-- The UCLA Bruins open their 2006 season Saturday at 4:00 p.m. at the Rose Bowl against the Utah Utes. The game will be televised by FSN (FSN Prime Ticket in Los Angeles) with Barry Tompkins and Petros Papadakis in the booth and Jim Watson on the sidelines.
-- UCLA is coming off a 10-2 season in 2005, ending the season ranked 13th in the nation by USA Today and 16th by AP. It was UCLA's best season in the three years of Head Coach Karl Dorrell, and the best seasonal record since 1998.
-- The Bruins are unranked entering into the 2006 season, Dorrell's fourth season. Dorrell is 22-15 overall at UCLA.
-- Utah is coached Kyle Whittingham, in just his second year in Salt Lake City. Whittingham went 7-5 in his first season a year ago, being Utah's only head coach to take his team to a bowl game in his first season (they beat Georgia Tech, 38-10, in the Emerald Bowl). When coach Urban Meyer left Utah for Florida, Whittingham was named head coach, having been a Ute assistant since 1994, working as the staff's defensive coordinator.
-- UCLA leads the series with Utah, 7-0. The most recent game was in 1974 when UCLA beat Utah, 27-14. The first meeting was in 1933 with UCLA winning 21-0. The last time they played in Los Angeles was in 1973 and UCLA won 66-16.
-- Utah, however, which is in the Mountain West conference, has done very well against Pac-10 opponents recently. The Utes have won their last four games against Pac-10 foes and is 5-2 against the Pac-10 in the last five years. Utah beat USC (2001), Cal (2003), Oregon (2002) and Arizona (2004, 2005).
-- Utah is unranked in the pre-season polls. Some pre-season magazines, however, did rank the Utes in their top 25.
-- The current betting line on the game is UCLA giving 3.5.
-- It's the opening game of the season for the Utes, and the Utes have opened on the road just three times in the last 10 years, winning all three games. One of those games was at Washington State in 1999. In the last two years, Utah has won its opener, beating Texas A&M and Arizona, both in nationally televised games.
-- New UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker is a former assistant at BYU and Utah State and has known Whittingham for years.
-- The 2006 season marks the 25th year that the Rose Bowl has served as the home of the Bruins.
UTAH'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Utah's offensive a season ago was prolific, ranked the 12th best in the nation, gaining 473 yards per game. It returns six starters from that offense, and a quarterback that started the last two games of the season.
The Utes employ a spread option, and even though they work out of the shot gun almost exclusively, they like to run the ball, and have been good doing it in recent years.
|Utah quarterback Brett Ratliff.|
The offense will be led by senior quarterback Brett Ratliff (6-4, 224). Ratliff , a JC transfer, started the last two games of the 2005 season when starter Brian Johnson tore his ACL. Ratliff didn't miss a beat, beating rival BYU and then Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. The Utes, in fact, looked better with Ratliff at the helm than Johnson, which is saying something since Johnson finished fourth in the nation in total offense in 2005.
Johnson tried to return this season, but it was determined that another year of recovery was best for him. Ratliff then had to beat out Oklahoma transfer, junior Tom Grady (6-7, 235), who UCLA fans might remember from Huntington Beach Edison High. Grady is more of a pocket passer with the stronger arm, but Ratliff fits Utah's offensive style much better.
Against BYU, in his first start, Ratliff passed for 240 yards and 4 touchdowns while running for 112 yards and another touchdown. He threw for 381 yards and 4 touchdowns against Georgia Tech. He's a threat through the air or on the ground, even though he's not as good as a pure passer as Grady. In the Utah spread option it's not uncommon for the quarterback to get at least 15 carries in a game.
Utah gained 178 yards per game on the ground a year ago, which is considerable. They lost workhorse tailback Quinton Ganther, and his replacement has been an issue. Starting Saturday will be junior Mike Liti (5-10, 215), who has had a career stalled by injuries. The expected #1 running back is USC transfer and senior Darryl Poston (5-11, 200), but Poston has also been limited by injuries in his career, one of which was a kidney problem. He had a breakout spring for the Utes and had an edge over Liti before straining his hamstring in fall camp, but Poston is expected to play. It's expected that Utah will probably platoon at the position for the season and almost certainly for the UCLA game. Both are shifty types and not over-powering runners. Also probably getting a handful of carries will be sophomore Darrell Mack (6-0, 216) who brings a little more power to the backfield.
