a saving tackle. UCLA will attempt to replace his contributions with a combination of two players: Kenny Young and Myles Jack. Young had a really good offseason, looking much more comfortable in pass defense especially. He has very good instincts for a true sophomore and his mobility is improved from a year ago. Jack is, as always, a complete freak, and his mobility sideline-to-sideline is second to none. He is a freak in coverage, and despite putting on another five pounds or so this offseason, looks just as quick and agile in the open field as he’s ever been. Those two players should rack up a ton of tackles this year behind Clark and Vanderdoes. Jayon Brown will be the primary backup behind Jack, and Isaako Savaiinaea should see some time behind Young. On the outside, Aaron Wallace will get the nod to start the year, and he’s a solid player who should hold up well against the run. Kenny Orjioke is waiting in the wings, though, after offseason knee surgery, and if he shows some comfort level early, he could snatch that starting spot pretty quickly.
Much will be made of UCLA not having Ishmael Adams for what may be an extended period of time to start the year, but interestingly enough, Adams actually lost his starting cornerback job in the spring to junior Marcus Rios. Rios, who made a miraculous recovery from a life-threatening fungal infection, has looked very good this offseason, both physically and in terms of his understanding of the game. Fabian Moreau will start on the opposite side for the third straight year, and he too had a good offseason. We’re reluctant to put too much stock in that until we see what happens on the field, but it bears noting that he once again shined in practice. The safeties will be Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood. Goforth sat out the vast majority of last year with a shoulder injury, and Wadood started in his place. So, despite losing Anthony Jefferson, UCLA has the luxury of starting two players at safety with considerable starting experience. With Adams out, the starting nickel might end up being Goforth or Wadood, with Tahaan Goodman, who had a really encouraging fall camp, moving into the starting lineup at safety.
We don’t like to make too much of a single game, particularly at the beginning of the year, but if UCLA’s defense struggles against this Virginia offense, that would be a significant worrying sign for the rest of the year. The Bruins have an extremely talented, extremely experienced defense across the board, led by an extremely talented and experienced defensive coordinator, and those adjectives can be used for very little related to Virginia’s offense.
Bradley showed a good amount of blitzes during fall camp, and we’re hoping we see some on Saturday. Virginia’s offensive line is good enough that this game could be a good test of the blitz concepts in live action, and could give UCLA some useful data with which to refine and tweak things heading into the meat of the schedule in a couple of weeks.
Realistically, Virginia is probably going to try to run the ball, and it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Cavaliers have a great deal of success doing so. UCLA is very stout up the middle with Clark and Vanderdoes, so even though Virginia has some experience on the offensive line, UCLA has just as much on the defensive line, coupled with better talent.
If the Cavaliers go to the air, they could have more success. Moreau had some issues last year tracking and making plays on the ball, and this will be Rios’ first extensive action in a long time. Johns doesn’t have the strongest arm, though, so if Bradley can put some pressure on him, that could force him into some tough spots where he could throw some interceptions.
UCLA’s defense is simply a significantly more talented unit, so the Bruins should win this side of the matchup with relative ease. What we’ll be watching for, though, will be how aggressive the scheme and play-calling are, as a sign of what kind of defense we’ll see when the Bruins hit the big boys on the schedule in a couple of weeks.
Virginia’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
Probably the most shocking thing about last year’s game was the way Virginia’s defense was able to almost completely neutralize UCLA’s offense. The Bruins didn’t score an offensive touchdown until late in the third quarter on a Brett Hundley run and looked positively anemic for long stretches in the first half. Virginia blitzed constantly from multiple spots in Jon Tenuta’s attacking scheme, and the Bruins were largely flummoxed.
The good news for UCLA is that this is a much different defense from last year. Virginia lost all three of its starting linebackers and top pass rusher Eli Harold, so the Cavaliers should be expected to be at least a little weaker up front.
The bad news is that Virginia returns Tenuta, the defensive coordinator, and he caused significant issues for UCLA’s offense last year with the way he mixed blitzes and pressures from multiple positions. Individual talent matters, and the lack of experience at linebacker is a cause for concern for the Cavaliers, but Tenuta has shown an ability throughout his career to mold good defenses out of sometimes marginal talent.
Last year, Virginia finished 25th in the country in yards per play allowed at 4.9. The defense held up really well in the run game, allowing just 3.5 yards per rush attempt. The Cavaliers were also among the best in the country at rushing the quarterback, averaging 2.7 sacks per game, good for 23rd in the country. By basically any individual measure, this defense was among the top 25 in the country.
But that was last year, and Virginia did indeed lose quite a bit in the offseason. Gone are Harold and Max Valles, the two leading pass-rushers from a year ago. Gone are Daquan Romero and Henry Coley, the two linebackers who lined up next to Valles. Half of the starting secondary has been replaced. Personnel-wise, this is a significantly different defense than a year ago.
