San Diego State Preview

After a bye week, UCLA returns to action against San Diego State Saturday at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins still don't seem much healthier than they were on defense two weeks ago, and San Diego State's spread offense is a formidable challenge...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- UCLA will host San Diego State Saturday at the Rose Bowl at 4:00 p.m. The game will be televised on Fox West 2, with commentators Bill McDonald and Mike Sherrard, with Lindsay Soto on the sideline.

-- UCLA and San Diego State are both 2-1. The Aztecs beat Idaho State, 38-21, then lost at Michigan in a close one, 24-21, before winning last week at home against Nevada, 27-10.

-- UCLA has never lost to San Diego State. In 19 meetings, the all-time series stands at 18-0-1. UCLA has played SDSU for three straight consecutive years, and will play them again to open the season in 2005.

-- Last year, UCLA beat San Diego State, 20-10, with the score tied 3-3 at half. The turning point was in the second half, with UCLA up 10-3 and San Diego State driving, Spencer Havner intercepted a pass and returned it for 50 yards, which set up a field goal. Another Aztec turnover deep in its own territory set up UCLA's final touchdown.

-- San Diego State has not beaten a Pac-10 team in its last 13 matchups, dating back to 1995 when it beat Cal, 33-9.

-- UCLA sophomore running back Maurice Drew, coming off his 322-yard performance against Washington two weeks ago, is sixth in the nation in rushing, averaging 169.33 yards per game, and second in all-purpose yards, averaging 232 yards per game. He's averaging 44.3 yards on each of his six rushing touchdowns this season.

-- The 424 yards rushing at Washington was UCLA's best effort since 1979, when it ran for 446 yards at Oregon in a 35-0 victory.

-- UCLA linebacker Spencer Havner leads the nation in average tackles per game, with 15.3.

SAN DIEGO STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

SDSU employs a spread attack, with multiple wide receivers spread out along the line of scrimmage. They have thrown the ball more than passed the ball so far this season, employing the philosophy of the pass establishing the run.

SDSU's receivers Jeff Webb and Robert Ortiz.
A spread offense is mostly dependent on its quarterback being able to execute and make plays. Junior Matt Dlugolecki (6-4, 235), who all Bruin fans must remember as a UCLA commit before he tried to hide an official visit to Illinois, has only been moderately successful in doing that. He's limited by a lack of mobility and just average accuracy in his throws. He has improved, though, since last year when UCLA faced him, knowing the offense better and being able to make quicker decisions, which has enabled his throws to improve.

The spread is then probably almost as dependent on its quarterback as it is on its wide receivers' play-making ability. San Diego State has a strong group of receivers, led by junior split end Jeff Webb (6-2, 210). Webb leads the team in receptions and yards, with 23 and 276, respectively. He's a big, strong kid with good hands that's hard to bring down, even though he could be hindered by a back strain. Junior Robert Ortiz (6-1, 195) is right there with Webb, also being a big, strong receiver with good hands. He and Webb, against Michigan, combined for 18 catches, 232 yards and two touchdowns. The USC transfer, senior Devin Pitts (6-3, 200) started SDSU's first two games, but is slowed by a hip pointer and has been relegated to second string. The third starting receiver is sophomore flanker Ramal Porter (5-9, 165), who stepped into the starting position last week against Nevada and had four catches and one touchdown. He's the smaller, faster complement to Webb and Ortiz.

Luckily for UCLA and its fans, probably one of SDSU's best receivers, senior Wesley Williams, is out for another month, recovering from a hip fracture.

The Aztec's third leading receiver is its starting running back, junior Michael Franklin (5-7, 180). Dlugolecki will look for Franklin out of the backfield at least several times a game, trying to get the quick little back out into open field.

Franklin, actually, has ran the ball well, too, starting all three of SDSU's game in their one-back set, averaging 4.7 yards per game. He had a couple of 100-yard games against Nevada and Idaho State, but then was held to 39 yards against Michigan.

Franklin has stepped in admirably, though, with the loss of SDSU's star running back, sophomore Lynell Hamilton. It's a big loss, since Hamilton ran for 1,087 yards last season as a freshman in less than 10 games, and was named to the Sporting News Freshman All-America team. He broke his ankle toward the end of last season and is still not 100%.

