-- UCLA takes on BYU In the Las Vegas Bowl Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium. The game will kick off at 5:00 and be nationally televised by ESPN. Brad Nessler, Bob Griese and Paul McGuire will call the action.
-- UCLA is 6-6 on the season and 5-4 in the Pac-10.
-- BYU is 10-2 overall, and went 8-0 to win the Mountain West Conference.
-- BYU is ranked #19 by both polls.
-- UCLA leads the all-time series with BYU, 7-1. The two teams met earlier this season at the Rose Bowl, with the Bruins prevailing, 27-17. In that game, UCLA built a 20-0 lead, only to see BYU fight back and come within 3 before UCLA scored the game-clinching touchdown on a three-yard run by Chris Markey with a little over a minute left.
-- BYU is experiencing a new successful era in its football program. BYU went 11-2 last season, and a perfect 8-0 to win the Mountain West Conference. It was the school's best record since 2001 when they went 11-2. The Cougars finished the 2006 season ranked in the top 20 nationally in many polls.
-- BYU is coached by Bronco Mendenhall, who is in his third year at the helm in Provo. In his first season (2005), he took a program that had not had a winning season in four years to 6-5 and to a bowl game. Then, last year, Mendenhall went 11-2. He is 27-10 overall while at BYU.
-- This is the first time since 1990-1991 BYU has had back-to-back ten-win seasons.
-- Mendenhall was BYU's defensive coordinator when he was promoted to head coach. He got most of his defensive coaching chops as the defensive coordinator at New Mexico, under head coach Rocky Long, who is the ex-defensive coordinator at UCLA. Long became a much-loved DC in his two seasons at UCLA under Bob Toledo for his unconventional, attacking style in 1996 and 1997.
-- Mendenhall's name has been one that was mentioned at times for the vacant head coaching job at UCLA.
UCLA is, of course, being coached by interim head coach DeWayne Walker, the team's defensive coordinator. Karl Dorrell was fired December 3rd, two days after the Bruins lost to USC. UCLA Dan Guerrero has been conducting a head coaching search ever since, and Walker is a candidate for the position. While it won't be admitted, you'd have to think that Walker's coaching performance in the bowl could affect his chances to be hired.
-- There is another UCLA-BYU coaching connection. Mendenhall this season hired Mark Weber as BYU's offensive line coach. Weber served in that capacity under Toledo and under Karl Dorrell in his first year as head coach. Since UCLA, Weber has been at Fresno State and North Carolina.
-- Of the 105 players on BYU's fall camp roster, 63 have served their LDS mission. There are currently 28 members of the BYU football program serving their two-year missions.
-- UCLA quarterback Ben Olson went to BYU out of high school, but then left after his true freshman football season and went on his LDS mission.
-- BYU owns the second longest winning streak in the country, with nine consecutive victories.
-- This is BYU's third straight appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
-- The weather forecast calls for a temperature in the mid-40s at game time Friday, and clear skies.
BYU'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
BYU had to replace many skill players from last season, and there was some question whether they'd be able to do that and keep up the offensive productivity from the 2006 season.
Well, the Cougars answered those questions this season. They ended the regular season as the 15th-best offense in the country, averaging 457 yards per game. They are 13th in the nation, passing for 304 yards per game.
The offense is predicated on a short, efficient passing game, which demands a smart, efficient quarterback. Last season John Beck was named the MWC Player of the year and passed for over 3,000 yards in this offense, and there were those questions about whether there'd be drop off working in a new starting QB. But Max Hall (SO, 6-1, 200), a transfer from Arizona State who sat out last season, answered all the questions. He's passed for 3,616 yards, which is the most in the country for any sophomore quarterback and the most by any sophomore MWC quarterback ever.
|BYU's Harvey Unga.|
The Cougars also had to replace another huge skill guy from a year ago, running back Curtis Brown, the all-time career rushing leader at BYU. Redshirt freshman Harvey Unga (FR, 6-1, 221) did it with flying colors, making many freshman all-american teams while running for 1,211 on the season, a BYU record for a freshman. Unga is a battering ram type of guy who is tough to bring down when you give him space in the flat. That's why he was so effective catching the ball this season, too, with 41 receptions for 629 yards.
Wide receiver Austin Collie (SO, 6-2, 212), was tough to stop when UCLA faced him in September, and he proved to be throughout the season, leading BYU in receiving yards (839) on 50 receptions. two other veteran receivers had very solid seasons: Matt Allen (SR, 6-0, 177) and Michael Reed (JR, 6-1, 202), as strong possession-type receivers.
BYU also expected big things from tight end Dennis Pitta (SO, 6-5, 230) this season and he definitely lived up to expectation. Pitta led the team with 54 receptions, which is good enough to get him ranked the seventh-best tight end in terms of production in college football this season.
The left side of BYU's offensive line made up the Mountain West's All-conference first team. Dallas Reynolds (FR, 6-5, 300) is being hailed as one of the best young OLs in the west, and he's joined by Ray Feinga (JR, 6-5, 322) at guard. Center Sete Aulai (SR, 6-1, 297) is a senior captain and considered a very savvy veteran to make up one of the biggest and best OLs UCLA faced all season. BYU's offensive line averages 6-5 and 318 pounds, while UCLA's defensive line averages 6-3 (if you go by their listed height) and 272 pounds.
UCLA's defense doesn't quite have the same personnel it did the first time it faced BYU back in September, when it held BYU to just 44 yards rushing. But Brian Price has filled in admirably as a true freshman, replacing veteran Brigham Harwell who has been out for most of the season at defensive tackle.
