San Diego State Preview

UCLA opens the 2005 season at San Diego State on Saturday, and the Bruins' defense is out to turn over a new leaf, against a Aztec offense that has some weapons. Here are the keys to the game on both sides of the ball...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

UCLA travels south to face the San Diego State Aztecs in Qualcomm Stadium Saturday night. Kick-off is set for 7:05 p.m. The game will be telecast nationally on ESPN 2, with Pam Ward and former UCLA quarterback David Norrie calling the action.

It's the 21st meeting between the two schools in football, going back to 1922, with UCLA never having lost to the Aztecs, the series at 19-0-1 in favor of the Bruins. The one tie came in 1924.

In the twelve meetings during the modern era of college football, UCLA's average margin of victory is almost 27 points.

San Diego State has lost its last 15 games against Pac-10 opponents, going back to 1995.

San Diego State is coached by Tom Craft, a former SDSU quarterback who is entering his fourth season with the Aztecs, being hired from Palomar College. Craft carries an overall 14-22 record at the SDSU. He has yet to post a winning record in three seasons. Craft is best known for his spread offense.

UCLA Head Coach Karl Dorrell enters his third season, with a record of 12-13 in those two seasons.

Dorrell has yet to win a season opener. In fact, UCLA hasn't lost three season openers in a row since the first three years the school played football, in 1919, 1920 and 1921. It lost to Manual Arts High School, Pomona and Redlands.

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

Most UCLA fans and observers were willing to jump on the bandwagon about how improved this year's defense would be compared to the 2004 edition – that is, until it's budding star of a defensive tackle, Kevin Brown, went down in fall camp with a severe high-ankle sprain.

It's amazing, when your roster is fairly thin, what the loss of one impact player can do to bandwagon jumping.

UCLA's Spencer Havner (Getty).
UCLA's defense, without Brown, is now even more firmly entrenched in prove-it-to-us status. The loss of Brown conjures up the nightmares from 2004, when the UCLA defense couldn't stop anyone running the ball. Six opponents last season ran for 200 yards or more, two ran for more than 300 and there were actually two opponents who ran for more than 400 yards.

UCLA's defensive players have reiterated this fall camp that they are intent and focused on stopping the run for 2005. Whether it will actually happen on the field only time and games will tell.

Without Brown, there are some concerns. Last year, the excuse was that UCLA was very inexperienced on its defensive line. Without Brown, they still are. They'll start a redshirt freshman, Nathaniel Skaggs, in Brown's place at nose tackle, and a true sophomore, Brigham Harwell, who was a back-up defensive end a season ago. Harwell, by the way, is nursing a nagging ankle sprain. Behind those two are redshirt freshman Kenneth Lombard and true freshman Chase Moline, both of whom are about 6-0 and 260 pounds.

It doesn't sound exactly imposing.

At just about every other defensive position, though, UCLA is far more experienced than last season, and healthier.

Justin Hickman, the starting right defensive end, has a season of taking some lumps under his belt, and has shown in the off-season and this fall that he's a potential star.

The linebackers are probably UCLA's defensive strength, with two legitimate All-American candidates in Justin London and Spencer Havner starting their senior campaigns. London is an exceptional middle linebacker, whose true talent was never seen last year when he was nagged by an ankle injury. Havner seemed to lead the universe in tackles at the weak inside linebacker position.

Continuing with the strength-up-the-middle theme, UCLA also has senior strong safety Jarrad Page, who will be a candidate for post-season honors himself.

A big defensive question which could get answered this Saturday is just how good UCLA's young cornerbacks are. They'll start senior Marcus Cassel and sophomore Trey Brown, but will liberally rotate in talented sophomore Rodney Van and sophomore Michael Norris. The UCLA coaches praised the cornerbacks continually this fall, but you have to think there are going to be some learning pains experienced early on this season as they get up to game speed.

SDSU receiver Jeff Webb (Getty).
The cornerbacks are going to be thrown in pretty quickly, with probably SDSU's strongest unit being its wide receivers. Two of the starting three wideouts have 30 career starts between them. They are Jeff Webb (6-2, 205) and Robert Ortiz (6-1, 195) who, respectively, had 71 catches and 52 catches a season ago for close to a combined 1,600 yards. Webb is more of the big-play threat, while both are big, strong and savvy.

SDSU's spread offense tries first and foremost to get the ball into the hands of its receivers, passing quite a bit more than it runs the ball and flooding zones with four and sometimes five receivers. It will be a big test for UCLA's young secondary, and you can probably expect to see UCLA using some variations in coverage to try to keep SDSU off-balance itself.

San Diego State's running game, comparatively, is more complementary to its passing game, and it probably has to be, lacking the size and talent on its offensive line to be a run-you-over type of offensive team. It uses deception almost exclusively in its running game, utilizing misdirection, shovel passes, options and just about anything else beside a standard, straight-ahead rushing play.