Between Ratliff and the tailbacks, expect Utah to be dedicated to running the ball Saturday, especially since it returns three of its five starters from a good offensive line. Senior Tavo Tupola (6-3, 300) has been a stalwart at the left tackle spot, but sophomore right guard Robert Conley (6-1, 316) and junior right tackle Jason Boone (6-4, 300) are also considered strong returnees.
Utah predominantly utilizes four wide receivers in its offensive set, lacking a tight end and a fullback, which means it needs a big stable of receivers to stock it. In recent years, Utah always has seemed to have the guys to play the positions well, even though they all seem to blend in together. There are some more constant names that have been at the position lately, though, led by junior Brian Hernandez (6-0, 175). Hernandez might remind you a bit of UCLA's Brandon Breazell, with good quickness and moves. He had 39 catches for 709 yards a year ago, and recovered from ankle surgery in the off-season. Two other returning starters are junior Derrek Richards (5-11, 175) and sophomore Brent Casteel (6-10, 193). But Utah shuttles in a steady stream of bodies at receiver, so expect to also see sophomores Marquis Wilson (5-11, 179), Freddie Brown (6-3, 217) and Bradon Godfrey (6-3, 197).
The Utes do employ a tight end at times, but mostly for blocking than for pass-catching. Senior Jason Voss (6-3, 268) is the primary guy.
Here's an interesting twist: Pre-season All-American senior defensive back Eric Weddle (6-0, 200) will be utilized on the offensive side of the ball. He could line up at quarterback, running back or receiver (and he also returns punts and holds for field goals, and plays both safety and cornerback). Wedddle is quick, tough and talented, and could be one of the best all-around players UCLA faces all season.
|UCLA's Brigham Harwell and Kenneth Lombard.|
UCLA's defense will have its hands full. The defensive line is being promoted as bigger and better but it still needs to prove that it can limit the run. Junior defensive tackle Brigham Harwell (6-2, 286) had a good fall, and was healthy for the first time in a long time. Sophomore Kenneth Lombard (6-1, 261) surprisingly won the starting nose tackle job from junior Kevin Brown (6-2, 293), showing very good quickness and smarts in fall camp. But along with sophomore Chase Moline (6-2, 280), UCLA is still undersized at defensive tackle. Utah averages 308 pounds in its interior starting OL, while UCLA's defensive tackles average 280 pounds, and that's conceding UCLA's possibly inflated listed weights. Lombard will be going up against a center, junior Kyle Gunther (6-4, 302) that outweighs him by 40 pounds.
The UCLA DL, though, has quickness on its side. Lombard has looked hard to contain on passing downs in practice, as has Harwell. Then there are UCLA's defensive ends, who are mostly of the faster, coming-off-the-edge type than the run-stopping type. Junior Bruce Davis (6-3, 237) had a very good fall and was hard to block rushing the passer. Junior Nikola Dragovic (6-3, 256) is still limited a bit by injuries, but looked very tough to block on passing downs. He was the starter a season ago but is a back-up while he shakes off the rust. Starter, senior Justin Hickman (6-2, 263), is also known as a pass rusher.
Putting pressure on the quarterback won't probably be UCLA's problem. It has a good collection of pass rushers, and new DC DeWayne Walker will be employing more blitz packages to try to get Bruins in the backfield.
The issue will be, once again, defending the run. UCLA's defensive ends are outweighed by Utah's offensive tackles by an average of close to 50 pounds.
UCLA's new defense under Walker will try to combat UCLA's deficit against the run game but bringing in the safeties into the box for run support more often than in the past. Walker has been dedicated since he came to UCLA to stopping the run, it will just be a matter of whether he has the horses to do it.
When you do, then, cheat in your safeties, you're putting more pressure on your cornerbacks in man coverage, which is a challenge when you're going up against Utah and its flood or receivers that are usually on the field. It's going to put a great deal of pressure on UCLA's corners, juniors Trey Brown (5-9, 185) and Rodney Van (5-11, 170). UCLA will go to a nickel quite often to offset the four wide receivers, and you'll then see true freshman cornerback Alterraun Verner (5-11, 170) take over one of the outside corner spots and Brown will move inside to pick up the slot receiver. Talking about pressure, there's going to be quite a bit on Verner, who doesn't even turn 18 years old until December.
UCLA's linebackers will also have a great deal of pressure on them, with three new starters and possibly two projected starters (John Hale and Eric McNeal) out for the game. It will be the unveiling of junior middle linebacker Christian Taylor (6-0, 222) as the defense's designated leader. Taylor and the other two starters, Aaron Whittington (6-2, 215) and redshirt freshman Reggie Carter (6-1, 218), have had good fall camps, but lack experience and size. They average a shockingly light 218 pounds.
