Thursday, September 3, 2015

game preview: UCLA

Date/Time: Sat., September 5; 3:30

TV: Fox

Record against the Bruins: 0-1

Last meeting: UCLA 28, UVA 20; 8/30/14, Charlottesville

Last weekend: N/A

Line: UCLA by 20

Injury report: N/A

Here we go.  I have to admit, when this series was scheduled, I was really happy about it.  UVA was coming off a bowl season, one of the best in a while, and the London era was at its peak.  UCLA was stashed in a holding pattern of mediocrity.  They looked like exactly the kind of opponent UVA should be scheduling on the regular: a name brand that would provide a challenge without being a threat to establish a dynasty any time soon.

Now the Bruins are sort of like the LA Clippers with tradition.  They're the new "it" program in So-Cal, while their more acclaimed neighbors get used to the back seat.  UVA's program has all the it factor of Ball State, except people are trying to hire Ball State's coach.

This is a rematch of the game in which Matt Johns set in motion his own ascendance to the starting QB job.  Johns almost succeeded in pulling off a comeback last year against a UCLA team expected to roll.  That hasn't changed the sharps' expectations for this one; UVA is a massive underdog out in the storied Rose Bowl.  It's an uphill climb for UVA right from the get-go.

-- UVA run offense vs. UCLA run defense

(all stats 2014)

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 64 carries, 280 yards, 4.4 ypc, 2 TDs
Daniel Hamm: 17 carries, 75 yards, 4.4 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
137.75 yards/game, 3.67 yards/attempt
102nd of 128 (national), 11th of 14 (ACC)

UCLA defense:
147.92 yards/game, 3.81 yards/attempt
34th of 128 (national), 4th of 12 (Pac-12)

We've heard the noise about how Steve Fairchild wants to establish a "power running game."  I'll be Doubting Thomas on that one til I see it.  The offensive line does appear improved over last year; it's more experienced and, because it's early in the season and nobody's had the chance to blow anything out, deeper.  (Plus, you have people like Jay Whitmire back.)

Still, the personnel we have doesn't favor power running.  Taquan Mizzell isn't going to lay the hammer down, and neither is Daniel Hamm, who's more of a one-cut-to-the-hole back - which implies a hole.  Albert Reid isn't exactly fullback-sized, but he's probably the best bet to fit in the power game.  Could Jordan Ellis contribute along those lines, too?  Wouldn't rule it out, but we haven't seen his game plan meet the enemy yet.

UCLA's personnel is set up to fit a 3-4 scheme, because that's what Jim Mora has been running.  The Bruins hired Tom Bradley to run the defense this year, and Bradley is a long, long-time 4-3 guy.  You might remember him as Penn State's interim choice to replace Joe Paterno in the wake of their scandal.  Bradley had been at Penn State for thirty-jillion years and got very, very entrenched in the 4-3.

That said, he's got the personnel he's got, so UCLA will probably not make that switch immediately.  Two absolutely massive D-linemen - Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark - anchor the front-seven, both weighing in at well over 300 pounds.  They're not just there to occupy space; both had at least 50 tackles last year.

UCLA is otherwise a bit inexperienced on the D-line, and has a pretty solid plethora of experienced linebackers, another reason the 3-4 front is worth preparing for.  They're led by veteran linebacker Myles Jack, taking over leadership of the defense from second-round NFL pick Eric Kendricks.

The biggest concern though, no pun intended, is the presence of Vanderdoes and Clark.  Is Steve Fairchild planning on trying to slam right into that front with offensive linemen who've shown time and again they struggle with straight-ahead power blocking?  Fairchild has a dilemma - he can either try that, or, after an offseason of touting his "power running" focus, abandon it in game one and set a waffling tone for the season.  I'm guessing the latter.  I don't see it working if UVA tries the hammer; they'll find the nail unwilling to move.

