Facts and Factors
• UCLA travels to Provo (Utah) to take on BYU Saturday at 7:15 PST. The game will be televised on ESPN2, with the action being called by announcers Allen Bestwick, Mike Bellotti and Kris Budden.
• UCLA is 1-1, losing an overtime game against Texas A&M in College Station, and then last week beating UNLV at the Rose Bowl.
• UCLA started the season ranked #16/#24, and then fell out of the polls last week after the loss to A&M.
• BYU is 1-1, beating Arizona in its first week, 18-16, and then losing at in-state rival Utah last week, 20-19.
• It will be the 12th meeting for UCLA and BYU in football, with the Bruins leading the series, 8-3. The last meeting was a year ago, when UCLA won 24-23 on a comeback effort at the Rose Bowl behind Paul Perkins' 219 rushing yards.
• The last time UCLA played BYU in Provo was disastrous. In 2008, the Bruins were destroyed by the Cougars, 59-0. It was UCLA's worse loss since 1929. It was the second game of the Rick Neuheisel era at UCLA, coming off a overtime win against Tennessee the week before and then setting the table for Neuheisel's Bruins to go 4-8 that season. It is considered one of the most devastating defeats for UCLA in its modern football era.
• UCLA has won 15 of its last 18 non-conference games. It had a streak of 11 straight wins snapped last season when it lost to Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl. UCLA had won all 12 regular season non-conference games under Jim Mora before losing to Texas A&M.
• BYU is 72-123-6 against Pac-12 schools all-time.
• BYU is led by first-year head coach Kalani Sitake (40). Sitake had spent the 2015 season as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Oregon State, and previous to that spent six seasons at Utah as linebacker coach and defensive coordinator. It's his first head coaching post of his career, replacing Bronco Mendenhall, who took the head-coaching job at Virginia in the off-season. Sitake is a graduate of BYU, played as a fullback under long-time BYU coach LaVell Edwards, and is the first Tongan to be a college head football coach, and was the first Tongan to be a college defensive coordinator when he was promoted at Utah. It's thought he inherited a BYU program from Mendenhall that was in very good shape, with talent and a good foundation for success. In Mendenhall's 11 seasons at BYU, he had five double-digit-win seasons, with three of those being 11 wins, a bowl appearance every year and not one losing season, so expectations are high among BYU fans for Sitake.
• UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen has moved up to 9th on the UCLA all-time passing yardage list with 4,278 career yards, moving ahead of Kevin Prince by one yard. Still ahead of him are Bretty Hundley, Cade McNown, Drew Olson, Tom Ramsey, Cory Paus, Troy Aikman, Tommy Maddox and Wayne Cook.
• UCLA has dominated the fourth quarter in its first two games. They outscored Texas A&M and UNLV 29-0. The time of possession is UCLA 23:12 to 6:51 for A&M/BYU. Fourth-quarter third-down conversions: UCLA 4 for 6, A&M/BYU 0 for 8.
• Defensive tackle Eli Ankou led the team with a career-best eight tackles against UNLV. Ankou has 14 tackles in the first two games and is tied with linebackers Jayon Brown and Kenny Young for the team lead.
• Since 2011, BYU is an independent, not affiliated with any college football conference. It's schedule includes three games against foes from the Pac-12, with six games total against Power 5 opponents.
• BYU plays its home games at LaVell Edwards Stadium, named after the man who coached at BYU for 29 seasons (1972-2000). The stadium seats 63,740, and uses natural grass. It's at an elevation of 4,649 feet above sea level.
• BYU's best season in its history (which dates back to 1922) was 1984 when, under Edwards, the Cougars went 13-0 and won the national championship.
• Saturday's weather forecast for Provo calls for a high of 77 degrees, with a game time temperature in the mid-60s.
UCLA's Offense vs. BYU's Defense
For the first time in recent memory, BYU has a new coach, with Bronco Mendenhall moving on to Virginia and Kalani Sitake stepping in as the new head coach in Provo. Sitake, the former defensive coordinator at Utah and then at Oregon State, has seen his star rise quite a bit over the last few years, as he put together excellent defenses in his last two years at Utah before helping take over the rebuild in Corvallis last season. He's never been a head coach before, but the expectation is that, with his recruiting and defensive acumen, he should be able to build a strong program in Provo.