Advantage: Utah. UCLA's defense won't get an "advantage" in a preview until it can prove that it's not the UCLA defense of old. While there is a new attitude and dedication to fundamentals, there are still the memories of allowing 232 yards per game on the ground a season ago and being ranked the 113th defense in the nation. And to be frank, new DC Walker doesn't seem to have much more to work with than he did last year. The DL is the same. Yes, they're older, more mature and experienced, and that accounts for something. But UCLA fans were relying on Kevin Brown, who had been tagged as a future star, to come in and bolster the DL this year. That was the primary excuse about the DL a year ago - missing Brown because of injury. But Brown, in his return this fall, failed to win the starting spot from Lombard, the 260-pounder. Since the announcement of the depth chart this week, it's really a huge cause for concern for the season.
So, between UCLA's rep that it has to live down, and Utah's reliance on running the ball, once again, expect the opposing offense to dedicate itself to running against UCLA until the Bruins can prove it can stop it. Watch for Walker to do everything he can to stop the big runs, on first down primarily, to then allow UCLA to go to its nickel and match up with Utah's receivers. When it does throw, it's going to be looking right at Al Verner, trying to exploit the freshman corner.
But If Utah is getting big gains on the ground, especially early in the game, it's a bad sign for UCLA for the game, and for the rest of the year. How UCLA does against the run in this game will be significant. Will it be able to dispel the rep right out of the gate? Or will it be a harbinger of an issue unresolved?
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. UTAH'S DEFENSE
Utah returns eight starters from a defense that could be called a good Mountain West defense a year ago, and one that likes to attack and blitz.
But a good Mountain West defense isn't necessarily one that can compete straight up with a good Pac-10 offense.
What Utah does have is possibly the marquee defensive player in the conference in defensive back Eric Weddle. From Alta Loma High School, he's been a starter since he was a freshman, and was named the MWC Defensive Player of the Year as a junior. Many pre-season publications named him the #1 strong safety in the nation. He's not only all over the field making tackles, but he's one of the best cover men UCLA will face all season. He has 11 career interceptions. Utah uses him primarily as a safety but he does line up as a corner, when Utah needs to utilize his cover skills more effectively, especially when they go to the nickel, which is often.
|Utah linebacker/safety Casey Evans.|
Probably Utah's second-best defensive talent is senior safety/linebacker Casey Evans (6-0, 200). Evans was second-team all-conference a year ago at safety, but with Utah's question marks at linebacker, Evans will start at linebacker, but move to safety in their nickel. Evans is another who is all over the field, with 89 tackles for 2005, along with a conference-leading five interceptions.
There have been some issues at linebacker. Evans has moved to what Utah calls its Rover Linebacker spot because of an injury to projected starter Kyle Brady, who could see some action despite his sprained knee. A true freshman, Stevenson Sylvester (6-2, 199) has had a good fall, but the Utes aren't ready to hand him the position. Joe Jiannoni (6-1, 235) the senior middle linebacker, has also been hampered by injuries. He's projected to start the UCLA game, but might not be 100%.
The defensive line is considered good, led by one of the best in the MWC, senior defensive tackle Kelly Talavou (6-2, 310). The Utes only had to replace one starter on the DL, and the new guy is huge senior Paul Soliai (6-4, 334), a converted offensive lineman.
UCLA has some questions to answer just about everywhere but at wide receiver. It's new starting quarterback, sophomore Ben Olson (6-5, 227) has all the talent in the world, as everyone knows, but will be starting his first game since he played at Thousand Oaks High in 2001 (he went on a Mormon mission in the interim). It will be a matter of how long it takes Olson to get comfortable - whether he'll be shaky to start or hit the ground running. You can probably expect UCLA to employ some short drops, roll-outs and quick throws to get him going. On the other side of the ball, you can expect the Utes to throw a lot of bodies at Olson with their many blitz packages, trying to keep him off-balance from the beginning of the game.
|UCLA's Chris Markey.|
So much will depend on whether UCLA can run the ball. Everything pointed to UCLA having a solid running game coming off last season, but the running game has been a bit of a concern this fall. Junior tailback Chris Markey (5-11, 204) is the starter, and he's been steady in camp. Sophomore Kahlil Bell (6-0, 205), while not a game-breaker, has looked better at times, being fearless running between the tackles to get that needed 4 to 5 yards. UCLA likes to use a tag-team at tailback, to keep the backs fresh and the defense adjusting to different running styles, so you'll probably see junior Derrick Williams (5-10, 211), who looked like he had returned well from a thigh injury this week, and even freshman Chane Moline (6-1, 238), who is the guy that definitely gives the Bruins more a pounder up the middle. The starting fullback is junior Michael Pitre (6-0, 244), and UCLA loves to utilize him catching the ball out of the backfield. But with the way the Utes will probably be bringing pressure he'll probably be staying in the backfield to pick up blitzes for most of this game.