-- UVA pass offense vs. UCLA pass defense

(all stats 2014)

Matt Johns: 89/162, 54.9%; 1,109 yards, 8 TDs, 5 INTs; 6.85 yards/attempt, 122.6 rating

Top receivers:
Canaan Severin: 42 rec., 578 yards, 5 TDs
Taquan Mizzell: 39 rec., 271 yards, 0 TDs
Andre Levrone: 15 rec., 248 yards, 2 TDs

UVA offense:
236.4 yards/game, 6.6 yards/attempt
91st of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

UCLA defense:
250.6 yards/game, 6.6 yards/attempt
32nd of 128 (national), 3rd of 12 (Pac-12)

The Hoos catch a break here.  Senior cornerback Ishmael Adams, who'd started 26 straight games before losing his starting job in fall camp, decided it was a good idea to steal a cellphone belonging to an Uber driver, and was promptly arrested.  It leaves a big hole in UCLA's nickel defense.  Adams is a heck of an athlete - he totaled 115 return yards on two picks last year and was a kick returner too.

UCLA still has all sorts of talent and experience in the secondary, though, and some guys who really hurt UVA last year.  Not least is linebacker Myles Jack, who broke up Matt Johns's fourth-down pass in the red zone that could've set up the tying score.

It remains to be seen how Tom Bradley will change the defense, but UCLA wasn't very aggressive against the pass last year.  They were effective, but they didn't register a lot of pressure on quarterbacks.  They didn't get a sack on UVA (partly because in one instance Greyson Lambert managed to heave the ball into a defender's hands as a sack-avoidance tactic, but still.)  Plus most of their sack-masters graduated, the only returning threat being linebacker Deon Hollins.

Matt Johns did have something figured out against this defense last year, though.  I expect he'll still have time to operate; the Bruins lack a proven pass-rush threat from the front three (or four.)  If this game is going to go anywhere good, Johns has to be sharp all day long.  UVA's pass offense - with Lambert at the helm, mostly - generated most of UCLA's scoring last year.  The Bruins will definitely take advantage of mistakes, and the run game will be of little help, so the only path to victory here is for Johns to make none.

-- UCLA run offense vs. UVA run defense

(all stats 2014)

Top backs:
Paul Perkins: 251 carries, 1,575 yards, 9 TDs
Nate Starks: 31 carries, 141 yards, 2 TDs

UCLA offense:
209.54 yards/game, 4.89 yards/attempt
34th of 128 (national), 2nd of 12 (Pac-12)

UVA defense:
120.67 yards/game, 3.36 yards/attempt
19th of 128 (national), 4th of 14 (ACC)

UCLA loses a major dimension to their run game with the graduation of Brett Hundley.  It doesn't make a lot of difference in comparing to last year; the Hoos bottled up Hundley quite well and their doing so was what kept them in the game.  Without Hundley, UCLA will have to open up the depth chart a bit because Paul Perkins, workhorse that he is, won't be carrying the ball 500 times, and Josh Rosen isn't going to get those carries.

Perkins, though, is a tough customer.  He'll get a whole bunch of carries, and runs behind a very experienced offensive line.  Four starters return along the line for UCLA, most especially center Jake Brendel, who's a fifth-year senior and has only missed one start in all the games his team has played the past three years.  Perkins was effective in last year's game, averaging five yards a pop against UVA's perfectly good run defense.  It may help that the Hoos can just gear up to stop him and not worry about the quarterback, but UCLA is happy to put strength on strength here.  It won't be spectacular; Perkins can break an occasional big one, but most games his longest run was like 15 yards.  But he's certainly a test for a reloaded linebacker corps.

-- UCLA pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

(all stats 2014)

Josh Rosen: (no stats)

Top receivers:
Jordan Payton: 67 rec., 954 yards, 7 TDs
Devin Fuller: 59 rec., 447 yards, 1 TD
Thomas Duarte: 28 rec., 540 yards, 4 TDs

UCLA offense:
258.3 yards/game, 7.7 yards/attempt
38th of 128 (national), 5th of 12 (Pac-12)

UVA defense:
232.5 yards/game, 7.1 yards/attempt
71st of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

Interesting to see what happens here.  Josh Rosen was probably recruiting's biggest deal last year, as a no-shitter of a five-star QB.  He's being handed the keys to an offense that doesn't need much of a spark.  Besides that veteran offensive line, UCLA returns receivers galore.  Jordan Payton's stats speak for themselves up there, and the Bruins have multiple big play threats.  Thomas Duarte averaged almost 20 yards a catch last year, and three different receivers - Payton, Devin Fuller, and Eldridge Massington - had catches of at least 80 yards.