Up front, Virginia had the most continuity, returning three of four starters from a season ago. Senior defensive tackle David Dean (6’1, 290) is probably the leader of the unit after starting all 12 games a season ago, and 11 games in 2013. He’s more of a space-eater type for Virginia, occupying blockers to allow the linebackers to get free to track down ball carriers or blitz the quarterback, but he does his job well. He’s not a complete stiff as a pass-rusher either. Though he had just one sack last season, he had four in 2013, so there’s some ability there. Next to him, Virginia will start either former uber-recruit Andrew Brown (6'4, 290) or junior Donte Wilkins (6'1, 300) at the other tackle spot. Brown dealt with a series of injuries last year that hobbled his freshman campaign, but he is reportedly healthy and looking good in fall camp, having slimmed down considerably from last season. With Dean and Wilkins not likely to be great pass rushers on the interior, Brown could provide a threat on the inside, with an explosive first step and good strength.
On the ends, Virginia returns Mike Moore, who is the leading returning pass rushers with three sacks from a year ago. He’ll need to obviously raise that number quite a bit this season to help account for the loss of Harold, Valles, and Coley, who combined for 24 of Virginia’s 34 sacks last season. On the other side, senior Kwontie Moore (6'2, 290) will likely get the nod, and he also produced two sacks last season. Behind those two, senior Trent Corney (6'3, 250) is a smaller defensive end with some natural ability as a pass rusher, and he could see some real time in the opener.
The linebacker corps, obviously, is in the midst of a complete rebuild with all three starters gone. Micah Kiser (6'2, 245) is the man in the middle for Virginia, and there are big things expected of the sophomore down the road. He’ll take over for Coley as the middle linebacker and quarterback of the defense after playing primarily special teams a year ago. He has really impressed the coaching staff so far, but it remains to be seen how he’ll do in games. Joining him in the starting group will be junior Zach Bradshaw (6'3, 230) at weak-side linebacker. As with Kiser, Bradshaw was primarily a special teams player a season ago, and hasn’t logged all that much time in the actual defense. Junior Mark Hall (6'2, 240) will likely round out the unit as the starting strong-side linebacker, and will be counted on to provide some of what Virginia lost in Valles. Hall is a utility guy, with the ability to play all three linebacker positions, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see him lining up all over the field in game one. The other linebackers who could see time are freshman C.J. Stalker (6'2, 225), Dominic Sheppard (6'2, 225), and former safety sophomore Malcolm Cook (6'1, 210).
The secondary is led by budding sophomore star safety Quin Blanding (6'2, 215). Blanding led the country in tackles for a true freshman last season and showed great instincts for a young player. He is now expected to be a leader for the defense in just his second year in the program. Next to him, Virginia will break in a new starter in redshirt junior Kelvin Rainey (6'1, 200), who takes over for departed safety Anthony Harris. Rainey has drawn nice reviews so far through the offseason, but played mostly on special teams last year, so there isn’t much to draw from his play on the field. Behind the two of them, junior Will Wahee (5'10, 200) should see some time as well, after, again, playing mostly special teams a year ago.
The cornerbacks are led by senior Maurice Canady (6'0, 185), one of the top corners in the entire ACC. Canady totaled three interceptions last season along with 12 pass break-ups. He’s not the most physical corner in the world, but he makes up for it with very good athleticism, good length, and great ball skills. On the other side, Virginia returns a part-time starter in junior Tim Harris (6'2, 200), who started five games last season. He was still really learning how to play the game at the college level last year and had some mis-steps, but he has an elite combination of size and speed, and the hope for Virginia is that the light has turned on for him in the offseason. There is some depth behind those two as well, with one-time starter Demetrious Nicholson (5'11, 185), who missed most of last season with turf toe, returning for his final campaign. Junior Divante Walker (5'10, 175), who played in ten games last season, will round out the rotation.
UCLA’s offense is one of the most experienced units in the country, with experienced talent at every position…except one. That position, quarterback, just so happens to be the most important on the field, and it’s the one where UCLA felt the biggest loss from a season ago. Gone is Brett Hundley and his 40 career starts, and in is Josh Rosen, who’s among the most heralded and hyped incoming freshmen in recent memory.
Rosen won the starting job after an excellent performance in spring practices and a good-enough showing in fall camp, while showing flashes of upside that gave coaches a glimpse of what Rosen’s potential is in both the short and long term. He is much more of a pocket-oriented passer than Hundley was, but he isn’t a pure statue. He has great feet which gives him excellent pocket mobility and he has the ability to get out and run. Where he stands out the most is in his advanced feel for the game and great arm. From what we’ve seen and heard, he already knows the offense inside and out, and it’s just a matter of adjusting to the speed of the college game.
