For one thing, the Bruins have a running attack this year. Even if Maurice Drew doesn't play, or play much, or play well, the Bruins still have Manuel White and Chris Markey, a tandem that advanced the ball for 280 yards versus a good front seven for Oregon (allowing one of the fewest number of total yards on D in the nation). The Bruins have an OL that is vastly improved in both run and pass blocking, a complete departure from last year. And the Bruins have Tom Cable, the guy who architected the Bruin running resurgence. Even if down by three TDs, Cable will persist with the running game. He has all year, and won't stop now.
Another factor is a vastly improved Drew Olson. The DO doesn't have a great reputation for coming up big and playing great in great, big games. Even this year, there have been times where he hasn't been able to rise to the challenge. But he is exhibiting better running skills, a critical weapon against a Trojan D that is very stingy with yards. And his passing skills are also much better. If the play calling allows him to keep the Trojans off-balance, Bruin fans can keep the faith. Maybe this is the game he moves from being the DO to The DO.
So the legitimate running game combined with a QB coming into his own a little means that UCLA should be able to have some offensive success against the nation's consensus #1 team.
The biggest concern for most Bruin fans has to be how the defense will perform. Too many running backs have had or come close to once-in-a-career games against the Bruins this year. While UCLA shut down Stanford and held Terrence Whitehead of Oregon largely in check, the exploits of Jerome Harrison as recently as two games ago have to keep expectations in check as to how much success UCLA will have stopping the run given Lendale White and Reggie Bush in Southern Cal's backfield.
Especially when play calling continues to set Southern Cal's offense apart from other teams in the country. It doesn't seem that defensive coordinators across the nation have dialed in to Norm Chow's tendencies as a play caller. I mean, he has to have some, doesn't he? Doesn't everybody have tendencies? So why can't opposing defense's gamble a little bit and make more big plays against the catsup and mustard's O?
According to some Bruin players opining in the LAT and other publications, it appears that UCLA's staff has in fact identified some tells in formations or positioning. Too bad that the UCLA players couldn't keep that info under their hat until after the game. Wouldn't it suck if Southern Cal's coaches reviewed their own team and made some contraindicative adjustments? But dem's da breaks in the big city where there are ears and innocuously phrased questions everywhere.
With so much emphasis on the O and D, don't be surprised if special teams don't turn the tide of this game, especially with players like Reggie Bush, Maurice Drew and Tab Perry handling the ball in chaotic, free-flowing situations. The kickers (Chris Kluwe and Justin Medlock for the Bruins, Tom Malone and that guy who misses a lot of field goals for the protections) will be under more pressure on Saturday than they've probably faced up to this point in their life. Every time they step on the field will be a "Hero or Goat" moment.
But Mike Patterson, the ultra-quick 6-0, 285 NG, is a vastly disruptive force inside, often splitting the C/OG double team with a leap that gets him a yard or two deep into the backfield. Patterson has six sacks on the year.
At the other interior position, there is Shaun Cody, who has now bulked up to 285 lbs, although he is the first to admit he's not the player he was before his knee injury. Still, he is tied for 2nd on the Trojans with 6 sacks on the year.
I'd love to see Karl Dorrell and Tom Cable pull out all the stops. Reverses. Pitch passes to fullback Michael Pitre from MoD, Manuel White, or Chris Markey. Toss sweeps. Lead draws. And do it early so that doubt and indecision are planted in the minds (liberally speaking) of the Southern Cal defenders. There is no sense in holding anything back at this point. And the Bruins have had three weeks to practice any new additions to the game plan. There can't be any excuses for failing to deliver an innovative game plan that keeps the protections off-balance.
And by all means, get the ball to the outside as quickly and safely as possible. If the game between Cal and Southern Cal proved anything, it is that the CBs are the Achilles' heel of the Boys from Troy. Make the smurfs on the edge have to tackle Tab Perry or Joe Cowan one-on-one, with a little mix of Craig Bragg for good measure. (‘Cause you know they're going to do the same to us.)
Getting the ball outside includes swing passes, especially to the left, to the backs. The DO is much better at disguising his intentions when he throws swings left, and he seems to be more accurate that way. Many more swing passes to the right have been dropped (or been saved via great catches) this year than to the left.
