UCLA Bruins preview

On conference championship Saturday, how fitting is it that the best game of the day will decide the conference champion of a conference that doesn't even have a championship game? While the Bruins can't truly win the conference flat-out, they can stake a claim to a share of it and ruin one of the best seasons in Trojan history with a win. For the Trojans, a win means a spot in another national championship game, back at their vacation home in Pasadena.

Bruins on offense:

Quarterback – #14 Drew Olson

It's true that Drew Olson has improved in each of his three seasons as the starting quarterback, but I don't think that even the most devoted Bruin fan could have predicted the kind of season that he has had so far in 2005. Even with an unheralded and depleted receiving corps, Olson has put together an absolutely unbelievable season. Olson leads the nation with a quarterback rating of 172, his 30 touchdown passes tie him for second in the nation and his three interceptions barely register as a blip on the screen. Olson has picked apart every defense he's come up against this season, even performing well in his team's only loss at Arizona. In fact, the only game that might not make it on the 2005 Drew Olson highlight reel in its entirety is his struggle against Washington, in which his team escaped with a four-point win and Olson threw two interceptions to go along with a season-worst quarterback rating of 80.

A large part of Olson's success is due to the offensive play calling, which has allowed him to pile up completions and touchdowns with the help of screens and quick passes that his running backs and wide receivers take for long gains. Olson will hit the deep ball occasionally, but it's tough to do when you're best deep threat lines up behind you at running back.

Olson is at his best when he's able to find his tight end, Marcedes Lewis, over the middle of the field, either on a quick hitch or a long seam route. The Trojans have been victimized by scrambling quarterbacks in the past, but Olson isn't mobile by any means and has been sacked 19 times this season, including four times each against Washington State and Arizona.

Even though Olson is coming off a game that most quarterbacks can only dream about, completing 22 of 27 passes for 510 yards and five touchdowns, the speed and sophistication of USC's defense should slow him down and force him into making mental or physical mistakes. But even if the Trojans can force Olson into a few early mistakes, he's shown the mental toughness this season, and in last year's game against USC, to lead his team back in the fourth quarter. On Saturday, Drew Olson will need to stay interception free yet again, because turnovers mean extra opportunities for the Trojan offense, and that means bad news for Olson's Bruins.

Running Backs – #21 Maurice Drew, #28 Chris Markey, #32 Michael Pitre

Maurice Drew is a tough little runner who has taken on the role of the number one tailback for the Bruins this season. Drew is lightning quick and combines that with enough strength to break a tackle or two. Even though he hasn't had a truly outstanding game this season that compares with his 322-yard, five touchdown performance against Washington last season, Drew has been more than capable when handed the ball and is a big time threat out of the backfield.

Drew has received a majority of the rushing attempts this season, picking up 816 yards and 12 touchdowns on 169 attempts. He has three 100-yard rushing games this season, coming against San Diego State, Washington State and Oregon State, and has been held under five yards per carry for the year, largely because opposing defenses are able to prepare for him rather than let him surprise them as he did for so much of the 2004 season.

Chris Markey has gotten a few carries this season, running the ball 80 times for 378 yards and three touchdowns, but he has been largely overlooked this season. He's logged more than ten carries in just three games and has yet to go over 100 yards in any game. He's coming off a huge receiving day against Arizona State however, catching three passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. Markey will need to make an impact either rushing or receiving against the Trojans in order to prevent USC from constantly keying on Maurice Drew.

Markey and Drew aren't exactly thunder and lightning as Drew is both shorter and heavier, but the combination of the two can be extremely potent and as well as Drew Olson is playing this year, stopping the run should always be the priority of a defense.

Michael Pitre is used almost exclusively as a true blocking fullback, receiving a handful of carries and receptions this season as thanks for his hard-nosed blocking. Almost half of his 15 carries this season came against Arizona as the Bruins rested their starting tailbacks during the route. With the Bruins looking for the upset, it will be guys like Pitre that need to play flawlessly in order to allow for the UCLA skill players to have big games.

Wide Receivers – #26 Joe Cowan, #1 Brandon Breazell, #9 Marcus Everett, #10 Gavin Ketchum

Heading into the season, the Bruin wide receivers were already one of the weakest units on the team and losing Junior Taylor to an injury against Oklahoma didn't exactly help matters. Junior wideout Joe Cowan, mustache and all, leads the group with 32 receptions for 443 yards. He's also added three touchdown catches. He is a taller receiver, but he shouldn't provide too much of a threat for the Trojan secondary in terms of jump balls. He is very quick, however, and if he's given space after a catch he can turn upfield and go the distance. This was evidenced against Arizona State, when Cowan took a pass and raced 91 yards for a touchdown. Cowan's 109 receiving yards against the Sun Devils stands as the only 100-yard receiving day for a Bruin wide receiver this season.

