We hear: The play calling is too conservative. The schemes are too vanilla. They team has talent (but the offensive line is sub-par). The defense is great (but the back seven play too soft). We hear: This is supposed to make us forget UCLA football under Bob Toledo?
Can you hear the drums? And this after just one week of the season.
The Bruins play a Fighting Illini squad that I consider pretty dangerous, which is a decidedly minority position.
It all starts with Illinois Head Coach Ron Turner, one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. The Illini finished 2002 statistically as the 9th best O in CFB, and they've picked up where they left off: They are averaging 436 yards/game and a little over 6 yards per play after two games. It is not surprising to learn that there are seven OL in the NFL from the seven years of Turner's reign at Illinois.
The Illini run multiple formations on O in equal measure. They will both run or throw out of the ‘gun, they'll run I formation and they'll use a single back.
The Illini lost to Brad Smith and Missouri in their first game, 22-15, but dominated the statistical battle: they outgained MO 411 to 223, they ran 20 more plays, they completed almost 70% of their passes, they held the ball for almost 6 minutes more, and they won 3rd down (50% conversion rate compared to 38% for MO). But they stalled in the red zone, they dropped some crucial passes, and their punter fumbled a punt on the 2 yard line, tried to run and then was tackled, presenting a gift TD to MO.
On O, the trigger man is QB Jon Beutjer, 6-5 and 210, with very good mobility and the ability to make every throw. After two games, he is 47 of 67 (70%) for 491 yards, 5 TDs and only 1 INT. Four of the TDs came against Illinois State, but only 207 of the yards. Beutjer specializes in spreading the ball around
Beutjer's primary targets are WRs Kelvin Hayden (6 for 69 and 2 TDs), true FR Lonnie Hurst (6 for 106 and 1 TD) and Mark Kornfeld (5 for 91 and 1 TD). Hurst is the first true FR to start the first game of a season for Turner.
TE Anthony McClellan looks like a great athlete, but has had trouble catching the ball. And when your team completes 70% of its passes, dropping the ball will earn you pine time. So RS FR Melvin Bryant (6-5, 220) has been factored in at TE: 2 catches so far this year.
Beutjer also gets the ball to his backs: FB Carey Davis (who is out for the UCLA game) has 10 catches (all in the MO game) for 66 yds, and Ibrahim Halsey (EB to his friends) has 9 catches for 51 yards.
Speaking of the RBs…Morris Virgil and E.B. Halsey lead the charge for an O that is averaging over 200 rushing yards a game. Halsey is averaging over 100 yards a game rushing.
The story on D for Illinois isn't as sparkling. They gave up 511 yards to Illinois State, as they jumped to an early lead and cruised home. The best defensive player for IL is DE Derek Strong, who at 6-4 and 245 is a Jevon Kearse clone.
UCLA doesn't have as rosy a story to tell after a disappointing loss. But anyone who saw Notre Dame last year can recognize the strategy Karl Dorrell is trying to implement to win FB games: tough, opportunistic D + conservative, turnover-free O + great special teams = winning FB.
Failing to produce turnovers on D and committing ill-timed penalties obviously thwart this formula from being realized. But this was essentially the script for the victory over New Mexico, for those who can remember that far back.
My Fear is that we'll see more of the same: blasts up the middle by Tyler Ebell on 1st down against a D that stacks 9 in the box and guesses right with its slant/stunt calls, no carries for Maurice Drew or Manuel White, and a run-run-pass play-calling rhythm. Dorrell has indicated that he feels the answer is to ratchet back the running game, and to perfect a smaller set of plays rather than expand the number of things he asks his Bruins to do. What would your defensive game plan entail?
I'd love to see UCLA use a toss sweep or two to get the edge, run some draws/leads from the shotgun formation, run a few more traps, incorporate a reverse to a FL (again, to misdirect the D and get outside), throw 70% of the time on 1st down and then run, and ultimately run for 200+ yards.
I expect to see UCLA, yes, run between the tackles the majority of the time, but also to run the "stretch" play (which Tyler and Mo have the option to bounce outside), to make more use of the draw play on 1st or 2nd down, and to give the ball to the FBs via traps and dives. A nice distribution of carries would see Ebell get 15 carries, White 10 carries, Drew 10 carries, and another back like J.D. Groves get 2 or so carries. Bottom line, if UCLA can avoid LDE Derek Strong, even though Ed Blanton had a very good first game against Colorado, UCLA should be able to rush for 100+ yards. Don't expect new running plays to be showcased this week.
My fear is that UCLA will put Drew Olson into difficult 3rd and long situations so often that eventually a major mistake will be made: pick for TD, devastating hit, etc. Also that Drew's slightly less powerful arm will keep UCLA from exploiting the opportunities to go deep, especially the ones that develop as Drew moves around to avoid the rush.
I'd love to see the bread-n-butter "Marcedes Lewis up the seam" route stay open for a few more weeks, at least, just because it is so much fun to see completed! But Illinois will probably bracket Lewis everywhere he goes. I'd also love to see UCLA handle IL's inevitable attempts to blitz Olson. CU only blitzed Olson one time last week, and the DO immediately made them pay when he hit Blane Kezirian on a hot route, a great read by both Drew and Blane. However, after years of watching UCLA get killed by pressure, I'm not quite confident that our guys are prepared to handle this play after play. The Bruins have been much better throwing the ball in the ‘green zone' in practice than in years past, a trend I'd love see continued. And there were four times UCLA WRs were behind CU's DB for TDs if only 1) the pass was on the money or 2) the WR had caught the ball. I'd love to see UCLA connect on some of those this game.