The question is whether that's going to start in earnest this year. This BYU team is, through two games, obviously not one of the top tier teams from years past. Though the low scores in the last two games might give you the indication that BYU's defense has been excellent, it really hasn't -- the Cougars are giving up a very mediocre 5.5 yards per play overall and 4.2 yards per rush attempt. Both are middle-of-the-pack numbers at best, and those two results came against what are turning out to be mediocre offensive teams in Utah and Arizona.
In addition to being worse against the run, the defense has also not been as disruptive as last year, recording just four sacks through two games after totaling 40 during the season last year. So, if you're thinking this is the same team that really stymied UCLA's offense last year, it really is not.
A big reason why the defense has dropped off a bit is the change in personnel on the defensive line, particularly at end. Bronson Kaufusi was probably BYU's best defensive player a year ago, but he's now in the NFL. In his place, junior Tomasi Laulile (6'4, 288) and sophomore Moses Kaumatule (6'2, 280) are trying to replace some of his production, but they're not the same caliber of players. Additionally, somewhat like UCLA, the Cougars are moving to more of a 4-3 from a 3-4, and that has required some adjustments of personnel. The other end spot is manned by the seemingly ageless senior Harvey Langi (6'3, 252), who's going to be 24 years old later this month. Langi started his career at Utah many moons ago as a running back, but has found his place at BYU as effectively a rush end.
The strength of the defensive line has shifted inward, with the two tackles, sophomore Merrill Taliauli (6'2, 305) and senior Logan Taele (6'2, 299) looking solid enough on the interior through two games. This isn't a very strong defensive line, though, and Utah's offensive line (admittedly a pretty darn good one) was able to get a consistent push on the BYU front.
As you move back through the defense, it starts to look more talented. At linebacker, the Cougars start a physical group, with junior Fred Warner (6'4, 230) and sophomore Francis Bernard (6'1, 240) at outside linebacker, and then sophomore Butch Pauu (6'0, 223) at middle linebacker. The three leading tacklers on the team are those three starting linebackers, with Langi, who's effectively a hybrid, coming in fourth, which is usually a sign of good, disciplined linebacker play (when you see a team with a bunch of safeties leading the team in tackles, that's usually a concern). Bernard, for his part, is pretty good in coverage, and we'd imagine UCLA's tight ends will see a lot of him.
The secondary has been a strength of the defense, but this is where it gets sticky for BYU. Arguably BYU's best defensive player, senior safety Kai Nacua (6'2, 215), was called for targeting in the second half of last week's game against Utah and will sit out the first half against UCLA. Losing Nacua for any length of time is a significant issue for the Cougars. Behind him, either junior Matt Hadley (6'0, 205) or senior Eric Takenaka (5'10, 210) will get the start, but it's a pretty big drop-off regardless. Nacua already has three interceptions this season.
In addition to that, BYU was without freshman starting cornerback Troy Warner (6'1, 195) last week due to an undisclosed injury, and there's no word on whether he'll be available on Saturday either. If he's unable to go, there's a pretty good chance that fellow true freshman Dayan Lake (5'11, 200) will start, especially because yet another BYU defensive back, freshman corner Austin McChesney (6'1, 190), was also called for targeting in the second half against Utah and will sit the first half on Saturday. For a little stability, junior Micah Hannemann (6'0, 205) will start at safety, as he has through the first two games, and he's another solid player in that secondary.
UCLA's offense scuffled a little bit in game one against Texas A&M in the face of the Aggies' vaunted pass rush, but last week against UNLV, the offense put together a pretty nice performance. Kennedy Polamalu made some very solid adjustments based on what worked and didn't work against the Aggies, moving the Bruins to much more of a shotgun look to start the game, and then also working in a variety of screens to keep the defense on its heels a bit more. It worked against UNLV, which is good, and now we'll get to see what kinds of adjustments he has for progressively more talented defenses.
Josh Rosen rebounded from a subpar opening game in College Station and looked decidedly more comfortable last week against UNLV. He hasn't had a truly Rosen-esque game yet, but given that BYU's pass rush is pretty average and the Cougars' secondary is fairly depleted, this could be a game for him to open things up a bit.