Marcus Everett is the team's second-leading wide receiver, hauling in 27 passes for 348 yards and a touchdown while Brandon Breazell has 22 grabs for 280 yards and four touchdowns. Both are your average secondary receiver types who will make catches in open space but don't exactly strike fear in opposing defensive coordinators.

Gavin Ketchum has just 11 catches and 153 yards this season, but with the way the Trojan secondary has played at times this season, any wide receiver standing 6'4" makes you worry a bit. Luckily, Ketchum is just a true freshman and isn't likely to see much time on Saturday.

Tight End – #19 Marcedes Lewis

Without Marcedes Lewis there is no way the Bruins are coming into the game against the Trojans with just one loss on the season. Over the past several years, Lewis has been the recipient of a lot of hype about his abilities but not a lot of statistics to back it up. This season, Lewis has been the entire Bruin receiving corps and the steady presence that has allowed Drew Olson to have the season he's having.

Lewis leads the team by a large margin with 55 catches for 711 yards and ten touchdowns. He is coming off back-to-back 100-yard, two touchdown performances against both Arizona schools and will be Olson's main target in the passing game. He has shown a knack this season for finding the seam between the safeties 15 or 20 yards downfield and has the hands to corral anything thrown his way. The match up between he and Darnell Bing should be one of the best during the game, and one that could continue into the professional ranks.

Offensive Line – LT #68 Brian Abraham, LG #71 Shannon Tevaga, C #54 Robert Chai, RG #75 Robert Cleary, RT #73 Ed Blanton

The Bruin offensive line has paved the way for a pretty potent attack this season. UCLA runners are averaging 4.2 yards per carry and have scored 18 rushing touchdowns. The strong side of the line is absolutely massive, with Robert Cleary coming in at 6'7" and 320 pounds and still dwarfed by Ed Blanton at 6'9" and 350 pounds. While this size helps in the running game, the Bruins have been victimized by quicker defensive lines, giving up multiple sacks to SDSU, Oklahoma, Washington State, Stanford and Arizona. This Trojan defensive line has a great first step and could be in the backfield before some of the offensive linemen get set to block. The Trojan pass rush was somewhat lacking against a smaller, more athletic Fresno State line. It will be important for the line to have a better day against the Bruins.

Bruins on defense:

Defensive Line – #48 William Snead, #50 Chase Moline, #93 Brigham Harwell, #17 Justin Hickman

If the Bruin defensive line was bad last season, it is absolutely abysmal this year. UCLA ranks 115th out of 117 teams in rushing defense, giving up 219.5 yards per game on the ground. The Bruins are one of just 14 teams allowing over 200 yards per game and one of just five that allow over five yards per carry. On the flip side, the Trojans boast the only rushing offense in the country averaging over six yards per carry. This Saturday we might see the answer to the slightly easier physics question: "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an easily movable object."

The main reason for the lack of success against the run is that the Bruin line has no anchor. There is no solid presence that demands multiple blockers and can beat double teams and the line is so collectively small they get flung around like socks in a dryer. But, because of their size, the front is quite athletic and can get after the quarterback in the passing game.

Justin Hickman leads the line with 29 tackles and 5.5 sacks from his defensive end position. He also ranks third on the team with eight tackles for loss. He lines up next to Brigham Harwell who has chipped in with 28 tackles, nine tackles for loss and three sacks. That duo forms by far the stronger side of the defensive line and the Bruins may shift them along the line to prevent the Trojans from running again and again at William Snead, a former linebacker, and Chase Moline, a true freshman.

Snead has just 18 tackles on the season with 1.5 sacks and two recovered fumbles, and the Trojan guards should have a field day welcoming Moline to the rivalry. But even though the statistics say that the Bruins shouldn't have a chance in stopping the Trojans' running game, funny things have a way of happening in games like this and the USC front will need to play as well as they've been playing all season in order to shut down the ultra-motivated Bruin line.

Linebackers – #41 Spencer Havner #40 Wesley Walker, #12 John Hale, #9 Justin London

Spencer Havner is, without a doubt, the best player for the Bruins defensively and a brilliant performance from him is absolutely necessary to give his team a shot at the upset. He leads the team with 84 tackles, including 15 behind the line of scrimmage, and has chipped in with two sacks and two recovered fumbles. Havner played well against the Trojans last season, but on both of Reggie Bush's long touchdown runs, he had a shot to bring Bush down and came up with nothing but air. He can do everything expected of a linebacker, but he's not going to win the game by himself. If the Trojans can force him to run sideline to sideline for the entire first half, chances are he's not going to be filling the same holes or making the same solid tackles as the game progresses. Havner has also been one of the team's best defenders against the pass this season, leading the team with two interceptions and tied for second with seven pass deflections.