But helping out with the running chores is another big freshman, Brandon Bornes (6-1, 235), who is Manuel White to Franklin's Maurice Drew. Bornes had a nice game last week against Nevada, where he scored his first collegiate touchdown.

The real issue this week with San Diego State' offense is their offensive line. They are probably the offensive equivalent of UCLA's defensive line – young, inexperienced, injured and thin. In fact, the SDSU o-line could be worse off.

It's lost three of its top linemen to injury -- its starting left tackle (Mike Kracalik), left guard (Brandyn Dombrowski) and right tackle (Robert Nelson). It leaves SDSU with only five scholarship offensive linemen, and a projected starting line that consists of three redshirt freshmen and two junior college transfers, all of whom have never started before this season.

It's dire," offensive line coach Damon Baldwin said this week.

UCLA's beleaguered defensive line couldn't ask for a better, more suited match-up.

In fact, UCLA's defensive line probably approaches the direness of SDSU's offensive line when it lost its star defensive tackle, C.J. Niusulu, to a one-game suspension this week for violating team rules.

UCLA will plug in converted senior offensive linemen Eyoseph Efseaff in his place. But it also doesn't have at its disposal its other second-string defensive tackle, freshman Kenneth Lombard. The Bruins do have, amazingly, its two starting defensive ends intact (that is, if you don't count the fact that the real projected starter, Kevin Harbour, still being out with a knee injury), in Kyle Morgan and Justin Hickman.

Pretty much you might have to give the edge to UCLA's defensive line, merely because they have one less position in which to have to field.

But then again, UCLA continues its deficiencies in injuries among its linebackers, with starting middle linebacker Justin London expected not to play much do to his high ankle sprain, and the starter at outside linebacker from a week ago, Aaron Whittington, limited due to a hip pointer. That leaves UCLA with its star, Spencer Havner, moving back to his outside linebacker position from a year ago so it can start former walk-on Ben Lorier at the inside weak position, alongside Wesley Walker in the middle.

Oh, it's going to be a fun time when watching SDSU's offensive front against UCLA's defensive front.

UCLA corneback Marcus Cassel.
The strength of UCLA's defense so far this season has been its pass defense, even though it has yet to really be tested. So far UCLA has faced predominantly running teams, or teams that became predominantly running teams when it discovered it could run for 300 yards a game against UCLA's defense. UCLA's defensive backs have generally been good against the pass, even though corners Matt Clark and new starter Marcus Cassel haven't seen the types of receivers that SDSU has. To keep the ball from flying all over the Rose Bowl, UCLA's DBs will have to be sharp, and not miss assignments like they've done a few times in the first three games. Ben Emanuel, the senior free safety, has been disappointing so far this season, and this will be a big test for him.

Advantage: Even. If San Diego State just had maybe one of its injured starting offensive linemen back we'd probably give them a nod, but they're so thin and inexperienced at offensive line with the injuries. SDSU, even though it's a passing team, will test to see if it can move the ball safely on the ground against UCLA's defense. If it can run, it will, not wanting to put too much pressure on its offensive line to protect Dlugolecki in the pocket. It has a very imaginative running game, running out of the spread, utilizing misdirection and different options to keep defenses guessing. While you might think that UCLA's defensive performance may depend on how its front seven do, it probably is more dependent on how its back four do. UCLA, as it's done in the last two weeks, will do what it can to limit San Diego State's running game, stacking the box when it can, and run blitzing, even against SDSU's multiple receiver set, trying to force Dlugolecki to make plays. But if UCLA's safeties and linebacker miss assignments on running plays, like they have been, it could be a long day. While it tries to test UCLA's run defense, San Diego State will then try to use its quick drops to find its superior wide receivers in man coverage against UCLA's corners. Watch for UCLA to use a pretty big cushion on the outside with its corners, giving San Diego State the short yardage throws and keeping them from the big plays down the field.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. SAN DIEGO STATE'S DEFENSE

It's strength against strength, with UCLA's very good offense against San Diego State's stingy defense.

SDSU linebacker Matt McCoy.
The Aztecs have a solid to good defense, with many returning, veteran players from a defense that ended the season ranked #5 overall in the country.

It's led by one of the best collections of linebackers in the west.

The centerpiece is senior middle linebacker Kirk Morrison (6-2, 240) who is one of the best linebackers in the country. He was a first-team All-American selection by College Football News, and has been nominated for just about every post-season award possible for a linebacker.

