The Cougars began last season with not only hopes of a CUSA championship, but possible ‘BCS busting' goals in obtaining a BCS championship game berth(coming off of a 2009 season in which they defeated two Big12 teams in Oklahoma St who was ranked #5 in the nation at the time and Texas Tech). Those hopes all but vanished once their top two quarterbacks, Case Keenum and backup Cotton Turner, were both lost after suffering season ending injuries during the teams 3rd game at UCLA(Keenum tore his right ACL while Turner fractured his collar bone).
Their season came to a frustrating close on the heels of a four game losing streak to end the 2010 campaign at 5-7. When the schedule for the 2011 season was released, many pointed towards the UCLA rematch as a game of reckoning with Keenum back as he was granted a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA. Many that is, except for the Cougars coaching staff as Head Coach Kevin Sumlin said at CUSA media day recently,
"As coaches, we approach this game as it's the most important game of the year because it's the first game of the year. Whether you win or lose the game the year before has nothing to do with the next year."
As all 32,000 plus of the Cougar faithful at ‘the Rob' start the game fired up, this ‘even keel' approach by the coaching staff will assure that the team will maintain its composure through the ebbs and flows of the game that will be brought on by these ruggedly physical Bruins.
The game of football is not a contact support, it's a collision sport, and the Bruins play that way under 4th year head coach Rick Neuheisel. They are also beginning a very important season in Westwood as many report that Coach Neuheisel is the top coach on the dreaded coaches "hot seat," as his meager 15-22 record would indicate.
Although the Bruins finished the season ranked 100th in total offense last season(316.7 total yards per game) and 104th in scoring(20.2 ppg), THAT is not what Coog faithful remember about that fateful game at the Rose Bowl last year. What they remember is a team that ran over and around the Cougars ill matched defense to the tune of 266 yards on 51 attempts in that 31 – 13 demolishing, lead by mobile QB Kevin Prince and his 60 yards on 10 attempts out of the Bruins many "Pistol" formations. Fleet footed tail back Jonathan Franklin (5'10, 193) ran around the Coogs D for nearly 160 yards (158) on 26 carries. Both averaged more than 6 yards per carry as UCLA dominated in the trenches on both sides of the line. This season Prince is in a QB battle with Richard Brehaut and true freshman sensation Brett Hundley. While Prince is more the runner, Brehaut is more of the passer and Hundley has the combination of both that will allow him to see the field in packages especially created just for him. Newly hired offensive coordinator Mike Johnson is impressed with Hundley's knowledge of the playbook despite being limited in summer practices due to an injured knee. It appears that Prince will be named the starter early in the week (possibly before this article is published) as Neuheisel has said that he's a better decision maker than Brehaut, even though Brehaut's fundamentals (in the passing game) are better at this point in time. Franklin is complimented by a plethora of talented backs in
Derrick Coleman, Malcolm Jones and Jordon James. The bruising Coleman (6'4, 240) did not play last year against the Coogs due to injury but was the second leading rusher with 498 yards. Franklin led the Bruins with almost 1200 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry to Coleman's 5.9. Both Jones and James were 5 star athletes coming out of their respective high schools (Jones out of famed Oaks Christian in Westlake Village and James out of Corona). Anthony Barr is a 6'4, 237 pound locomotive who looks to be the starter at the F-Back position. In UCLA's "revolver" offense, the F-back is sort of like the traditional H-Back in its definition. It's a cross between a wide receiver and a tight end and the athlete who mans this position must be able to run, catch and block with authority. Basically the F-Back must be a freakish athlete that can do anything and everything on the field.
Speaking of the wide receiver core, the Bruins have no shortage of talent at this position as well, lead by seniors Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree. Both seem more likely for the beach volleyball circuit than they do as wideouts for a college football team as Rosario is listed at 6'5, 219 pounds while Embree goes 6'3, 207. There will definitely be a battle in the red zone between the Bruins deep receiver core and the Cougars newest additions at corner back in JC transfer D.J. Hayden and true sophomore Zach McMillan. Speaking of mismatches, I fear to see which Cougar linebacker will have to match up with Bruins tight end Joseph Fauria, who could play center on most college basketball teams (at 6'8, 252) and has really been impressing with his ability to catch the ball in traffic during recent Bruin scrimmages.
Offensively, it all starts up front for the Bruins smash mouth physical Pistol scheme lead by 6'1, 318 pound redshirt senior, center Kai Maiava. The Bruins starting O-line average about 6'4, 315 pounds across the board, compared to the Coogs D-line average of 275(including rush backer Sammy Brown.) How these two lines wage warfare in the trenches will determine the success of the Bruins offense. If the Coogs front 7 can cleanly block the Bruins O-line, the linebackers (lead by all CUSA backer Marcus McGraw) can freely penetrate and make plays in UCLA's backfield as you know the Bruins will try to establish the run game early and often. If the Bruins can effectively establish a running game look for them to go deep as they try to get relatively young safeties Kent Brooks and Chevy Bennett to bite on play action. The Cougars defense MUST be physical with the Bruins and not back down, even if they trail early. Physicality is the name of the game of a few of the Cougars newcomers on defense, such as line backer Everett Daniels, who along with true freshman Derrick Mathews have impressed coaches enough to be the two primary MO linebackers.