UCLA's running game has been very good so far, and as we suspected coming out of fall camp, the Bruins really go four or five deep with talented running backs. Last week against UNLV, true freshmen Brandon Stephens and Jalen Starks both looked the part of talented Pac-12 level starters, and they're third and fourth-string respectively.
If there are major concerns remaining, they are on the offensive line and at receiver. The offensive line protected well enough against a bad UNLV pass rush, but even against the Rebels, the Bruins weren't able to generate much of a rushing attack between the tackles. That's a definite concern, but there's little UCLA can do to adjust its interior offensive line at this point -- there just aren't great options. At receiver, it's still to be determined whether UCLA has a go-to receiver, but the biggest issue is that the Bruins can't even find someone who can consistently catch the ball. UCLA has had at least five drops in each of the first two games, with culprits throughout the receiving corps. Jordan Lasley showed signs of emerging in this last game, though, so that was encouraging to see. We'd expect we'll see more of talented freshman receiver Theo Howard, who had his first action last week, catching one ball, as the UCLA coaches continue to get him up to speed.
We always think of BYU defenses as big, tough, and physical, but we're having a hard time seeing this one as particularly good. Last year's unit was solid, and it rushed the passer particularly well, but this one seems decidedly more average in that department. The only reason that game with Utah was even very close was due to a wild amount of unforced errors by the Utes. In the first half, Utah moved the ball pretty darn well, but turned it over on fumbles or interceptions an astounding four times.
UCLA's offense, on the other hand, looks like it's going to be pretty good -- maybe not an elite unit, due to the issues on the offensive line and at receiver, but the early returns on Polamalu are good, and Rosen and the running backs give UCLA some weapons. It's hard to judge too much yet, especially when one of the data points is against a UNLV defense that lacks talent, but we're relatively optimistic.
The Bruins should be able to hit some deep throws against this BYU secondary in the first half. UCLA has shown a willingness to do that, but so far, Rosen hasn't been able to connect. Looking at it, UCLA could take multiple shots in the first half -- without Nacua, and with the youth at corner, there's some obvious weakness there.
Running the ball might be a bit more difficult. BYU's linebackers are pretty good, and until we see otherwise, we're going to assume UCLA's interior offensive line won't get much of a push up the middle. Still, though it might sound counter-intuitive, UCLA's best bet is probably to run right at this defense -- the Cougar linebackers are pretty good in pursuit sideline to sideline.
Sitake absolutely could have something up his sleeve for UCLA -- he's familiar with the Bruins after going against them as a coordinator each of the last few years, and he famously coordinated the Utes to a 10-sack game of UCLA in 2014. Still, with the lack of speed and overall talent on the defensive line for BYU, it's hard to see the Cougars winning this end of the matchup.
BYU's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense
BYU's offense has undergone a pretty significant scheme change from the last few years, scrapping the up-tempo, spread-heavy look that it had been favoring under the latter years of Bronco Mendenhall and installing much more of a pro-style, slow-down scheme under new offensive coordinator Ty Detmer. The results, thus far, have been mediocre at best.
The Cougars are averaging just 5.1 yards per play, and a truly disastrous 5.6 yards per pass attempt. BYU has been better on the ground, with a robust 4.8 yards per carry, but the lack of any kind of passing attack has left the Cougars incredibly one-dimensional.
Perhaps the biggest question from the first two games is this: did BYU select the right quarterback to run its system? Sixth-year quarterback Taysom Hill (6'2, 235) has certainly been one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the country over the many, many years he's been playing, but he very much looks like he's regressed badly as a passer, and also looks a step slower as a runner through two games. He has thrown just one touchdown against three interceptions through two games, while completing just 61% of his passes in a scheme designed around short, makable passes. While he's certainly added something in the run game with 124 yards on 24 carries for two touchdowns, it really doesn't appear that it's offsetting his issues in the pass game.
BYU does have another option at quarterback -- sophomore Tanner Mangum (6'3, 215). Mangum filled in for Hill last year and was probably one of the brightest spots of the 2015 season for the Cougars. He's much more of a pass-first quarterback, but given the changes Detmer has made, where the scheme seems built much more around the quarterback passing the ball than a whole lot of zone read, Mangum might make a good deal more sense. If we had to guess at this point, we think Mangum is eventually going to replace Hill this year -- and the question is really when it's going to happen.