Morrison has a great knack for being around the ball, combining that with very good quickness and hitting ability.

If it isn't enough to have Morrison, lining up next to him is another of the best linebackers in the west, junior weakside linebacker Matt McCoy (6-0, 220). The combination of Morrison and McCoy have combined for 18 tackles a game between the two of the them. Combined, the two of them are responsible for a quarter of all of San Diego State's tackles. McCoy had a huge day against Michigan, collecting 18 total tackles and an amazing 17 solos.

And then there's not much of a letdown at the third linebacking spot, which is basically shared between two seniors, Heath Farwell (6-0, 235) and Stephen Larsen (6-1, 225).

The defensive backfield is also pretty solid, but is still lacking one of its best players because of a long-term issue. Junior cornerback Jacob Eliminian, a returning starter, is ineligible academically, which has forced SDSU to replace two cornerbacks this season. It switched a safety, junior Marcus Demps (6-1, 205) to one side. Up the middle is pretty strong, with its best defensive back in senior Marviel Underwood at free safety, and returning starter, senior Josh Dean (6-1, 215) at free.

If there is a vulnerability it might be SDSU's defensive line, with only one returning starter from a year ago, who is also just a sophomore, Jonathan Bailes (6-1, 300).

Even without knowing that, still everyone in the Rose Bowl is expecting UCLA to run the ball. After gaining 424 yards rushing against Washington two weeks ago, and really so far this season, not being able to be stopped on the ground, why wouldn't you try to make San Diego State stop your running game?

UCLA's offense has been led by its blossoming offensive line, which had one of the best days in recent Bruin memory two weeks ago against Washington. The blocking schemes were like ballet, but with some brute force thrown in.

But it wasn't just the offensive line that has been clearing holes – the tight ends, running backs and even wide receivers have been doing an excellent job of blocking.

There has also been a little contribution from Maurice Drew. While the blocking was beautiful, Drew played an excellent game against Washington. It's a formidable thing to have to face him and then also Manuel White in the same afternoon, especially with the way the UCLA offensive line has been performing.

Watch for SDSU's defense to stack the box, trying to limit UCLA's running game and, again, make UCLA beat you through the air.

UCLA receiver Junior Taylor.
UCLA quarterback Drew Olson, again, will be challenged, to be efficient enough to keep San Diego State's defense honest, to keep the running game open. He will be hindered, however, by the loss of his #1 receiver, Craig Bragg, who is out with a shoulder separation. That's hugely significant; while UCLA has some good receivers in Junior Taylor and Tab Perry, there isn't the go-to guy. Perry will step in for Bragg, but Taylor is the one who seems to, as of late, be ready to break out. A big game from him is vastly needed.

As we say just about every week, there really is no answer for tight end Marcedes Lewis. If UCLA's running game isn't going for 400 yards, and with Bragg out, expect Olson to look for Lewis more often against San Diego State.

Advantage: UCLA. The way UCLA's running game has produced, it's just too much to expect San Diego State's defense to be able to stop it. Then, on top of that, UCLA really has yet to unleash its passing game. Watch for UCLA to exploit its running game, but early on not hesitate to go to the pass to catch SDSU off-guard. If the running game is working, UCLA will probably stick with it throughout the evening. Offensive coordinator Tom Cable designs some surprises each week, and there should be at least a couple in this game. Drew Olson very well could have his best game of the season to date, facing a stacked box, getting the type of protection he's been provided so far, with SDSU's inexperienced corners, and with Cable calling the plays.

Prediction: It should be a fairly close game. San Diego State's defense should keep UCLA from scoring outlandishly, and San Diego State's offensive line should keep its own offense from scoring outlandishly. The SDSU receivers will get loose for at least a couple of scores and its running game won't get shut down, but with UCLA trying to pressure Dlugolecki while he's being protected by the makeshift line, it could create some protection problems for a quarterback who struggles with decisions. UCLA's running game should again own this game. It might not run all over SDSU like it did Washington, but it will effectively move the chains and eat up the clock. It could be Manuel White's turn to earn game ball honors, needing him to consistently move the pile six yards. Watch for a number of turnovers, with Dlugolecki making poor throwing decisions and being prone to putting the ball on the ground, and SDSU's running backs being young.

UCLA 31
SDSU 24


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