In order for the Cougars to maximize their success, upon winning the coin toss (assuming they do), they need to put their offense on the field first in order to establish their dominance. This is an offensive minded team and the team's strength should always be emphasized first and foremost. The Cougars looked intimidated early in the game last year at UCLA by the Bruins size and athleticism. They must go on the offensive in Saturday's game and take it to the Bruins. In establishing an early lead, the Coogs must dictate the pace of the game. By the third quarter of last year's game the Bruins were "imposing their physical will on the Cougars" as one of Fox Sport's game analysts repeatedly said. Keenum needs to come out firing short strikes for completions quickly moving the chains. Getting into an early rhythm with his receivers via their no huddle spread offense will hurt the Bruins defense twofold. First it will test the Bruins defensive conditioning. By the 4th quarter look to see if the Bruins are trying to slow down the Coogs Airraid offense via faking injuries to stop the clock (hello Tulsa and former coach Todd Graham). Secondly, allowing the Coogs offense to get into a rhythm with the short passing game will keep the hulking Bruins defenders out of Keenum's grill. The best way to keep Keenum clean is to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
With the passing game established look for the Cougars offense to then sprinkle in some quick draws, traps and screen passes to the trio of talented backs – Bryce Beall, Michael Hayes and Charles Sims. During Sims 2009 CUSA freshman of the year campaign, he averaged nearly a first down on each reception. Look for Sims to motion out into the slot numerous times while also catching many passes on swing routes out of the backfield.
The Bruins defense finished 94th in the nation in total yards allowing 420 per game. They finished 85th in scoring allowing a whopping average of 30.3 per game. Much like the Bruins offensive performance versus the Coogs last year, those unimpressive stats hardly told the tale in last year's game as they held the Coogs to their lowest point and yard totals last year at 13 and 360. Of course that was understandable with the loss of the Coogs top 2 QBs during the middle of the second quarter.
To rectify the Bruins defensive situation, Neuheisel hired Joe Tresey as their new defensive coordinator as he looks to generate much more pressure and create more turnovers than last season out of a traditional 4-3 front. Much like the offensive side of the ball, the Bruins defense is loaded with 4 and 5 star athletes who just need mature and gel together. Their front 4 looks to be devastating with the return of 4 star end Datone Jones. At 6'5, 275 pounds the redshirt junior will look to reek havoc in the Cougars backfield. He sat out last year due to a fractured foot. Manning the defensive tackle spots will be youngsters Cassius Marsh, Justin Edison and Nate Chandler. They average out to about 6'4, 288 pounds and have the athleticism to go around the Cougars offensive line if they are not careful, while also possessing the strength to go through them. The Cougars O-line(highlighted by 3 year starter Chris Thompson at center and Jacolby Ashworth at left tackle) need to play "as a nickel in stead of five pennies" as coach Sumlin is fond of saying. Basically he is saying the line needs to play together in order to fend off the onslaught from the Bruins front 7.
The heartbeat of the Bruins defense is Mike (middle) line backer Patrick Larimore. He only played in the Bruins first 7 games last year after dislocating his shoulder, but he physically dominated the game defensively against the Coogs last year as he made play after play after play both in the running and passing games. Tony Dye is the leader of the Bruins young secondary and will start at free safety after playing at strong safety last season. Dye, is a physical 215 pounder who lead the Bruins defense in tackles last season. This leaves athletic sophomore Dietrich Riley to be the projected starter at strong safety. Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester round out the talented Bruins secondary as the returning starters at cornerback and are sure to have their hands full with the Cougars wide receiving core lead by returning senior starters Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier, both of whom have had multiple 1000 yard receiving seasons as Cougars.
Special teams are where the Cougars have a decided advantage, at least in the kicking game. Cougar kicker Matt Hogan is a money like 26 – 29 on field goals(over 2 seasons) and if the game were on the line, I would feel confident that the Cougars would be going home as winners. The same can't be said for whoever is the Bruins kicker, which appears to be Jeff Locke, who is actually a great punter. He averaged 45.8 yards per punt last season, good for 4th nationally. The Bruins allowed only 6 yards per game on punt returns on nearly 3 punts per game last season. Houston responds with punter Richie Leone who averaged a tad more than 41 yards per punt as a true freshman. The Cougars should be fine in this area as long as they don't try any pooch punts, which doomed them in last season's game in Pasadena giving the Bruins great field position numerous times to start their drives. Against a mediocre to average offense the key is to make them drive the length of the field in order to score. Receivers Josh Smith and Shaquelle Evans are projected to be the Bruins punt and kickoff return specialists respectively. Both are athletic as UCLA should be ok in the return games. Houston, however, should be special – lead by Edwards as the primary punt returner and Carrier as the kickoff return specialist. Edwards 15.4 yards per punt return average would have had him in the top 10 nationally had he qualified. Carrier has 6 career kickoff returns for touchdowns, which is one off the all time NCAA mark of 7 by C.J. Spiller of Clemson.
In my final analysis, I think this game will come down to how the Cougars defense matches up against the Bruins physical offense. Offensively I feel as if Case and the rest of the O will wear down the Bruins athletic yet inexperienced defense by the time the 4th quarter comes rolling around. The defense (under second year coordinator Brian Stewart) will throttle the Bruins offense (who still doesn't have a true identity under the "offensive guru" Neuheisel) just enough to edge out the Bruins by the final score of 37 – 27.