The Cougars have been solid on the ground, though, and it hasn't just been due to Hill's contributions. Senior running back Jamaal Williams (6'2, 220) has been very solid through the first two games, averaging 5.4 yards per carry on 41 carries. Against Utah, though, he had to sit out the game's final two drives due to a lower leg contusion. He tweeted out after the game that he'd be fine for UCLA, but there's some concern that he might not be at 100%. If he isn't, it's really anyone's guess who will get the lion's share of the carries -- the remaining three backs in the rotation have a combined 9 carries between them. Sophomore and all-name team member Squally Canada (5'11, 205) would likely be the backup, but he has just three carries this year.
The receiving corps has some big guys who can cause some matchup issues for teams, but unlike last year, the two starters are more reasonably sized, with senior Mitchell Juergens (5'10, 184) and junior Jonah Trinnaman (6'0, 190) leading the team in catches. In the main rotation, BYU also has senior Nick Kurtz (6'6, 215) and sophomore Moroni Laulu-Pututau (6'4, 220) and both are tight end size and can make tough catches. At tight end, both sophomore Tanner Balderee (6'3, 250) and sophomore Hunter Marshall (6'3, 242) should see a good deal of time, especially with BYU going to more pro sets.
The offensive line is old and pretty experienced, with the group starting three juniors and two seniors. The mainstay is junior center Tejan Koroma (6'0, 295), who has started each of the past two seasons for the Cougars and gives them continuity up front. BYU took in a couple of transfers from Southern Utah who will likely start in this game after starting the previous two as well, with senior Andrew Eide (6'5, 301) starting at left tackle and junior Keyan Norman (6'3, 305) starting at left guard. Both have plenty of starting experience at Southern Utah, and there's some continuity on that side because they've played alongside each other before. Filling out the group is junior Tuni Kanuch (6'3, 330) at right guard and junior Ului Lapuaho (6'7, 335) at right tackle. Lapauho actually started at left guard last season but moved to tackle during fall camp.
UCLA's defense has not been good through the first two games. Without defensive end Takkarist McKinley, who was hurt in the first quarter of the opener against Texas A&M, the Bruins have been without any sort of pass rush at all. UCLA has recorded just one sack this season, and the Bruins are one of the least disruptive defenses in all of college football so far in the young season. So, that's one issue.
On top of that, UCLA's run defense has been very poor against what were two sub-par rushing attacks last season. The Bruins have allowed five yards per carry in each of the two games. Against Texas A&M, many of the big runs came on the outside, but, worryingly, against UNLV, the Rebels were able to run inside to an increasing degree against the Bruins. UCLA defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes went down with a right knee injury against the Rebels, which hampered UCLA's ability to stop the run, but against that sort of team, the Bruins should have been to able to stifle the run with mostly second-stringers.
The hope is that McKinley and Vanderdoes will both be back after practicing on Wednesday of this week. If they are, you can probably expect an uptick in both UCLA's pass rush and run defense, but much will depend on how many snaps each is able to play. If they don't play, it's hard to imagine UCLA suddenly turning to a more attacking style of defense, but we'd probably advocate that.
Linebacker play has been somewhat spotty as well. At middle linebacker, Kenny Young has improved since last year, but still looks a little tentative at times, especially on runs coming up the middle. He has been much better in pursuit sideline to sideline though, and that's been encouraging. Josh Woods started at outside linebacker over Cameron Judge against UNLV, for reason undisclosed, and it remains to be seen if he'll start again this week. Jayon Brown, who emerged last year as one of UCLA's best defenders, has had a somewhat quiet start to the season.
The defensive backfield has been the strength of the team so far. At corner, UCLA has its best tandem of cornerbacks in recent memory with Fabian Moreau and Nathan Meadors. Both have been good to start the season, but Moreau has clearly taken his game to another level. Safety play hasn't been quite at that elite level, but the Bruins have been pretty solid. Jaleel Wadood also sat out this last game for reasons undisclosed, but he's expected to play this weekend.