I expect to see UCLA display more of its full passing attack in Game 2. The staples will be slants and outs to the WRs (5 times each), hitting the TE or FB in the flat off the waggle, checking down to the RB or swinging it out to them at least 5 times. But the big plays will be off play action: post passes, corners or drags across the field. Otherwise, why run the ball so much between the tackles? I expect Drew Olson to finish the game and throw for more than 300 yards, with Craig Bragg and Marc Lewis having big days. Drew will spread it around, and avoid picks and sacks. The passing O is more varied and sophisticated than the running game, so hopefully UCLA will utilize the strengths of its system.
My fear is that UCLA will use a conventional "7 in the box" front with the ILBs set 5 yards deep or so, which will keep the ILBs from stepping up and tackling Illinois' shifty, MoD-like RBs for 2 yard or less gains. If FS Ben Emanuel doesn't cheat up and provide an 8th in the box on running plays, and the DL doesn't have a dominating performance, then the Illini could run for 150+ yards and eat up the clock.
I'd love to see, on the other hand, the DL dominate the game like they did v. CU. Illinois has a great OL, so it will be a good test for the all-SR DL of Dave Ball, Rod Leisle, Mat Ball and Ryan Boschetti. I'd also love to see Brandon Chillar have another dominant game, and for his running mate Justin London to join him, especially with Spencer Havner doubtful with a shoulder injury. Brandon Chillar is a real treat to watch, he's probably the best we'll see play LB at UCLA for a while. Most importantly, I'd love to see the Bruins' DBs shed blocks better. If the Bruins deliver huge hits and intimidate the RBs/WRs of IL, they can hold Halsey/Virgil to less than 90 yards for the game.
I expect to see, realistically, UCLA give up about 120 yards rushing to IL because of their offensive balance (ie, threat of passing game).
My fear is that Illinois will kill UCLA with passes underneath UCLA's zone and ample cushion, UCLA won't adapt and switch to man coverage, and even when they do, Ron Turner will adjust and burn UCLA with drags and fades. Beutjer is so accurate and releases the ball on time so that UCLA gets no INTs, and so smooth/quick that UCLA gets no sacks, racking up a 70%+ completion rate in the process, and throwing for 300+ yards and some TDs. 3rd and 4, 8 yard cushion, 5 yard turn out…1st down.
I'd love to see UCLA shut down Beutjer et al. But they're too good, too well-coached and too talented to get shut down, and Turner's play calling is too good. Still, a guy can dream about 5+ sacks, 3+ picks, and less than 200 yds passing, no PI calls, draw 2+ holding calls, allow no bombs or deep posts to be completed, watch the CBs play aggressive press coverage but don't get burned, and UCLA hold IL to a 55% or less completion rate. Nickel back Nnamdi Ohaeri could be the key player of the game, especially with Havner doubtful. His ability to hit, cover, blitz and tackle could provide the flexibility UCLA needs to combat U of I's explosive O.
I expect to see, realistically, UCLA get 3 or 4 sacks (one on a nickel blitz), hold IL to less than 300 yards passing, give up no more than 2 TDs passing if that, get 1 or 2 INTs, and keep IL around a 60% completion rate.
My fear is that MoD will fumble a kick-off return, a skill Maurice is still mastering, but that it will cost UCLA dearly. And maybe that generally great and savvy Special Teams play v. CU was a mirage? Will UCLA be able to maintain their focus/passion for special teams' play this week?
For the first time ever, I'm looking forward to watching UCLA's special teams when they are on the field. I'd love to see Justin Medlock put his KOs into the end zone, but the damp air at night will probably thwart that, so the KO coverage better be good. I'd love to see MoD return a KO for a TD in his first game in the Rose Bowl, but what are the odds? Finally, I want to see a real blocked punt.
I expect to see UCLA continue its great punt coverage, Craig Bragg get another great return, Medlock make his 1st FG as a Bruin, and UCLA dominate the special teams game, because they're that good and have that much talent to put out there.
My fear is that Dorrell and UCLA continues to struggle with game management, IL out-schemes UCLA, the DO gets knocked out of the game early, and IL scrapes out a 35-31 win.
I'd love to see UCLA blow out the Illini, 42-21, and in the process, drop zero passes, commit less than 6 penalities for 50 yards, create 5+ turnovers and only give up 2 (+3 in turnover margin), convert on more than 50% of 3rd downs while holding IL to less than 40% conversion rate, make 3 big Special Team plays, and suffer no major injuries.
However, I'd be very happy with seeing UCLA commit fewer penalities (especially delay of game, which should be doable because the DO will be the #1 QB from play 1), have less than 2 dropped passes (but drop no super easy ones), have 2 or less '3-&-outs' on O but produce 5+ '3-&-outs' on D, only put the ball on the ground once, have a +3 in turnover margin, keep the DO healthy, and win 3rd down: better than 40% 3rd down conversion rate on O while keeping IL to less than 40% conversion rate.
All things considered, I expect UCLA to pull out a 31-17 win if the game goes according to plan. Jumping on Beutjer and IL early will be key to pulling out this win; if IL gets the lead and can work their plan, it could be a long night for UCLA.