-- UCLA travels to Champaign, Illinois, to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini Saturday at 9:00 a.m. PST. The game will be televised by ABC, with Terry Gannon and Jamaal Anderson the commentators.
-- UCLA lost to Oklahoma State last week in their home opener, 31-20. Illinois beat 1-AA Florida A&M, 52-13.
-- Last season UCLA beat Illinois at the Rose Bowl, 6-3.
-- UCLA has not been to Champaign since 1964, when Illinois beat the visiting Bruins, 26-7. It's also Illinois's last win in the series, with UCLA winning the last three matchups. The series is 5-5 overall between the Bruins and Illini.
-- Illinois is coached by Ron Turner, who is 33-49 in his eight years at Illinois and 40-53 overall. Turner earned Big Ten Coach of the year in 2001 when he led Illinois to the Big Ten championship and the Sugar Bowl. Since then Turner has gone 6-17, including a dismal 1-11 last season, which is generally viewed as getting him on the hot seat at Illinois. Turner is known as an innovative offensive coach.
-- In many pre-season publications, Illinois was picked to come in last in the Big Ten.
-- The time of kick-off, 9:00 a.m. PST, could be a factor. It's, of course, 9:00 a.m. for UCLA while it's 11:00 a.m. for Illinois. UCLA's coaches insist it won't be that big of a factor since UCLA's players have been getting up at 6:00 a.m. or so for all of fall camp. They practiced in the morning on Thursday before flying out of Los Angeles Thursday afternoon.
-- UCLA has lost six games in a row, with its last victory being against Arizona State in the Rose Bowl October 25, 2003. Last season UCLA went 1-5 on the road, with its only road win coming against 2-10 Arizona.
ILLINOIS'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Last week we pointed out how much of a deficit UCLA's injured from seven would be against Oklahoma State, and while we emphasized it, we still didn't foresee just how poorly UCLA would do against Oklahoma State's running game.
Just to re-iterate, and re-emphasize, UCLA has lost 5 of its starting front seven. As a result, it started six new starters against Oklahoma State, among them: a JC true soph defensive end; a redshirt freshman defensive end; a 5-11, walk-on defensive tackle; a true sophomore defensive tackle; and a JC transfer, third-string middle linebacker. Also getting significant time backing up that group was a true freshman defensive tackle, a redshirt freshman defensive end who is a converted fullback, a redshirt freshman defensive end that weighs 228 pounds, another redshirt freshman defensive tackle, and a former walk-on linebacker.
|Illinois running back E.B. Halsey (Getty).|
And then on top of that, UCLA's star linebacker, Spencer Havner, the only one among the front seven who had any significant playing time, tweaked his shoulder and sat out some of the first half.
This week the UCLA coaches were talking like so much had changed. They cited that these young players would be improved after getting their baptism by fire last week. They more importantly cited that UCLA will get back some of its injured to play in this game. Projected starting defensive end Kyle Morgan played last week against Oklahoma State, but just in limited action. He's expected to see more time. The situation is the same for star freshman defensive end Brigham Harwell. Star middle linebacker Justin London practiced this week, coming off his high ankle sprain from three weeks ago, and is expected to play, but it's undetermined how much. Also, senior offensive guard Eyoseph Efseaff, who is 6-3, 314, and one of the strongest players on the team, has made the switch to defensive tackle, after sitting out all of fall camp with a groin injury.
But we were fooled to a degree before the Oklahoma State game, but we won't get fooled again this week.
No matter how you spin it, the UCLA front seven are still in dire straits. While Morgan, London, and Harwell have recovered more from their injuries, in our opinion they're still hampered. It's still unknown just how big of a factor JC transfer Morgan would be, and after all, Harwell is just a freshman. London, who is a warrior, will make his best effort, but you can expect him not to be the aggressive, flying-around London we've known for the last two years. And Efseaff, who is coming off an injury, will only get his feet wet at defensive tackle, having never played the position before on the college level, and shouldn't have much of an impact.