Look, neither of these units is particularly good, so this is requiring a good deal of projection on our part. The biggest issue we have with UCLA's defense is its inability to stop the run, and if there's a strength of this BYU offense with Hill at the helm, it's the Cougars' ability to run the ball. We don't expect that BYU will be able to generate a whole lot in the passing game, but, going on the UNLV and Texas A&M games, we fully expect the Cougars to be able to rattle off five yards per carry with relative ease.
If McKinley is truly able to play and is healthy enough to make an impact, that could turn the tide a little bit. Hill might have lost a step, but he's still a heck of a lot faster than anyone UCLA has played at defensive end in McKinley's absence, so if he can hit a few runs to the outside, it could be tough for a McKinley-less UCLA to handle. Conversely, if Vanderdoes is unable to play or make a significant impact, the interior of UCLA's defense suddenly looks weak enough that you could see BYU's strength on the interior opening some interior running lanes for Hill and Williams.
Again, UCLA should be able to shut down a Hill-led passing attack, but until we see a fully healthy McKinley and Vanderdoes on the field, we're going to be skeptical of UCLA's ability to stop any team's rushing attack.
Like UCLA, BYU is starting a true freshman at kicker in Jake Oldroyd (6'1, 170). Oldroyd is 100% on his field goals this year. At punter, BYU starts senior Jonny Linehan (6'0, 203), who's a very solid punter. He's averaging 42.5 yards per punt this year on 11 kicks with three downed inside the 20. The returners are senior Garrett Juergens (5'10, 187) and junior Matt Hadley (6'0, 205), both of whom have been unspectacular this season.
UCLA couldn't have had a better start to the season in terms of its true freshman specialists. J.J. Molson has missed a field goal and kicked one kickoff out of bounds, but he has looked nowhere near as shaky as, say, Ka'imi Fairbairn looked as a true freshman. You have to be high on Molson through two games. At punter, UCLA finally has some stability with freshman Austin Kent, who has been consistently very good through the two games.
In the return game, Ishmael Adams looked considerably better against UNLV than he did against Texas A&M, so he might have found his feet again, so to speak. We could see him breaking a big one in this game, because he looked decidedly more comfortable last week with the ball in his hands.
So, this is a tough one for us. We predicted a loss for UCLA in the preseason, not really knowing how either team was going to look, and both teams have looked worse than we expected. UCLA's defense has been significantly worse than we expected, but BYU's entire team has looked worse as well. The Cougars don't appear to be a good fit personnel-wise for the offense they're running, and their defense looks like it's not going to be nearly as disruptive or stout as it was a year ago.
The Bruins should be able to move the ball against BYU. The more we've reconsidered the first two games of the season, the more we're pretty pleased, overall, with UCLA's new offensive scheme. The issues have been primarily dropped balls from the receivers, some poor run blocking on the interior of the offensive line, and some slightly shaky play, at times, from Rosen. Even still, UCLA has moved the ball pretty well, so if Rosen is able to put together some very good performances going forward, we could see a significant uptick in offensive output. That could absolutely start this week against a not great BYU defense.
On the other side, we also think BYU can run the ball on the Bruins because, at this point, we'd believe any team can. BYU's rushing attack is pretty potent in its own right though, and the Bruins haven't shown the ability to handle any kind of running attack well to this point. That said, BYU can't throw the ball at all with Hill at quarterback. UCLA should overcommit guys to the box, press the receivers, and force Hill to throw the ball more than 15 yards downfield. He is incapable of doing so, and that could lead to several interceptions for the Bruins.
Will UCLA do that? We have our doubts. The Bruins haven't shown a tremendous desire to get aggressive in these sorts of situations before. BYU could also make a change at quarterback and bring in Mangum, who is much more of a threat to pass the ball, and that could change the dynamics of the game as well. So, there's that to consider.
We've gone back and forth on this one a lot this week. UCLA is the far more talented team, and BYU has looked like a rebuilding team this year, but playing in Provo is no joke, and we can't reiterate enough how discouraged we've been by the Bruin defense through two games. Ultimately, we think a Hill-led BYU is one-dimensional enough that UCLA can get enough stops defensively to pull out the victory -- but if Mangum ends up playing most of this game, all bets are off.