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December 4, 2008

X & O Preview of UCLA

So, thanks to the collapse that was Oregon State last weekend, the Trojans are basically playing for Roses. The only way they can play in the Fiesta Bowl is if they lose and hope someone picks them. Otherwise, it would be off to the Holiday Bowl to face a team like Missouri or Oklahoma State. So all that stands in the way are the Gutty Little Bruins and their coaching staff, who entered the season with much fanfare, but have been disappointing in leading UCLA to a 4-7 record so far. On paper, this doesn't look like it will be much of the game. However, the last two times the teams have faced off at the Rose Bowl, the game was in doubt on the last possession of the game, with the Bruins winning one of those games. Can history repeat itself, sending the Trojans to San Diego? Here's a look at the match-up.

UCLA Offense vs. USC Defense

This is a familiar scenario for Norm Chow. He saw it in 2001 at USC. A young offensive line that has struggled. A dinged up running back corps. A good but underachieving WR unit. These problems have led to an atrocious running game at 86 yards per contest, and a one dimensional offense that passes for 209 yards per game. SC ran for 88 yards and passed for 227 per game in 2001. Yet the Trojans averaged almost a touchdown more per game than these Bruins. Why?

The number one reason is that QB Kevin Craft is no Carson Palmer. He has been absolutely abysmal this year, completing only 57% of his passes in a low risk offense, and throwing a whopping 19 INTs against seven TDs. He came in as an experienced QB with some starts at San Diego State and Mount San Antonio Junior College. Suffice it to say that the competition is tougher in the Pac-10. Craft has failed to progress at all this season, as he has locked on to receivers and tried to throw the ball into tight spots.

But it isn't all Craft's fault. The wide receiver tandem of Terrence Austin, Taylor Embree, and Dominique Johnson isn't reminding anyone of Keary Colbert and Kareem Kelly. Austin is supposed to be their difference maker, and he averages an embarrassing 8.7 yards per catch, and only has one TD reception in 49 catches. To me, Austin is a very poor man's Devin Hester, meaning that he is more kick returner than wide receiver. Embree isn't a bad possession receiver, but he's not very talented. Johnson has been a disappointment. Really, the team's most effective receiving threat as been tight end Ryan Moya, and he was second string until Logan Paulsen got hurt and was lost for the season.

Craft also does not have a running game to lean on. Kahlil Bell's high ankle sprain against Tennessee set the Bruins back some, and he really hasn't been close to 100% all season. UCLA has been forced to go to freshman Derrick Coleman, a big guy who fancies himself a cutback runner. Coleman has played relatively well for a young guy.

The real problem has been the offensive line. The Bruins have failed to crack 100 yards rushing in seven of their eleven games, and were under 75 yards in five of those games. The Bruins don't protect the passer well either on seven step drops, surrendering 35 sacks this season. Even protection in five step drops has been sketchy. So Chow has been forced to go to the three step drop passing game almost exclusively. The Bruins like to run the slot guy up the field to clear out the backer and have the outside guy run a curl in the space. This play has been their bread and butter, especially early in games. They run a lot of slants as well.

Defenses have easily adjusted to this. They sit on the short routes, knowing that other than Austin, who is small and easily jammed at the line, UCLA has no speed on the outside. They also know the Bruins can't protect on deep drops, even against four man rushes. So the corners play at medium depth and crash the short routes, and the outside backers take flat drops. This has caused a ton of tipped passes in the secondary, leading to an inordinate amount of INTs. But Craft has made some poor decisions as well, throwing into coverage and then going to the sideline to get an earful from Rick Neuheisel.

This offense isn't going to be able to move the ball worth a diddly poo against USC. It's one of the worst offenses in the nation. Poor QB play and a bad offensive line are a lethal combination. You can't open up the playbook with these factors, and it makes UCLA predictable. I think you may see UCLA try to incorporate QB Chris Forcier in a read option package because he is a good runner and they have nothing to lose. But beyond that, you'll see short passing and ineffective running, with the occasional double move that will go nowhere.