I've seen lots of UVA fans with a really simplistic approach to this: "Oh, he's a freshman, we'll just get some heat on him and rattle him."  It's not going to work quite like that.  Tenuta will certainly try, and probably succeed at times, but Rosen isn't the starter by just default, and most of our own pass rush from last year has hit the road too.

The good news is that all these returning receivers means they're the same receivers UVA covered with some success last year.  Payton burned the UVA defense with eight catches, and the Bruins pulled off some big plays, but UVA isolated those plays and they accounted for most of UCLA's passing yards.  And there is something to be said for the fact that it's a freshman and not a senior looking for the open guy.  All in all, I see this as a pretty balanced matchup.  UVA has a deep enough secondary to cope with the weapons UCLA brings to the field, and UCLA's line should be able to cope with the UVA pass rush.

-- Favorability ratings

(on a scale from 0 to 10 - the higher the better)

UVA run offense: 2.5
UVA pass offense: 4.5
UVA run defense: 6
UVA pass defense: 5

Average: 4.5

-- Outlook

UVA is a 20-point underdog, which sounds like a hell of a lot.  And it is, but there's a catch, too - last year, they were 21-point underdogs at home.  That's a seven-point swing in the right direction when you figure in the assumed three-point margin for the home team.

Then you have the London factor, which actually is a positive for UVA early in the season.  September is his month, and most of UVA's best wins have happened in the first month of the season.  That's a damning thing to say 11 months of the year and a pretty good thing when you're actually in September.  Is it enough to overcome the talent UCLA brings to the table?  Probably not.  They're also on the road, facing one of the Pac-12's top offenses and a defense pretty well-equipped to handle their own attack.  This game will be very interesting, but not quite interesting enough., and UCLA pulls away in the second half.

Final score: UCLA 27, UVA 14

-- Rest of the ACC

North Carolina vs. South Carolina - Thurs. 6:00 - First game of the I-A season.

Wake Forest vs. Elon - Thurs. 7:00 - Fighting Christians vs. Demon Deacons is exactly why that school should still be called the Fighting Christians.

Georgia Tech vs. Alcorn State - Thurs. 7:30 - Eh.

Duke @ Tulane - Thurs. 9:30 - People who say Duke "schedules for success" forget that they do that because they have to drop down to Tulane before they find a school that will give them a home-and-home.

Syracuse vs. Rhode Island - Fri. 7:00 - Would make a much better basketball matchup.

Clemson vs. Wofford - 12:30 - Clemson smash.

Boston College vs. Maine - 1:00 - Would make a much better hockey matchup.

Pittsburgh vs. Youngstown State - 1:00 - There's a Rust Belt joke here somewhere, but I'm not going to be the one to make it.

Louisville vs. Auburn - 3:30 - Games like this - in the Georgia Dome - are why Louisville was so keen on joining the ACC - and why the southern portion of the conference was so keen on picking them over UConn.

Miami vs. Bethune-Cookman - 6:00 - Eh again.

NC State vs. Troy - 6:00 - Eh one more time.

Florida State vs. Texas State - 8:00 - Eh yet again boy I can't wait til UVA schedules these teams all the time can you.

Virginia Tech vs. Ohio State - Monday 8:00 - The Hokies get the chance to relive the greatest win in program history.


Anonymous said...

What are you referencing with the Duke/Tulane home and home bit?

Brendan said...

The fact that Duke is sometimes praised by UVA fans for scheduling four complete wieners every year, because it "let them learn how to win." The truth is that scheduling a home-and-home with Tulane is proof that you have a really hard time convincing real teams to do that.