We'd all love to see The DO check down to the running backs as the pressure is bearing down and let them run wild through the secondary, much like MoD did against Cal on what look like a designed play: run straight up the middle, get past the DL, and then veer right. Meanwhile, the DO plants and steps up and to the right, and flicks a simple floater to MoD that he snags in stride and takes to the house, leaving his spy in the dust.
But for all the good that involving the RBs in the passing game will do, UCLA should be very hesitant about running screens to the RBs on long yardage situations. Matt Grootegoed, Dallas Sartz and Lofa Tatupu (the best LB in the country) are death on screens…they know you're going to run it before you do. Other areas to avoid are deep ins to the WRs and seam routes to the TE. The LBs for the protections are so good at getting deep drops and intercepting those passes. What looks like a potential big gainer quickly turns into a huge disappointment as the nation's best pass defending LBs play to their strength.
Where Virginia Tech was able to hurt the protections, and no one else has been able to replicate it because of the pass rush and the arm strength required, was rolling the QB one direction and throwing diagonally across the field to the TE, who dragged across from the play side. It will be interesting to see if the Bruins give the DO the chance to make a play like this.
Darnell Bing, the SS, is another candidate for exposure because of his aggressiveness. Hopefully, UCLA will take some shots down the field over the middle instead of constantly trying to hit the bomb down the sideline.
If UCLA can stay in the game until the second half, and get the D tired, you can bet that Cable will just start to grind the run and the clock, forcing St. Pete Carroll to gamble and blitz. It should be a great chess match.
I expect UCLA's O to stick with the same game plan it has employed all year: run the tight zone and the wide zone about 40% of the time. Do other stuff off that assuming those plays are successful. However, if the Bruins continue to throw fastballs over the middle to Southern Cal, faster than you can say "Balco Batter Bonks Boffo Boomer!" the Bruins will be three and out. A couple of those, and this game might get out of reach to win, even to cover the spread.
There may not be any more important match-up on the field than the interior line play. Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody, two legitimate All-Americas, versus the unsung Mike McCloskey, Steve Vieira and Shannon Tevaga. Given how well Tevaga played against NG Haloti Ngata last game, he could be a household name (okay, a Bruin legend) if he has comparable success on Saturday.
I expect UCLA to play its best players for as long as they're able to go. The top four DL will go as long as they have juice in the tank and they're bringing it. This is a man's game, and time for the boys to just watch and soak it in.
Unfortunately, there are mismatches all over the field for the Bruins. No matter how guttily the DL and LBs play, they're still likely to give up 150 to 250 yards rushing to the protections. But that might suffice if UCLA can stiffen in the red zone and force the kicker onto the field. All it takes is a three consecutive good plays on D…
The players facing the most pressure for the Bruins' D will be CBs Matt Clark and Trey Brown. Clark already has last year in his head and he'll have to get in the moment snap after snap to be effective. The protections' Matt Leinart appears to drop back at a glacier's pace, and throws lollipops to the outside, but they seem to get there with nobody around the intended receiver time after time. It is up to Clark and Brown to win some individual battles against a set of receivers that don't measure up to the WRs Southern Cal has put on the field the last two years.
But look at the damage that ASU's Derek Hagan and Terry Richardson did to UCLA, in a game that Brown first emerged as the answer for UCLA at the right corner. Brown made a key INT, but he also gave up a pivotal TD.
Simply put, the Bruins have to play better pass defense against Southern Cal than they did v. ASU.
Even if the Bruins turn Leinart away from his primary receivers, the Bruins will have plenty of trouble containing Dominique Byrd and Reggie Bush. Norm Chow's attack is all about exploiting mismatches, and you have to think, no slight on Wesley Walker, that he has to like the Byrd-Walker match-up. Also, any time he can get Bush on a LB or either safety will be an opportunity.
Hopefully the Bruins will continue the strong coverage they've produced all year. But the Oregon game was a brutal reminder how pivotal a punt return TD can have on the complexion of a contest. Bruin fans have to love it if it comes down to who puts foot to ball better, us or them.
I'd love to see UCLA spoil Southern Cal's national championship hopes and shock the world. At a minimum, it is time for UCLA to reassert itself as a team to be taken seriously.
But all things considered,I expect the Trojans to win a high-scoring, highly entertaining game, 42-31.