Advantage: Slightly to BYU. BYU proved every week that their offense wasn't a fluke this season. And even though they were putting up all of those yards on MWC opponents, they still have to be considered one of the best -- and most balanced -- offenses in the west.
When UCLA faced them in September BYU's O was just breaking in new starters and learning who it was, and it still put up 435 yards on UCLA's defense. That was primarily through the air, but now BYU has added a very good running game. In that game in September you could almost see BYU's offense getting better as the game progressed.
Hall will be tough to stop. He's tough and savvy, and doesn't make a great deal of mistakes. He also benefitted from an offensive line that gave him a great deal of time all season, allowing Hall to get sacked just 17 times. UCLA will have to come at him with many different types of blitzes. In that game in September, UCLA's defensive secondary missed a number of assignments, and you'd have to think that they're quite a bit better now. BYU doesn't have the home-run wide receiver, but gets it done by throwing underneath over and over, and then stretching the field with an occasional post. Pitta really gave the Cougars a great dimension this season, and a match-up, with his size and quickness, that was tough to stop. He was too big for linebackers, and if defenses shaded him with another defender, Hall was smart enough to recognize and find the open receiver. Pitta going down the field against UCLA's two good safeties, Dennis Keyes and Chris Horton, should be a very interesting match-up to watch for.
UCLA was the most effective at getting to Hall in the entire 2007 season, sacking him four times, with Bruce Davis getting to him twice. Another great match up will be Davis against Reynolds, to see if the freshman All-Amercan tackle has improved his pass blocking in a season.
A sign of good coaching is when, year in and year out, with the turnover of college football, you produce strong units. In 2006 BYU's defense ranked fourth in the nation in and 10th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 14 points a game, which is the lowest for a Cougar defense in 12 years.
This year they pulled of another defensive gem, ending the regular season as the 10th-ranked defense in the nation in terms of yards allowed per game (307), and ninth in rush defense, allowing just 92 yards per game.
|Linebacker Bryan Kehl.|
The strength of BYU's defense is its four-man linebacking crew, led by strongside linebacker Bryan Kehl (SR, 6-3, 231). Kehl is active and flies around aggressively. He was also Ben Olson's roommate their freshman year at BYU.
The strength of BYU's defense is its four-man linebacking crew, led by strongside linebacker Bryan Kehl (SR, 6-3, 231). Kehl is active and flies around aggressively. He was also Ben Olson's roommate their freshman year at BYU. Kehl made the MWC first team. Kelly Poppinga (SR, 6-2, 240) was second team, and veterans David Nixon (JR, 6-3, 223) Markell Staffieri (SR, 6-3, 232) might be just as good.
Perhaps BYU's biggest issues coming into the season was its defensive line, being hurt by injury. But defensive end Jan Jorgensen (SO, 6-3, 260) had an all-conference season with 12 sacks, and true freshman Eathyn Manumaleuna (FR, 6-2, 280) stepped up at nose tackle in much the same way Brian Price did for UCLA.
The front seven were very effective against the run, and the back four weren't too shappy against the pass. Free safety Quinn Gooch (SR, 6-0, 196), was the leader and he had a very good year. Ben Criddle (SR, 6-0, 185) emerged as a very strong boundary corner.
UCLA's offense wil be without its best two quarterbacks, Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan, and have to go with Osaar Rasshan. Rasshan is a very good athlete, and is dangerous when running in the open field, but he struggles to consistently make the correct reads and throw the ball accurately.
Running back Chris Markey has recovered from his injuries, as has Christian Ramirez, who looked good in practice recently. Craig Sheppard, the walk-on tailback, has proven he can be a solid back-up and will get a decent amount of carries.
Advantage: BYU. Without Olson or Cowan, you can't give UCLA's offense much of a chance, especially since it's been working Olson as the starter up until just a couple of days ago, which hasn't allowed them to get Rasshan as much as time as you'd like.
Even with Olson or Cowan, you wouldn't give UCLA's offense much of a chance. Even without Dorrell on the sideline, it's still the same scheme. Watch for offensive coordinator Jay Norvell to open up things a bit, work out of the gun a bit more, with 4-receiver sets, and show a bit more diversity in the play-calling. But don't expect too much departure from what we've seen all season, especially with the limitations brought on by the missing Olson and Cowan.
BYU defense's kept UCLA to just 236 total yards, and just 126 yards passing, and that was with Olson, in the Rose Bowl. Mendenhall is a very good defensive coach and you can expect him to be able to contain Rasshan with his good, experienced linebackers and also put a great deal of pressure on him to force him into mistakes.
UCLA does have an advantage in team speed, but the offense hasn't been able to exploit it all season, so it's doubtful it will start now.
BYU is a different team than the one UCLA faced September 8th in the Rose Bowl. It hasn't suffered too many injuries while benefitting from the experience of its veteran personnel and its younger players developing during the season. Hall, obviously, has been a key to the offense. He looked good back in September, out-playing Olson in that game, and has been considerably better since.
There has to be some intangible here of UCLA's players believing they're playing for DeWayne Walker, in his quest to become UCLA's head coach. But there also has to be an element that UCLA wants this disappointing season to come to an end. There are only a few thousand UCLA fans expected to attend the game, while there should be a very large BYU contingent.
UCLA fans are entirely more concerned with the coaching search and you have to believe it's been a distraction for the UCLA players as well.
While Dorrell was doing his death march in November and December, the UCLA players did, though, play hard and didn't pack it in. So, expect UCLA to put up some resistance, but not enough to overcome a BYU team that has it rolling.
Expect UCLA's defense to provide most -- if not all -- of its opportunities to score.