-- The UCLA Bruins take on the Northwestern Wildcats in the Vitals Sun Bowl Thursday in El Paso, Texas. Game time is 11:15 PST, and it is being televised nationally by CBS. Verne Lundquist and Todd Blackledge will call the action.
-- Northwestern is 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten, which was good enough
for a four-way time for third place in the conference with Michigan, Iowa and
UCLA, of course, is 9-2, and 6-2 in the Pac-10, and ranked 17th in both the USA Today/Coaches and AP polls.
-- Northwestern posted some impressive wins this season: against Wisconsin, 51-48; Michigan State, 49-14; and Iowa, 28-27. UCLA and NU have one commmon opponent, with Arizona State beating NU early in the season, 52-21.
-- Northwestern leads the series between the two schools, 3-2. The two schools first met in 1931, and last met when Tommy Prothro was the UCLA head coach, with the Bruins winning a 12-7 decision in 1970.
-- UCLA has won its last three meetings with teams from the Big Ten conference, in 2004 and 2003 against Illinois, and in 2001 against Ohio State.
-- UCLA, which played in the 1991 and 2000 Sun Bowls, will be making its 27th bowl appearance. The Bruins beat Illinois 6-3 in the 1991 Sun Bowl and lost to Wisconsin 21-20 in the 2000 game.
-- Northwestern is coached by Randy Walker, who is in his seventh year with the Wildcats. His program has produced six or more wins in three successive seasons, the first time that has been done at Northwestern in 74 years. He's the first Northwestern head coach to lead Wildcat teams to three bowl appearances. He's the first NU coach to beat Penn State in College Station, and the first to beat Ohio State since 1971. In his seven seasons he has a record of 37-45, with only the famous coach, "Pappy" Waldorf, having won more games at Northwestern. Walker is known for his wide-open, spread offense, having shattered all the NU offensive marks. Before coming to Northwestern, Walker was the head coach at Miami of Ohio for nine seasons.
-- Northwestern's offense this season is averaging 492 yards per game, the most of any Northwestern team in its history.
-- Northwestern's team, as well as its season, is almost bizarrely similar to UCLA's. UCLA has the 117th-ranked rushing defense in the country, which is dead last in the nation, and the 111th-ranked defense overall. Northwestern has the 109th-ranked rushing defense in the nation and the 117th overall defense, the worst in the nation. While both defenses have been horrendous, their offenses have been stellar, with Northwestern ranked the 8th best in the nation and UCLA the 24th.
-- But even beyond statistics, and offenses and defenses, the Wildcats and Bruins have had similar seasons. UCLA mounted four last-minute comebacks this season and has been called the Cardiac Bruins. NU, similarly, was labeled the Cardiac Cats this season, taking a number of games to the final minutes or to overtime themselves.
-- Both UCLA and Northwestern have been in El Paso practicing since Christimas Day.
-- The bowl-game record for combined offense was broken in the Insight Bowl a couple of days ago when ASU and Rutgers combined for 1,211 yards. That's the third time in the last week the mark has been set and many feel that the Sun Bowl, with the prolific offenses and porous defenses of UCLA and NU, will be the next to break it.
-- The weather should be excellent for football Friday, in the mid- to upper-60s and sunny.
NORTHWESTERN'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Hate to scare ya, but there is very little to lead you to believe that Northwestern's offense won't put up 500+ yards and 45+ points.
The best way to envision this is - picture UCLA's offense going up against its own defense. In trying to find a team with an offense that compares closely with Northwestern in terms of productivity, UCLA's defensive coaches only had to look across Spaulding Field. In terms of offensive style, the closest thing UCLA has faced all season to Northwestern is San Diego State, but this is SDSU on steroids.
Northwestern is led by an excellent senior quarterback, Brett Basanez (6-2, 215), who is NU's all-time leading passer, being one among two current college quarterbacks with more than 10,000 career passing yards (Matt Leinart being the other). And like UCLA's Drew Olson, Basanez has come back from considerable injury in previous years to have one of the best seasons among quarterbacks in college football for 2005. He's thrown for 3,206 yards and 19 touchdowns on the season against just six interceptions, completing 67% of his throws. He was voted the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and the SI.com National Player of the Year.
Not to discount the other quarterbacks UCLA has seen this year, Basanez is probably the best all-around quarterback UCLA has faced. He's not big, and doesn't have a monster arm, but he's extremely smart, pretty athletic and mobile and doesn't make many mistakes. He also knows NU's offense like he conceived it himself.