He’ll be given as much time as possible to adjust to that speed considering the quality of the offensive line he’ll have in front of him. Every player starting on the offensive line this season started at least one game last year, and in players like Jake Brendel (four-year starter), Caleb Benenoch (three-year starter), and Alex Redmond (three-year-starter), UCLA has a wealth of experience it hasn’t had in a very long time along the offensive front.
The group’s most talented player is redshirt junior offensive tackle Conor McDermott. McDermott was inserted into the starting lineup midway through the season last year and the effect was immediate. UCLA took far fewer sacks with McDermott as the starter at left tackle, as his length, strength, and excellent feet kept pass-rushers from getting a free shot at Brett Hundley at the deepest point of his drop. If anything, McDermott has gotten stronger in the offseason, and he seems poised for a huge year. On the opposite side, Benenoch is in the best shape of his UCLA career, looking almost like a left tackle himself. He has reformed his body, and he looked much more mobile in fall camp. A reasonable expectation is that Benenoch will be much better in pass protection this year and maintain his solid level of run-blocking ability.
Brendel is the steady man in the middle, and he should help to take a significant amount o pressure off of Rosen with his ability to make calls at the line of scrimmage. Brendel actually missed last season’s Virginia game with a slight knee injury, and that probably played a significant role in the issues the UCLA offense had in that game. Brendel got a little bit stronger in the offseason and had a very nice camp. Redmond, who didn’t have a great year last season, looked much better this offseason. The big thing for him will be to play under control, as he can at times let his emotions get the best of him. Kenny Lacy is the new-ish starter, but he was arguably UCLA’s best guard a season ago, and looked very good in his few games in the middle of the year. He is a good athlete, and has improved his strength since last year.
All told, it’s UCLA’s best offensive line in quite some time, and should be good both in the run game and in protecting Rosen.
At running back, UCLA returns Paul Perkins, the Pac-12’s leading rusher from a year ago, and he looks just as good now as he did last year, while carrying a little bit more weight to help compensate for carrying the ball hundreds of times per year. Nate Starks is his primary backup, and he reformed his body as well this offseason, dropping perhaps five or ten pounds but looking much slimmer and more explosive. Behind those two, Sotonye Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi, the true freshmen, both look like they’ll get some time this season. We really liked what we saw out of the unheralded Olorunfunmi, who barrels through a defense like he’s a bowling ball. Steven Manfro could also make it back by this week, according to Jim Mora, after sitting out most of fall camp.
The receiving corps is also talented, but the biggest thing that stands out here is the depth. UCLA lost just one rotational receiver from last year in Devin Lucien, and added some talented pieces both in terms of players who redshirted last season and true freshmen. The unit is led by Jordan Payton, who was the leading receiver a year ago and is a very good possession receiver. Mossi Johnson may contend with him this year in terms of reception totals, though. The slot receiver has already become a favored target of Rosen’s, at least from what we saw during fall camp, and he has a natural ability to get open with his quickness and route-running ability. The other two starters will be Thomas Duarte at the Y position and Eldridge Massington at the other outside receiver position. Both are big guys who can make tough catches even when covered. There are an easy six or seven more receivers who could factors into the rotation, including Kenny Walker (who provides a significant amount of speed on the outside), true freshman Stephen Johnson (who provides a significant amount of speed on the inside), Alex Van Dyke (who provides a great deal of size), Austin Roberts (who has an interesting combination of size and speed), and Devin Fuller, who was once a starter in the slot but moved to the outside after being supplanted by Mossi Johnson.
The point is, it’s a very deep group of receivers, and as a collective, they should be able to provide Rosen a good amount of outlets. When you factor in that true freshman tight end Chris Clark and redshirt junior fullback Nate Iese both are big targets who could cause mismatches in the redzone, there is a lot to like about the potential of this offense.
But so much rests on Rosen. If he can be competent enough, this offense could do some big things this year, but if he finds himself prone to freshman mistakes, the supporting cast can only help him so much.
We’ll give it to the Bruins because of the overall level of experience compared to the question marks in the middle of Virginia’s defense, but it’s a somewhat close call. Virginia and Tenuta really did a number on UCLA’s offense and Noel Mazzone last year, and though those were two very different teams at that point of the season, there are still some concerns schematically (e.g. how UCLA will deal with a good amount of blitzing when most of the offense is predicated on three and four-wide receiver looks).
That said, UCLA’s offensive line is much stronger and more settled than it was a year ago. Scott Quessenberry had to start at center and Najee Toran, who’s currently a reserve defensive lineman, had to start at offensive guard as a true freshman in that game. Naturally, the Bruins didn’t deal well with any of Virginia’s pressure. Also, UCLA’s offensive staff should have a better idea coming into the game that Virginia is going to blitz a lot of the time. After all, UCLA has a freshman quarterback, and any defensive coordinator would be silly to use a passive game plan against a freshman quarterback.