UCLA Defense vs. USC Offense

Here's where the battle lies. In the last two games with USC, UCLA has averaged 10 points per game, and this offense is far worse than the last two, as hard as that is to believe. So if the Bruins are going to win the game, they are going to have to stifle the USC offense, as they did in 2006, and to a much lesser degree, in 2007. This Bruin D is not as good as DeWayne Walker's previous two groups though. It is much younger and in my opinion, less talented.

The main reason that UCLA won in 2006 was that their ends destroyed USC's tackles on that day. That team graduated Justin Hickman, and the 2007 team graduated Bruce Davis, who was the MVP of both defenses (and best known for weeping uncontrollably in the bowl loss last season). There just is not as much push on the outside, although junior Korey Bosworth has played very well of late. Last year, UCLA had to blitz more to reach their sack total of 39. This year, they only have 21 sacks, and really save the blitzing for third and long situations, when they like to combo blitz/stunt with two backers up the middle in a variety of ways.

Walker's defenses are very aggressive. They like to put Akeem Ayers right on the line in front of the tight end between the tackle and end, or they will put John Hale outside of the end on the strongside, shaded off the line of scrimmage about a yard and a half. They used to play the strong safety close when they had Chris Horton, but they do not have that kind of confidence in Brett Lockett, who has struggled this season. They like to play their front seven close to the line, and they aggressively fly to the running back. The star of the group is defensive tackle Brian Price, who has been outstanding this season. He has quick feet and often gets penetration.

The last two seasons, they played a lot of bump coverage, but now they don't play as much. Alterraun Verner is an outstanding corner, and they like to play him at medium depth where he can jump routes and recover on double moves. But they do not trust his counterpart Michael Norris, and they have done their best to hide him on the QB's blind side.

The coaches in this conference have adjusted their offenses, and have resorted to pounding the ball right into the teeth of the front seven. Six teams have tallied up at least 40 carries against UCLA, and of that group, only Stanford lost. Those six teams averaged 37 points per game. Arizona ran the ball 35 times and got 31 points as well. The Bruins give up 166 rushing yards per game. Teams attack them with outside zone runs because they bunch up in the middle, their ends are small, and their outside backers don't have great speed.

I think you'll see a lot of running from the SC offense. Their 49 carries in last year's game was a season high. They moved the ball well against the Bruins in that game, and only two red zone turnovers and a missed FG kept the game from being really ugly.

Outlook

I think there is a certain fear about this game from some fans because the Trojans have struggled the last two times out at the Rose Bowl, and Walker's defenses at UCLA have held SC to 9 and 24 points in two games. But every season is different. The UCLA offenses in 2004 and 2006 were much better than this one. The UCLA defenses in 2006 and 2007 were better than this one. The USC offenses of 2006 and 2007 were not as good as the current installment. Those facts by themselves don't mean that SC will win big, but they point that way.

This UCLA offense will not be scoring 24 points, as they did in 2004, and they'll be lucky to get to 13 as they did in 2006. The 2006 team averaged 45 yards more per game in the ground than this one does. That team had a serviceable quarterback in Patrick Cowan, and a better offensive line. This Bruin team has been held to ten points or less by four defenses who are not as good as USC's. The 2006 team was never held to ten or less. This team can't run the ball, it can't protect the passer, and it can't stretch the field. The USC defense will eat them alive.

So it will be up to the Bruins defense and special teams to keep them close. UCLA is very good on special teams with excellent kicking specialists and a dangerous return man in Austin. But the Trojans have David Buehler, the one man touchback machine. So it will be hard to see Austin having a big day on kickoffs.

USC ran the ball for 231 yards on 49 carries last season against a much better UCLA defense. I don't see any reason why they can't do that again. And this time, the Trojans have a mobile QB in Mark Sanchez, who can buy time with his legs, which John David Booty could not.

I'm sure it won't always be a thing of beauty on offense. Like Notre Dame, UCLA likes to confuse teams with multiple fronts, and they play a style that will make some plays look brilliant and others look terrible. So I imagine there will be fits and starts and inconsistency, and probably more turnovers and penalties, just as there was last season. But just like last season, it won't be enough. USC will use their running game and better QB and receiver play to cruise to an easy victory over a UCLA team that has a tired defense thanks to their hapless offense.

Trojans-31, Bruins-0

Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at tvenegas@comcast.net


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