And the thing that should scare UCLA fans the most is Basanez executing Northwestern's spread offense against UCLA's defense. NU will spread out the field with multiple receiver sets, and Basanez will quickly find the man left open as the defense scrambles to keep them all covered. Just because UCLA's defense is the worst against the run in America doesn't mean that NU and Basanez are going to abandon their throwing game. It's what they do, throwing the ball out of the spread more than they run, and they won't stop doing it for anyone.
|Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton.|
What might entice them to run more against UCLA is the fact that they have a freshman All-American running back in Tyrell Sutton (5-9, 190). Sutton ranks sixth nationally in rushing, averaging 126 yards per game, having run for 1,390 yards on the season, averaging 6 yards per carry. NU likes to spread out the field with its receivers, which makes the defense have to spread, and then hand the ball to the quick, elusive Sutton. They use a great deal of misdirection and counters, trying to get Sutton some space on the outside as much as possible.
Well, here's more.
Northwestern's offensive line is a good one, with some guys having stepped up this season to replace four starters from last season. The one who did return from last season made the Big Ten second team, senior tackle Zach Strief (6-7, 335), considered one of the best NFL line prospects in the Big Ten. He's bookended by junior tackle Dylan Thiry (6-8, 300), with Strief and Thiry possibly combining for the tallest offensive tackle combo in the country. Northwestern filled in the middle of the o-line this season with three new starters and all have fared well.
Catching the most Basanez's passes has been junior receiver Shaun Herbert (6-1, 200). Coming into the season, Herbert wasn't projected as NU's go-to guy and he surprised many when he blossomed into just that this year. Herbert has good speed, but isn't a jet, but gets it done with good route-running and very good hands. Senior Mark Philmore (5-10, 185) is the small, slippery one, and while's been hampered by injury he says he's 100% now for the bowl game. Their big receiver, sophomore Kim Thompson (6-4, 195) is out, though, for the game, being suspended for academic reasons. Senior Jonathan Fields (5-8, 175) gets a great deal of playing time anyway in the NU receiver rotation. One of NU's leading receivers is its running back, Sutton, with Basanez going to him out of the backfield all game long.
|UCLA's Jarrad Page & Justin London.|
UCLA's defense will definitely have its hands full. The word is that middle linebacker Justin London is the healthiest he's been since the first week of the season, reportedly. Safety Chris Horton is also close to being back to his old self, despite still having to play with a cast (albeit a smaller one) on his hand. But it's unlikely that just a healthier Justin London and Chris Horton will be enough to slow down Northwestern's offense. The reports out of UCLA practice this week and last was that the defense was playing with intensity and looked like they had new legs. They'll need them to keep running up and down the field against Northwestern's O.
Advantage: Northwestern. It's getting tiresome to have to write about UCLA's defense, especially going up against one more high-octane offense like Northwestern's. It wouldn't be surprising, as we stated, if Northwestern, does the 500-50 thing (500 yards and 50 points). Again, as we stated in the USC preview, it definitely seems like the match-up calls for UCLA to attempt something different, something surprising to keep NU's offense off-balance, at least for a moment. It's difficult to pressure Basanez (Northwestern only gave up nine sacks on the season), since he's just so smart and gets rid of the ball so quickly. But sending pressure from different points of the field would be a good way to maybe get Basanez out of his rhythm. But this is just an inherently bad match-up for UCLA's defense. It's difficult to stack a box against a spread offense, and if UCLA is forced to send its defenders out wide to cover NU's receivers, that leaves UCLA's vulnerable middle even more vulnerable to Sutton, and all of Basanez's bubble screens and inside slants.
If UCLA's defense can get a couple of straight-up stops against NU's offense it'd be considered a good defensive accomplishment. If they could get a couple of stops and maybe a turnover or two, that'd be probably enough to win.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. NORTHWESTERN'S DEFENSE
Take the offense-defense preview you just read and just invert the school's names.
If there is a defense that compares with UCLA's among the teams participating in bowl games this year it's, lo and behold, Northwestern's. All in the same little bowl game.
Northwestern not only has a poor rushing defense - but a poor passing defense. That combines for the worst overall defense in Division 1-A football.
And it gets worse for Northwestern. Two of their defensive starters were suspended for the game for academic reasons - junior defensive tackle Trevor Shultz and sophomore cornerback Deante Battle.
|NU's Tim McGarigle.|
And like UCLA, NU features a senior linebacker like Spencer Havner who is getting many post-season awards, middle 'backer Tim McGarigle (6-1, 235). He has 139 tackles on the season, second in the Big Ten, and is a tough, big hitter in the middle. Much like Havner, McGarigle is all over the field for NU, often times while opposing running backs are blowing through big holes. KU's other two linebackers, sophomore Adam Kadela (6-2, 240) and junior Nick Roach (6-2, 245) aren't spectacular and have been criticized this season.
