It's (almost) all about the running attack.
Can UCLA generate one; can the Bruins stop Kansas State's?
That's pretty much this game in a nutshell. It's not quite that simple - there are nuances and possible surprises in store. But it's going to come down to who can run the ball and who can stop the other team from doing so. And in that respect, it will tell us a whole lot about this entire season. For both teams.
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UCLA comes into this game having watched their entire projected starting offensive line peeled away from them every which way you might think that could happen: by injury, by academics, by disciplinary action, by one player leaving on his two year mission. The Bruins are down to subs as starters, but the good news is, these are experienced subs, upper classmen with size, strength and knowledge of the system they are playing.
They are talented athletes whose careers - up until now - were put on hold by one thing or another. This is their time, and many in the UCLA camp believe they are ready to perform. But there's not much depth behind them - some talent, yes, but not much experienced talent. Staying healthy up front is a very high priority if the Bruins hope to achieve this season.
Both schools also waited until the last week to settle on a quarterback, the Bruins due to Kevin Prince's recovery from a tear in his oblique muscle; Kansas State looking to see how much senior Carson Coffman (6-3, 211), may have improved over last season. Coffman, who wears the No. 14, has apparently shown enough to have been named the starter in Coach Bill Snyder's second year back at the helm of the program he built into the national spotlight before retiring…temporarily.
As most everyone knows, the Wildcats' offense will be built around senior running back Daniel Thomas (6-2, 228) back who is said to have improved his speed and quickness during the offseason. This is a young man the Sporting News says could well be the first running back taken in the next NFL draft.
Moreover, Thomas played some wildcat quarterback in high school and KSU has been working on different wrinkles to better disguise their intentions and give Thomas some run/pass options to add to his already impressive repertoire. But football logic says you do the safest, best thing you can and you keep doing it until the opponent proves he can stop it. With UCLA bringing so many new starters in their front seven, it's a pretty good bet KSU is going to force the Bruins to prove they can stop the running attack and use the pass as a counter-point, hoping to take advantage of a defense that's having to sneak up to help out the front seven against the run.
Kansas State will return 15 starters at kick off. (UCLA only returns eight.) There's some size across the front on offense (though not so much on defense). The Wildcats' front line starts three seniors, a junior and one sophomore, ranging in weight from one at 297 and the others between 303 and 325 lbs. The starter at tight end is sophomore No. 80, Travis Tannahill (6-3, 254), but expect to see red-shirt freshman No. 18 Andre McDonald who is 6-8 and 280-pounds get some time on the field as well. McDonald was expected to be moved to offensive tackle but has shown enough agility and ball-catching ability to convince Snyder to leave him at tight end; he figures to be difficult to stop.
One K-State newcomer who has the Big "12" fans talking is redshirt freshman back-up wide receiver, diminutive No. 86, Tramaine Thompson (5-7, 165). On the other hand, the Bruins have their own shorter but very quick defenders who ought to figure they match up with Thompson pretty well. And Coffman is going to have to prove he's become a threat throwing the football.
On defense, the Wildcats' strength is at safety, but a weakness last year was their inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks which is pretty good news for UCLA. If they can't force the Bruins' quarterback to release the ball before he'd really prefer to do so, it could wind up being a long day for the KSU home faithful because UCLA brings more weapons at the skill positions to this contest than has been the case in recent years. Moreover, with Prince having missed so much time this fall and Richard Brehaut lacking true game experience, that extra time could make all the difference for UCLA.
Kansas State isn't as large up front, either, with one defensive tackle weighing in at 265 and one defensive end at 244; one linebacker at 225 and another linebacker at 194. Coaches Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow will be able to choose to run at the bigger or smaller targets as the game develops.
Overall, as we said, look for the running game to determine the outcome of this one. KSU will no doubt try to pound the Bruins, hoping to wear the new starters down, setting up some significant marches down the field led by Thomas, and to pop the occasional surprise pass - perhaps by Thomas himself - as an effective counterpoint.
The Bruins will be traveling and they will be playing in a hostile stadium in more humid and likely hotter conditions than those to which they are accustomed in Westwood, all this in a game that will set the tone especially for KSU's 2010 expectations.
If the Wildcats can establish the run, they could very well wear the Bruins down, control the clock and the game, and ride their war horse, Thomas, to the win.
If the Bruins can stop the Wildcats on the ground, judging by Coffman's record and history, KSU will pretty much have to go to the Wildcat or gamble and, given the talent in the UCLA defensive secondary, that could backfire big time for Kansas State.
It's the opening game of the season. UCLA clearly is improving in talent and depth. Many of UCLA's skill players are still underclassmen, but many of those are sophomores rather than freshmen now, and the difference should be apparent on the field.
In a game, of course, almost anything can happen, and one thing can - and will - lead to another. This is a stiff but reasonable test for UCLA opening the season. It's a game they need under their belts to get into a rhythm, with Stanford, then Houston, and then Texas looming before them.
Oddsmakers have favored Kansas State by up to a field goal, but that's just exactly the number of points that pre-season All American Kai Forbath can provide with a single swing of his leg. If the game is close, UCLA's punting and place kicking games - arguably the best in the nation - could provide the difference to get the Bruins' season off to a sterling start. It doesn't figure to be easy; but it can be done.