You always try to look for what may be the key match-up or question to be answered in each week's game. Last couple weeks it's been gap control.
Actually the Bruins didn't do badly taking care of their gaps against Arizona. The 'Cats were able to exploit the Bruins' defense outside and over the top on a few drives, but overall, the Bruins held Arizona below their average point margin in conference games. Unfortunately, UCLA's own offense got lost on the way into the desert and you can't win if you can't score.
This week completes UCLA's Bataan Death March through the top half of the Pac 10, missing only USC which comes at the end of the year. After this week, the Bruins take on the other three (besides UCLA) that constitute the bottom four of the Pac 10 - Arizona State, Washington, and Washington State. Those are three opponents over which UCLA should be favored; this week not so much.
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Oregon State opened an 8.5 point favorite for Saturday's game and the odds have actually gone up a bit since then. After the Beavers' fine effort at Sc last weekend, combined with UCLA's offensive bust in Tucson, it makes sense.
This is the Rodgers Bros. Football Circus that the Bruins are traveling north to confront. And it's quite a show.
Jacquizz Rodgers is second on the Pac 10 both in rushing (115.7 yards per game) and in receiving (6.0 catches per game). He ranks first in touchdowns scored (15) and in scoring (12.9 points per game). His older brother wide receiver James Rodgers is first in catches per game (7.1 average) and in all purpose yards (182.1 per game).
The circus' conductor is quarterback Sean Canfield who picked the Bruins apart a year ago in the Rose Bowl for 222 yards and two touchdowns (one interception). Canfield ranks second in the conference in passing at 247.7 yards per game. He registers an outstanding 68.2% completion rate (Arizona's Foles leads the nation in that category with a 72.3% average).
Two last items stand out when you go over the Beavers' stat sheets:
First, that OSU has turned the ball over just five times all year long. UCLA's Rahim Moore, Alterraun Verner, Sheldon Price et al have done well in that regard so this is clearly a key to the game.
Second, while UCLA has converted 75% of the time when the Bruins get into the opponents' red zone, their inability to score touchdowns has arguably cost UCLA games or at least chances to win them.
By contrast, Oregon State has converted 28 of 30 chances inside the 20, and they've scored touchdowns 21 times to just seven field goals, a 3-1 margin.
When you look at the whole picture, sure as usual UCLA is going up against a truly outstanding running back and gap control will once again be a key. Overrunning plays in which either of the Rodgers Bros. has the ball will result in touchdowns, simple as that.
But the struggle this week, UCLA will focus just as much on speed - quickness on defense to try to contain Oregon State's killer quickness.
Problem is, quickness is a concern of UCLA's defense coming in. With Reggie Carter limited by a knee sprain, defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough has been forced to replace him with Sean Westgate, who is a savvy guy, but physically not up to Carter's high (when healthy) level.
The Bosworths, linebacker Kyle Bosworth and defensive end Korey Bosworth, have size and the hearts of lions, but not great quickness. Sophomore linebacker Akeem Ayers and sophomore defensive end Datone Jones have more athleticism and quickness, but less experience.
All in all, it's not a great prescription for success against an outstanding offense featuring two extremely dangerous playmakers and a highly accurate quarterback.
On offense, we have to hope that Kevin Prince's confidence returns. He's got to throw the ball, not try to think it to the target.
We're also likely to see some changes. Coach Rick Neuheisel has said he will play true freshman Richard Brehaut a series or two this weekend. The good news is this gives Brehaut a chance to show what he can do and to learn in the process of doing so. The bad news of course is that it can upset the rhythm of starting quarterback, Prince. Other coaches have tried this approach this year without much success.
Christian Ramirez had a few carries last weekend, gained some yards but in the end gave up a costly fumble, and got dinged up yet again. No one in recent memory has suffered more from the injury bug except Ben Olson. With Ramirez' demotion, this figures to leave room for redshirt freshman running back Milton Knox to get some opportunities. If Knox can execute the blocking assignments with precision and effectiveness, he should provide a good change of pace paired with starting running back Johnathan Franklin, another redshirt freshman.
In fact, that's been the story this season all the way around. Young players make mistakes. And that's been the hallmark of this UCLA team. Two decent plays followed by a mistake - a penalty, a false start, a blown assignment, opportunities missed, chances given to the opposition.
But the only way to gain needed experience is to go out there, play through and earn it. If it's not an easy journey along the way, well, it never is. Doesn't make things any easier to take while you're living through them, but it all makes sense if you take a step back and look at it - as so many of UCLA's recruits have said in interviews recently.
Late breaking news, Sophomore wide receiver, Taylor Embree was cleared to play today after successfully going through concussion protocol.