Without Shultz in the middle, NU's d-line suddenly gets very young (sound familiar?). John Gill (6-3, 285) is next on the two-deep behind Schultz, and he's a true freshman. NU already starts a sophomore and redshirt freshman.
Helping out with NU's d-line woes are UCLA's offensive line problems. Senior starting center Mike McCloskey is out for the game, and his back-up, Robert Chai, isn't expected to play. Making his first start will be Nathaniel Skaggs, the very-recently converted defensive tackle. Tackle Brian Abraham was nicked up as recently as a few days ago but is expected to play. But using a converted DT at center it's hard to expect UCLA's offensive line to be dominating, even given how young and mediocre NU's defensive line is.
UCLA's big offensive edge comes in its passing game, where it has All-American tight end Marcedes Lewis and UCLA's solid receiving group against an embattled Northwestern secondary. As we said, one starter at cornerback, Battle, will be out. Trying to pick up the slack is probably NU's best DB, junior cornerback Marquice Cole (5-9, 185). He leads the Big Ten in interceptions and has good quicks and closing speed. He is, though, just 5-9, and is susceptible to bigger receivers. Replacing Battle will probably be junior Cory Dious (5-9, 165), who gives NU a couple of very small corners.
Senior Herschel Henderson (6-3, 195) is a solid player, even though he just recently was moved to free safety. The other safety is senior Frederic Tarver (6-2, 215) who replaced a starter injured earlier in the year, Brendan Smith. However, Bryan Heinz, who has been out since fall practice with a torn ACL and is considered a good one, will see his first action of the season in this game.
|Last time to see Marcedes Lewis in UCLA uni.|
UCLA quarterback Drew Olson should have his pickings against the NU passing defense. Northwestern hasn't been able to mount much of a pass rush all season, and Olson is very good when he has enough time. Again, as we've written all season, there is no answer for Marcedes Lewis, but also UCLA's bigger receivers, like Joe Cowan, match up well against NU's smaller corners.
Advantage: UCLA. The worry here is how much a converted defensive tackle at center is going to impact the offensive line, and the entire offense. You'd think that UCLA would be able to get by with its other veterans on the OL for one game, especially when going up against such a poor defensive front four as Northwestern's.
In fact, just as NU's Sutton must be salivating while studying UCLA's defense, so must UCLA's running back Maurice Drew when getting acquainted with NU's D. While you'd think that UCLA will see the obvious advantage it has in passing the ball in this game, it's safe to say that, even despite the issue at center, UCLA will want to run the ball right at NU's front seven. Drew is reportedly healthier than he's been since the beginning of the season and the word is that he looked explosive in practice the last couple of weeks.
Special teams is, well, interesting. UCLA's kicker, Justin Medlock, is suspended for the game for being arrested on suspicion of a DUI. Karl Dorrell announced that he'll replace Medlock peacemeal with two walk-on freshmen. Jimmy Rotstein will do field goals and PATs and Brian Malette will kick off. Northwestern will probably try to punt away from Maurice Drew, who leads the nation in punt returns, as many opponents did toward the end of the season.
It's difficult to predict an outcome for this one. It could be literally whoever has the ball last. Most of the pundits across the nation are pointing to this game as the most entertaining bowl of the season because of the combo of two great offenses and two of the poorest defenses in the nation.
But here's a first for the season: UCLA won't have the worse defense on the field Friday. Northwestern's defense is really bad. The fact that UCLA's defense has had a chance in the last three weeks to get healthier, while Northwestern's defense lost two starters to suspension, also tips the scales towards UCLA's defense in this one. So, UCLA has a slightly better chance of getting more defensive stops than Northwestern. And just a couple of stops is probably all either team needs to win this. The UCLA and Northwestern punters probably didn't even have to make the trip.
UCLA's defense, also, has seen some great passing teams this season. Northwestern's pass-happiness, while it will be a challenge, won't be foreign, as it is in the Big Ten. On the other hand, Northwestern's defense will probably be better against the run than many expect facing UCLA, since it's been facing the run-crazy Big Ten all season, but it hasn't faced too many great passing teams like UCLA. Northwestern's pass defense could be the worse aspect of either team Friday, even including UCLA's rush defense. Northwestern has one of the worst pass defenses in the country, and that was compiled against the Big Ten, a conference known for pounding it out on the ground.
As a Sun Bowl promotion, both quarterbacks, Olson and Basanez, dressed up as cowboys with six shooters this week in El Paso. It would be a huge surprise if this were anything but a shootout, in fact. The scoreboard should have a meltdown.
But ultimately UCLA has more talent on the field, especially on defense, and has a better chance, from a personnel match-up standpoint, to limit Northwestern's offense.
But it's not much of an edge. This game, truly, could go either way, and with the type of season both teams have had, very well could be decided on the last play.