We think UCLA will likely play fairly conservatively on offense. We’d expect, with a freshman quarterback, most of the passing game will be designed around shorter passes, including receiver screens, swing passes, and the occasional slant. Paul Perkins will also likely see a steady diet of carries behind what UCLA is probably figuring is going to be a dominant run-blocking offensive line.
Virginia will blitz a ton, though, and much will come down to how prepared UCLA is for it and how able Rosen is to withstand it. If he can keep cool under pressure and hit quick outlets, that could go a long way toward turning this game into a comfortable victory, while also perhaps giving future opponents reason to rethink a strategy of all-out blitzing against the freshman.
UCLA’s kicking game would best be described as mediocre. Matt Mengel and Adam Searl both punted quite a bit in fall camp, and we didn’t see either emerge as a really great candidate to start. Both have the ability to hit big kicks, but both have a worrying tendency to shank a high percentage of their kicks. Critical punting situations this season could be an adventure.
Field-goal kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn is much the same as he’s been for the last three years. He’s relatively good from 40 and in, and an adventure on deeper kicks. He’s not completely automatic on the shorter stuff, but he’s good enough. UCLA seemed to manage him a little better this fall camp, and judging by the kicks they tried, we don’t think the Bruins will be attempting too much 48+ yard kicks this season.
The return game is interesting. Ishmael Adams has been the primary returner for the last two years, but even prior to his suspension, he looked as if he had been supplanted at kick returner by a combination of Mossi Johnson and Stephen Johnson, and at punt returner by Randall Goforth. The two Johnsons both looked good in practice, with Stephen Johnson a little bit more explosive, and Goforth is also a very good punt returner. UCLA has plenty of good options at the returner spots, so hopefully the loss of Adams isn’t felt too much. UCLA’s kick return coverage has been generally excellent under Jim Mora, and the expectation is that the Bruins will be good once again in 2015.
On the Virginia side, junior Nicholas Conte (6'3, 225) won the starting punter competition. He’s a redshirt junior, but he hasn’t kicked a live punt since high school, so it’s hard to gauge how good he’ll be. Junior Ian Frye (6'6, 215) is a solid enough college kicker, making 22 of 27 last season with a long of 47, but he was automatic from 45 and in. He’s a surprisingly huge kicker (most of the time, these guys are former soccer players and more in the 5’8 to 6’0 range). He also handled kickoff duties.
The main returner for Virginia is expected to be Mizzell, who has the potential to be an explosive playmaker on special teams with his speed. He averaged 23.1 yards per kickoff return last year, including a long of 39. The year before he had a long of 48.
Last year, UCLA was stunned in the opener by Virginia. The Bruins won, but had their confidence shaken after a 28-20 escape in Charlottesville. The offense looked terrible, and it was only through some timely defensive play in the second quarter that the Bruins even made it out with a victory.
It’s a different team this year, though. UCLA is much more settled along the offensive front, which should help to mitigate the effects of Virginia’s pressure. There were many times last year where UCLA was confused by relatively simple stunts on the interior, and with Brendel starting the game this year, it’s hard to imagine UCLA being as confused.
Defensively, we’d expect UCLA to be able to mostly shut down Virginia’s offense. The Bruins are more talented, and Tom Bradley has shown us enough in spring and fall camp to make us believe that he’ll have an effective game plan in place to deal with Virginia’s new running attack. What we’ll be focusing on is the pressure, and whether UCLA is able to get a credible pass rush. Last year, the Bruins couldn’t effectively pressure the Virginia quarterbacks, and that proved to be an ill omen for the rest of the season.
Really, this game will come down to Rosen in many ways, and how ready he is to lead a college offense against what should be a comfortably top-50 defense. This will be Rosen’s first time in a college game, and he’ll get his feet wet against a top defensive coordinator who will likely attempt to confuse and disrupt him in any way possible. If he can keep his head, there should be opportunities in the passing game, but it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll respond in game one to the sort of pressure he’s likely to face.
This year is going to be harder than others to predict game scores, since Rosen is an unknown quantity at this level. It’s hard to gauge how he’ll deal with all of the different things that’ll be thrown at him this year, and how UCLA’s coaches will compensate in terms of tempo and game plan.
For this game, we think UCLA will start relatively slow, with a pretty conservative offensive game plan, and that Virginia might hit a few big plays early to keep the score relatively close at half-time. In the second half, after diagnosing a little of what Virginia is doing defensively, we’ll guess that UCLA gives Rosen a little more time to throw, he starts to get in a rhythm, and the Bruins eventually get a comfortable lead. We wouldn’t expect fireworks in game one, but we think the end result should be a more than solid start to the Rosen era in Westwood.