All sorts of fun little connections in this game. It starts at the top with former CU head coach and current UCLA head coach, Rick Neuheisel. Embree (and Cabral) coached under Neuheisel and the two are still friends. Buff fans, I know many of you have some pretty strong feelings about Rick, but I'm going to try hard not to let that color this preview too much. Beyond the HC, UCLA sports a few former Buffaloes on its team as well: we all remember KR Josh Smith and o-lineman/fullback Kai Maiava. Another Bruin with a CU connection is starting wide receiver Taylor Embree, who will be playing in his final home game at UCLA with his father, Jon, in attendance. Isn't that nice? OK, on to actual football!
This is an important game for both teams. UCLA was picked to finish ahead of only us in the south division, and there's a chance we'll be fighting to not finish last. Lets hope not, though...
Follow the jump...because I said so!
They are in a tough situation. They weren't very good last year, and I'm not sure they show many signs of improving. I think Neuheisel's job may depend on it, but I'm not sure I see it happening this year. They've replaced both the offensive and defensive coordinators, ordinarily not a good thing, except they weren't particularly good on either side of the ball last year. They hope another year in the pistol offense will be helpful. On defense, they lose some guys, but they feel like there's still some talent there. We'll see if I agree or not.
What's the old saying? If you have two QBs, you really have none. We experienced that for a while here, so we know how it feels, but I think they're in even worse shape down in Westwood. There is still no leader between Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut and they've supposedly gone back and forth since fall practices began. I'm sure we'll know who the guy is by the time we play them in November, but for now it's anyones guess. Either way, they are running the pistol offense that has led the Nevada Wolf Pack to some big seasons recently. They feel that that running the somewhat gimmicky offense (the QB lines up a few yards behind the center w/ the running back directly behind them like a mix between the shotgun and a standard I formation) will make the difference for them in the Pac-12. They ran it last year to mixed results: Not a good season through the air, but a solid season on the ground. They return an offensive line that has some solid experience, but that may not necessarily be a good thing. These guys have seen action, but they haven't always been good when they've played. They hope that getting Maiava back after he sat out last year w/ an injury will help, and that everyone along the line has improved. Plus, it will be year two running the pistol, so familiarity may help them.
Their receiving corps is a bit of an enigma. They are supposed to be great, but they just haven't performed. Some of that was due to sub-par QB play, but not all of it. They're still waiting for Nelson Rosario to step his game up, and Taylor Embree has only been a possesion-type guy so far in his career. Behind them are a bunch of guys with a lot of potential, like Randall Carroll, true freshman Devin Lucien (a guy we were going after) and good old' Josh Smith. They don't seem to think he'll make an impact as a wideout (we could have told them that), but he still can be a dangerous kick/punt returner.
They like to use their tight ends more in the running game, which has been necessary to help out their offensive line. They have a very solid group of running backs led by Jonathan Franklin, a guy who ran for more than 1,100 yards last year. He will be a threat on the ground if they can open holes for him. I have faith in our defensive line's ability to contain him, though. What will be interesting is how often they use him as a receiver out of the backfield. He's got solid speed, as do some of the guys behind him, so we'll have to be careful keeping an eye on these guys even when they don't have the ball. They also fill out their offense with the fullback, which will alternately be the big Anthony Barr (238 lbs) and the tiny Damien Thigpin. Each of those guys give the offense a little more flexibility when they're on the field.
Overall, I'm not too worried. After 11 straight games, UCLA won't be able to throw too much at these Buffs that they won't have seen, even with their non-traditional offense. I think we are stout enough up front that we'll be able to counter any benefits the Bruins get from playing out of the pistol.
They lose Rahim Moore, their defensive leader, and Akeem Ayers, a guy that was a matchup problem all over the field, but they return someone who might be just as dangerous: Datone Jones. A big defensive end who will be lined up against David Bakhtiari. This will be a battle to watch all game. Jones redshirted last season because of injury, and supposedly has come back bigger and stronger and one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the conference. If he's rusty in 2011, it's a safe bet that it will have been knocked off long before this matchup. And while Bakhtiari is a first time starter at LT, he played with great technique last year and looks to be even sharper this season. This will be fun to watch. The rest of the line possesses solid size and speed, but I think we'll be fairly evenly matched. Jack Harris will hopefully have 11 starts under his belt at this point, so the talented Holmes shouldn't bother him terribly on the other side. And inside, I like our guards to take care of business. I know Bruin fans believe the defensive line will be one of their strengths and will bring some solid pressure all year, but I think we have the guys to counter it.
At linebacker, they have an interesting situation. Two seniors will likely be the starters at the strong and weakside positions, but neither guys is particularly big, fast or great. They are hoping that each of them is unseated by younger, more talented players, but it hasn't happened quite yet. In the middle, Patrick Larimore is huge and talented, but he still has to prove himself on the field with only 7 starts to his name. He also sat out spring ball with an injury, so it remains to be seen if he'll be the impact player that UCLA fans are hoping for.
In the secondary, they might be primed for some trouble. Discipline hasn't been these guys strong-suit, and that starts outside with Aaron Hester. He's athletically gifted, but takes too many chances and was penalized a lot last season. He's a year older, but will those habits of last season continue this year? We'll know by Week 12, that's for sure! On the other side, they've got track guy Sheldon Price, but he can do more than run in a straight line. He's tall 6'2" and likes to throw what little weight he has around. He's agressive, but has enough speed to recover against most wideouts. Without the experienced Moore back there, we might be able to take advantage of these guys aggressiveness. Again, Toney Clemons and Paul Richardson (the former Bruin, if you remember) have what it takes to nullify these guys outside. If Hansen can get them the ball.
Tony Dye is now their free safety, but has the skills to play cornerback and strong safety (positions he's played over the last few seasons). He's good and he is now their defensive leader and he seems up to the task. He will be counted on a lot this season, especially with a new scheme on this side of the ball, and I think he'll do a fine job. Next to him will be Dietrich Riley, who is a great athlete who is still learning to be a safety. There is a reason they're moving Dye a little farther back in the secondary, and it's to clean up after Riley. He'll probably be pretty solid by the time we play them, but instincts don't develop overnight. He's good though, and will eventually be a star.
Turmoil here for the Bruins. They return Jeff Locke, their punter who will be in the Ray Guy award race this year as the nation's best punter, but he's coming off of a hip injury. They do not return Kai Forbath, their great kicker or their longsnapper. They have a couple of young guys they hope will step up as the kicker (sound familiar?), and they have a LS candidate, but we won't know much about them until the season starts. As far as returns go, they have some talented guys back there, but they haven't settled on anyone yet.
I don't see this as the year that UCLA turns it around. That's good news for us, but not so much for them. Neuheisel is going into his fourth year, so they are desperate for some results. I think we are able to handle the Bruins, though, and I think we can actually string together consecutive wins here after beating the Wildcats. UCLA has their rivalry game against USC after us, so they could be overlooking us, though I doubt it. It comes down to this: the CU players will be playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time. I'm certain the coaches will make sure these kids know it, and get them excited about playing here for this game and in the future.