A season ago, the Aztecs' running game wasn't horrible, but it wasn't great. Having the biggest impact, perhaps, on that changing this season is the return of its star running back, Lynell Hamilton (6-1, 220), who was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2003, only to miss last season because of a broken ankle. Hamilton is a potential NFL back, with very good size and strength to go along with exceptional speed. The "L-Train" is also very effective catching the ball out of the backfield, and the SDSU offense is designed to do that well. If you're hoping that Hamilton is going to be a bit rusty, you might want to cling to some other pipe dream. Hamilton returned to form in SDSU's spring practice and is very hungry to get back on the field after sitting out a frustrating season a year ago.

SDSU also has some very solid back-ups to Hamilton in senior Michael Franklin (5-7, 180) and sophomore Brandon Bornes (6-1, 215).

What could limit Hamilton some is SDSU having to break in three new starters on its offensive line. It does have veteran senior Jasper Harvey (6-3, 300) anchoring the line at center, who should also be hungry since he missed last season due to a university suspension. But there is some uncertainty on the rest of the OL for the Aztecs. The left side of the line is projected to be solid, with two seniors, Chris Pino (6-5, 315) and Taylor Schmidt (6-4, 315) manning the tackle and guard spots, even though there still is a feeling that the two need to prove something this year. And SDSU has been waiting for some players to step up and take over the right side of the line. Sophomore Brandyn Dombrowski (6-5, 325) looks to be the man at right guard.

Overall, the line is considered solid, and could be better than average in the Mountain West conference, with the return of Harvey.

With SDSU's spread offense so dependent on its quarterback, new sophomore starter Kevin O'Connell (6-6, 220) could be the key to the Aztecs' season. He took over midway through last season when now-senior Matt Dlugolecki (6-4, 205) faltered, and O'Connell did decently, averaging 201 yards per game in the last six games, throwing 8 touchdowns against 8 interceptions. O'Connell is big but pretty athletic, with good mobility and just an okay arm. He's probably best when he's moving, which he almost always is in SDSU's offense. He actually ran for 101 yards in a game last season.

Side note of interest: Dlugolecki, UCLA's one-time verbal commitment, has fallen to third string, behind O'Connell and redshirt freshman Darren Mougey (6-5, 220).

Advantage: Even. Just add Kevin Brown to this equation and UCLA gets the nod. Take out Brown, figure in a salivating Lynell Hamilton and two experienced wide receivers going against UCLA's inexperienced cornerbacks, and the scale balances back out.

Perhaps the problem with the SDSU offense's match-up with UCLA's defense, for SDSU, is that UCLA's weakness is probably still defending against the run, particularly within the tackles, and SDSU isn't really a power running team. You'd have to think they'll still try to get Hamilton the ball aimed at running over UCLA's interior d-line, but it's just not their strength. The UCLA linebackers are probably the key to the match-up – as they probably will be for every game this season. London and Havner will have to carry the front seven in defending against the run. Watch for UCLA to throw a good amount of blitzes at O'Connell to keep him rattled, and it wouldn't be a surprise if new defensive end starter and pass rusher, Nikola Dragovic, had a big day for UCLA in his first start. But SDSU has enough firepower to move the ball, at least enough to keep UCLA within reach for most of the game.

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

San Diego State, in many pre-season forecasts, was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Mountain West.

After reading the critique of SDSU's offense above, it's now pretty easy to determine that its defense just can't be very good then.

And that's probably true. Really, though, the Aztecs' defense is mostly unknown and unproven.

SDSU loses its six top tacklers from a season ago. Five of its projected starters will be starting their first game, while one other will be starting his second, and two others their third.

That's a lot of unknown.

SDSU defensive end Kurt Kahui (AP).
The primary tasks will be replacing all-conference middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, while also trying to find someone to step in for what was probably the Mountain West's best pair of safeties, Marviel Underwood and Josh Dean.

A senior, Freddy Kaiaho (6-0, 230), a converted running back who has good quickness, steps into that Mike linebacker position. Now, it wouldn't be that overwhelming for Kaiaho if he had some experience around him, but SDSU is also replacing its two other starting linebackers. At the outside linebacker position is a one-time UCLA recruit (that the Bruins never ultimately offered a scholarship), redshirt freshman Andrew Schantz (6-2, 235), and at the weak inside spot is junior Joe Martin (6-1, 225), a former walk-on. Between the three of them they collectively have two career starts. SDSU is praising them for their energy and speed, but it's a tough proposition when you're replacing an experienced linebacking group with three guys with such little experience.