Robert Garcia, the 5-11, walk-on defensive tackle, will probably still start at defensive tackle and get most of the reps. UCLA's defensive end reps will be taken up mostly by undersized redshirt freshman Bruce Davis, as well as sophomore Justin Hickman.
There will be an element contributing here that UCLA's coaches now have an idea of what hand they've been dealt in regards to the front seven, and you should see some improved use of personnel and alignments, but they can't do miracles with the players they have at their disposal.
Illinois doesn't have the power running game like Oklahoma State does, but you couldn't really say they're slouches. They did lose one of their senior starters, Bryan Koch, on the offensive line last week to a season- and possibly career-ending injury, but they overall returned four of five starters on their offensive line from a year ago. Replacing Koch at left guard will be a redshirt freshman (sound familiar?) Martin O'Donnell (6-5, 290), who many close to Illinois say is better than Koch anyway (spin sound familiar?).
Illinois might not have the same caliber of offensive line as Oklahoma State, and they probably don't have the same caliber at running back, but again, the Illini running backs are no slouches. Two sophomores, Pierre Thomas (5-11, 190) and E.B. Halsey (5-10, 200) combined for 222 yards and four touchdowns at the tailback position last week, and Halsey is considered a very good one.
|UCLA's Ben Emanuel and Justin London (Getty).|
UCLA knows this. But they knew last week that Oklahoma State was going to run on every play. So the question is, even though UCLA knows Illinois is going to run, can they stop them?
And the bigger question: What happens this week when UCLA faces a team that it doesn't know is going to run on every down?
Last week UCLA allowed 441 yards on the ground alone, with its defense knowing that the OSU offense was going to run on every down. This week it gets a little more mysterious with Illinois having a far more balanced attack.
Illinois, actually, throws the ball better than it runs it. Turner's offense is geared for the pass, and behind the wheel is sixth-year senior quarterback Jon Beutjer (6-5, 211). Beutjer is a solid to good quarterback, who certainly knows Turner's system inside and out. Last week, when they didn't have to pass much against Florida A&M, Beutjer went 16 of 18 for 228 yards and one touchdown.
Beutjer has blossoming junior Kendrick Jones (6-2, 180) as a target. Jones is a talented, quick receiver who the Illinois coaches have been waiting to live up to his potential. Senior Ade Adeyemo (6-0, 190) is also a solid wideout who you might remember from last year, being the guy who was injured when he ran into the wall at the Rose Bowl in the endzone.
UCLA's defense took another hit when starting strong safety Jarrad Page injured his heel last week and is expected to get limited minutes against Illinois. Page was a big factor last week when he was one of the last safety valves against the OSU runners in the open field, getting nine tackles on the day. UCLA has good depth at safety, with sophomore Eric McNeal pegged to step in for Page, but the loss of a fully healthy Page is another blow.
Advantage: Illinois. That's an easy call. Right now there probably isn't a Division 1-A school that you would say had an advantage over UCLA's defense, given the state of their injured list.
The question will be whether UCLA's coaches can manipulate the situation enough to keep Illinois guessing and also keep their offense off the field. UCLA should come out in some different defensive alignments, and use its personnel differently at times. If Justin London can be even close to his normal self it would be a significant boost for UCLA's D. If UCLA's offense can gain consistent yards with its running game it could keep Illinois's offense off the field.
But after last week, what you saw against Oklahoma State at home in the Rose Bowl, you'd have to think that the young and inexperienced players on the UCLA front seven are going to be a bit more disoriented on the road in a 70,000-seat stadium.
Illinois didn't have a great running game a year ago, and they're a bit improved, with a better offensive line. For an offense with a good passing game that is trying to establish a stronger running game, the UCLA defense is just what Illinois needs in its second week and its first look at a Division 1-A team.