One of the biggest questions that will be answered is whether UCLA's offensive line is ready to gel. Its leader is definitely junior guard Shannon Tevaga (6-3, 316), but the line is being hailed as the most athletic in recent years, with athletic junior Noah Sutherland (6-4, 299) having won the starting weakside tackle position and sophomore Chris Joseph (6-5, 282) at the weakside guard spot. The line is young and inexperienced generally, with redshirt freshman Aleksey Lanis (6-6, 316) getting his first action on the field at strongside tackle. Whether it can open holes for the running game and give Olson enough time to get in a rhythm will be interesting to see.
The match-up of UCLA's receivers against Utah's defensive backs is probably the main event of the day. UCLA has a deep group at wide receiver, with Brandon Breazell (6-0, 156) the designated shifty guy, and with senior Junior Taylor (6-2, 202), junior Marcus Everett (6-1, 196) and sophomore Gavin Ketchum (6-4, 201) the possession guys. Also watch for former trackster, senior Matt Willis (6-0, 198), and talented freshman Terrence Austin (5-11, 162) to do a little defense stretching.
UCLA's throwing game is primarily based on short, precise routes, which will pit its experienced receivers against Utah's good cover guys one-on-one. The game could be won or lost here; if UCLA's receivers can get open on the Utes' DBs for those easy 8-yard completions, Olson has a chance to get in sync and move the ball down the field.
Sophomore tight end Ryan Moya (6-2, 234) also provides another option catching the ball. He's looked good in practice recently. Senior TE J.J. Hair (6-6, 244) is recovering from a hamstring injury, but sophomore Logan Paulsen (6-5, 247) will also get a lot of time.
Advantage: UCLA. Utah will be pretty predictable - load the box to stop UCLA's running game and force Ben Olson to beat them through the air. While Olson could have some first-start jitters, he's to talented not to be able to be effective - only if UCLA's OL can give him time to throw. That's the key here in this match-up: Pass protection. Utah will probably limit UCLA's running game early and the Bruins will have to go to the pass to loosen up the Ute's defense. If Olson can get protection, UCLA's precision throwing game will move the ball down the field. It will probably look much like it did many times for the last couple of years: UCLA sputters a bit early, as it adjust to a loaded box. Then, the defensive front seven start to wear down, and by the second half UCLA starts getting some running room and keeps possession of the ball. Again, Utah's defense is good, for the Mountain West, but it's not the same kind of athlete that UCLA is used to seeing in the Pac-10.
UCLA has an advantage on special teams, with a good placekicker in senior Justin Medlock (6-0, 197) and a good stable of kick-off and punt returners. Chris Markey will be the #1 punt returner, with Dorrell not fully confident to give the job to a true freshman like Austin or Jeremy McGee (5-10, 178). McGee and Verner will return kick-offs.
So much is dependent on UCLA's defense. Is it more of the same, or has it really changed?
Utah actually has an advantage here in philosophy and scheme on both sides of the ball. On offense, it likes to run, and UCLA needs to prove it can stop the run. On defense, Utah has the DBs to use man coverage, which enables it to stack the box and blitz, to make Olson throw and then try to rattle him.
UCLA, on the other hand, will have to prove that it has the talent on its roster to beat a good Mountain West team. Even with some unproven players at many positions, it should, if it aspires to be among the elite tier of the Pac-10. While UCLA might have the unproven guys, athletes like safeties Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes and cornerback Rodney Van are guys that physically and athletically match up well against MWC talent.
It would be a complete shock (and a highly satisfying one) if UCLA shut down Utah's offense. If it could limit it to, say, under 400 total yards and under 200 yards rushing that would be considered huge. UCLA does have a coaching advantage over Utah in the fact that no one has ever really seen a DeWayne Walker defense. Utah has been in a bit of a quandary trying to research UCLA's defense. So, UCLA has the element of surprise on its side.
UCLA's offense, too, should have a higher level of athlete and, even though they're unproven and not vastly experienced, should be superior both athletically and physically. Utah's DBs are 5-9, 5-10, 5-11 and 6-0, while UCLA has the likes of 6-1 Everett, 6-2 Taylor and 6-4 Ketchum. UCLA should have an advantage in size and athleticism that you should see translated in production on the field.