Its most experienced defensive player, senior Marcus Demps (6-1, 200), moves from corner to free safety to shore up the middle of SDSU's secondary. Senior Reggie Grigsby (5-11, 205) will take over starting duties at strong safety. Then, between its two corners, SDSU has only one career start, from junior Donny Baker (5-9, 165). Baker, who is pretty slight, will have a hard time with UCLA's bigger receivers, and the Bruins will try to get him isolated. It was fairly disappointing for the Aztecs that senior Jacob Elimimian (5-11, 180) didn't take control of one of the corner positions, and it says a lot about the uncertainty of the position for SDSU that Elimimian, who has 12 career starts, lost the job to the inexperienced Baker.

It doesn't get a whole lot better on the defensive line for San Diego State. They return two starters, one of them, junior defensive tackle Jonathan Bailes (6-1, 310) being a potential star. But SDSU lost an emerging star at the other d-tackle position, junior Emil Metroka, who was being hailed as a sensation in spring practice before he tore a knee ligament. Replacing him is sophomore Nike Osborn (6-4, 255), who will be starting for the first time Saturday. While you might think that UCLA's defensive ends are on the smallish side, SDSU has them beat, with senior Kurt Kahui (6-1, 250) and another new starter, sophomore Antwan Applewhite (6-3, 235), looking more like linebackers.

An indication as to how thin SDSU is on its front four: It's two deep is made out by two redshirt freshmen, an unknown JC transfer and a true freshman.

SDSU gave up an average of 138 yards on the ground last season, and 205 to UCLA. And that was with what was considered one of the best defenses in the Mountain West.

UCLA tailback Maurice Drew (Getty).
In other words, expect UCLA's tailback Maurice Drew to start off the 2005 season with a huge game. He's looked even better in fall practice than he ever has, stronger, quicker and shiftier. With SDSU replacing five of its front seven, and UCLA's offensive line being led by potential all Pac-10 veterans, center Mike McCloskey and tackle Ed Blanton, it's not hard to figure that Drew is going to potentially have a Washington-like day.

The challenge for SDSU's young and unknown defense isn't just going to be stopping Drew, but what to do with UCLA's other All-American level weapon in senior tight end Marcedes Lewis. UCLA will be looking to go to him early and often, until the Aztec defense can prove they can stop him. And if they do, it will probably take half the Aztec defense to do it, which would be fine with UCLA, then opening up other receivers on the field.

While UCLA's two starting receivers, Junior Taylor and Joe Cowan, haven't proven to be big-play guys yet, they should be able to have an edge on SDSU's smaller cornerbacks.

You can't expect UCLA's senior quarterback, Drew Olson, to suddenly become John Elway, but it's reasonable to expect that he's gotten incrementally better, generally throwing the ball more accurately and making quicker decisions. UCLA intended to play Ben Olson, the phenom, 22-year old redshirt freshman, in at least a few series, but with a fractured bone in his hand that's on hold for a while.

UCLA's special teams will be solid in every aspect, except in punting, with the Bruins trying out new punter Aaron Perez, who has been shaky in practice. SDSU's kicking game is probably worse off, though, with their own shaky punter, Michael Hughes, and inconsistent place kicker Garrett Palmer. UCLA definitely has an edge with potential All-American kicker Justin Medlock.

Advantage: UCLA. If the Bruins' offense doesn't have a huge day it would be a disappointment. Even if SDSU's young and unknown defensive players turn out to be good, there is still going to be the first-game, first-start jitters that UCLA will be able to exploit. SDSU's only hope is to try to keep UCLA's offense off-balance with different sets and blitzes, but UCLA will have its short passing game ready. SDSU will probably try to stack the box to limit Drew, and make Olson beat them, which he can because he does have Lewis to do it.

UCLA will probably not show too much offensively in this game, not wanting to give away too much of its playbook in either the San Diego State game or the Rice game next week before facing Oklahoma. Last year the offensive philosophy was primarily to run the ball and eat up clock, to keep UCLA's defense off the field, and that could also be the mindset early this season, just to see if UCLA's defense can stop the run.

Some interesting aspects to watch are new OL starters, sophomores Brian Abraham and Chris Joseph; sophomore wide receiver Brandon Breazell, who has been just a lot of hype so far in his young career; and true freshman wide receiver Gavin Ketchum, who was one of the big stories of fall camp.

Prediction: The only thing keeping these two teams from scoring would be first-game rustiness. The difference is that UCLA's defense has a decent chance of limiting San Diego State's offense, while it's almost seemingly impossible to foresee SDSU's defense putting a dent in UCLA's offense. UCLA's offensive strength is going to be Maurice Drew running behind a good offensive line, and there just isn't much in SDSU's defensive arsenal to stop that. While UCLA will want to methodically run the clock, Drew will probably blow that theory by breaking off some big runs.

UCLA 41
SDSU 20


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