It will probably feel a bit like last week against OSU but not near as extreme. The UCLA defense will hold Illinois here and there, but you'll be holding your breath for those big plays from the Illini where UCLA's inexperienced defense makes some mistakes. Expect Illinois to be able to move the ball fairly easily, relying on the run, and putting up a good amount of points.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ILLINOIS'S DEFENSE
Illinois had a pretty bad defense last season, allowing 425 yards total per game, 223 on the ground, and an average of 33 points per game.
So, in the off-season Turner went to his defensive coaches, showed them a list of returning offensive players and asked them which they would want for defense.
|Illini linebacker Matt Sinclair (Getty).|
The defensive coaches also took senior running back Morris Virgil (5-10, 195) and converted him to a starting safety.
While the defense looked okay against Florida A&M last week, it really doesn't give you a very good indication as to how good they are. The fact that Illinois was so desperate for players on defense that they had to convert some accomplished senior offensive players is more of an indication as to just how good the defense is.
Which to say is probably not very good. Their defensive line a year ago wasn't great, but they should be a little better, returning three starters from last year who should have improved with more experience. Their go-to guy on the line is sixth-year defensive end Mike O'Brien (6-6, 225), who is long, rangy and has good quickness but can be over-powered.
Senior linebacker Matt Sinclair (6-3, 245) is their true playmaker on defense, leading the team in tackles a season ago and looking good against Florida A&M, but he has to be since he doesn't get much support from the rest of the team, particularly the other linebackers.
The defensive backfield, as stated above, is a patchwork of former offensive players and a couple of promising youngsters. But one of those youngsters is sophomore cornerback Alan Ball (6-1, 175) whom UCLA's accomplished receivers Craig Bragg and Tab Perry and tight end Marcedes Lewis will try to exploit. Bragg and Perry will also go right at newly converted Hayden – having a clear advantage in the receiver/cornerback matchup for the game.
|UCLA's Manuel White (AP).|
Even Florida A&M passed for 287 yards against them.
Very much could depend also on how effective UCLA's running game is, and particularly Manuel White. After having the best game of his career against OSU, gaining 145 yards on the ground and 40 through the air, White is going to be needed to move the pile, grind out yards and eat up clock. If Maurice Drew could be more effective than he was last week, giving UCLA the one-two punch they've been looking for, it'd go a long way in helping UCLA control the ball.
Advantage: UCLA. This isn't a difficult one to pick either. Illinois's defense isn't going to prove to be very good, with very little talent and experience.
The question will be whether UCLA's new offense can go into a hostile, road environment and be effective. Can Olson execute the game plan on the road? Will the re-generated offensive line be able to open holes and protect Olson on the road as well as they did last week in the far friendlier confines of the Rose Bowl? UCLA's offense, while improved, still is just getting its confidence, and while you'd have to expect against Illinois's defense they'd be effective, it's another step for them to go on the road and really dominate.
There is also the element that UCLA's new offense has now been scouted, so some of which was effective last week because of the element of surprise might not be this week. It will be a big test for offensive coordinator Tom Cable and his offense, whether he can keep the Illinois defensive coaches off-balance enough.
PREDICTION: UCLA is a better team, but it's suffering from bad timing. While you might believe that UCLA will get quite a bit more help from the returning defensive players, it'd be hard to expect too much. So, it's bad timing that so many impact players are injured and not quite healthy enough for this game. It's also bad timing that UCLA's offense, while improved, has to shoulder such a big responsibility of carrying the team so early on in their development in this newly-revamped offense.
The UCLA offense will probably be successful for much of the day, but ultimately falter in trying to produce enough offense to offset its porous defense.
In predicting that Illinois will win this game, though, it is not a harbinger of a bad season overall for UCLA. In the next few weeks, UCLA should be quite improved as its defense gets more of its impact players back completely healthy and its offense gets more confident. The Illinois game, though, is, well, just bad timing and Illinois should feel extremely fortunate.