Justin London has missed the past two games, but could be back for his last shot against the Trojans. When healthy, London teams with Havner to form one of the best linebacking duos in the conference, so it will be interesting to see if he is fully healthy heading into the game. On the season, London has 38 tackles, including five behind the line of scrimmage.

Wesley Walker is another linebacker who has missed a couple of games this season due to injury but has held down the starting outside linebacker spot for the past few games. Walker has just 17 tackles in seven games and isn't the kind of player who is going to make many game-changing plays on Saturday.

John Hale is a true freshman who has found playing time as a result of the injuries to the linebackers and hasn't exactly been overly impressive. He has started seven of the last eight games and has 20 tackles in nine total games. If Hale plays extensively against the Trojans, look for Matt Leinart to do everything he can to get him matched up against the Trojan tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.

Cornerbacks – #23 Trey Brown, #15 Marcus Cassell

With UCLA's porous run defense, putting up good numbers against the pass wouldn't seem like two much to ask for, but the Bruins have been far from good in that regard as well. At first glance it appears the Bruins have a better pass defense than the much maligned Trojan secondary, allowing fewer completions, yards and touchdown passes, but when it comes to pass efficiency defense, the Trojans rank 46th in the nation, far ahead of the Bruins at 90, thanks to just five interceptions and allowing over seven yards per attempt.

Trey Brown is probably the best cover corner on the team, but neither he nor Marcus Cassell should provide as stiff a test as the Fresno State corners two weeks ago. The Bulldog corners were able to help themselves by making every solo tackle in open space against the Trojan wide receivers. Against the Bruins, if Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith can catch those quick passes, throw a stiff arm and get up the field, the Trojan offense should roll even without the benefit of another superhuman performance.

Brown and Cassell have 15 pass defenses between them, but Brown's interception to ice the game against Cal is the only pick that either corner has all season. Brown was part of the Bruin secondary that kept Matt Leinart out of the endzone last season, but with the way Leinart is playing this season, that is unlikely to happen again.

Safeties – #4 Jarrad Page, #11 Dennis Keyes

Jarrad Page and Dennis Keyes have been mainstays this season in the Bruin secondary. Page ranks second on the team with 57 tackles and has added a sack, forced fumble and five pass deflections. He is a very solid safety and has taken over the leadership role vacated by Ben Emanuel II. He's also the best hitter in the secondary.

Dennis Keyes stepped in for the departed Emanuel and has played admirably this season. He has 56 tackles on the season along with two sacks and five pass deflections. He's played well, but I wouldn't mind watching Matt Leinart throw his way more than a few times on Saturday.

It will be interesting to note how close to the line of scrimmage the safeties are playing in order to help with the run. So much has been made of Peyton Manning's ability with the Colts to audible in and out of running plays based on how many defenders are in the box. I don't expect Matt Leinart to try and take that much control of the Trojan offense, but he is definitely smart enough to take advantage of match ups that favor his playmakers.

Bruins on special teams:

Kicker – #7 Justin Medlock

Justin Medlock is one of the better kickers in the conference, converting 11 of 14 attempts this season with a long of 51. He obviously has a strong leg and is above average when it comes to accuracy, especially when you consider the ability of most kickers around the nation. But when it comes to kickoffs, just 32 of his 71 attempts have gone for touchbacks.

Punter – #17 Aaron Perez

Aaron Perez is averaging just under 40 yards per kick on his 43 attempts with a long of 52. Only three of his kicks have gone for touchbacks, with 11 fair catches and 13 downed inside the 20. 16 of his punts have been returned for 143 yards.

Kick Returner – #28 Chris Markey

Chris Markey is a valuable asset in the kick return game, returning 15 kicks for 352 yards, averaging 23.5 per kick. He has a long of 71 yards for the year and will test the kick coverage unit of the Trojans.

Punt Returner – #21 Maurice Drew

Maurice Drew has been absolutely unbelievable when it comes to punt returns hit season. He's racked up a ridiculous 29.1 yard average on 14 returns including three touchdowns. He has become so good that it's almost strange to not see him break a return for a long gain. The Trojans have the skill on special teams to contain Drew, but it might be best to not play with the proverbial fire and punt everything sky-high, out of bounds or into the end zone.


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