Know The Foe is back this week as the Aggies head to Pasadena to the historic Rose Bowl to take on the 13th ranked UCLA Bruins. The boys from Westwood are coming off a massive comeback against Nebraska in Lincoln and are looking to avoid a letdown against the winless Aggies. We've enlisted the help of Andrew Erickson from The Daily Bruin, UCLA's student newspaper to help give Aggie fans an idea of what they can expect to see from UCLA on Saturday. You can find more of Andrew's work on the Daily Bruin's sports page.
bleedCrimson.net: UCLA is off to a 2-0 start to the season with wins over Nevada and a big time come from behind win in Lincoln over Nebraska. What has been the key to the fast start?
Andrew Erickson: The key for the Bruins has been the ability to shake off their mediocre first half performances and establish themselves as a third quarter team. Against Nevada, UCLA led 17-13 at the break. At Nebraska, they trailed 21-10, yet it wasn’t very long into the third quarter in both contests that they had the momentum clearly in their favor. So far, UCLA has outscored opponents 48-0 in the third quarter, a sign that it hasn’t exactly been fast starts that have been able to secure the Bruins’ 2-0 start.
bc.net: UCLA's offense is the epitome of balanced with 599 yards on the ground and 596 yards through the air. What has enabled UCLA to establish this kind of balance?
AE: Coming into the season, the Bruins knew they had a few different options at receiver, from a steady Y in Darius Bell to Biletnikoff Award watch list honoree Shaquelle Evans to a quick slot option in Devin Fuller. The success of UCLA’s passing game hasn’t been the biggest surprise, but its being complemented by an effective run game has. Jordon James, who served as the backup to now Green Bay Packer Johnathan Franklin a season ago, has already surpassed his rushing yard total from last season, and Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro have been able to balance him out as change-of-pace backs. While I think the passing yardage might be reduced had the Bruins led for the entire game against Nebraska, the availability of options both in the running and passing games has led to higher-than-expected totals in each category.
bc.net: UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley appears to be a dual threat as well. Tell us a little bit about Hundley.
AE: Now in his second season as UCLA’s starting quarterback, Brett Hundley appears to be bigger, faster and stronger than he was in his first season at the helm of the UCLA offense. Though he has the ability to be elusive with his feet, he’s more of a pocket quarterback when he’s made to be. Against Nebraska, there weren’t too many designed quarterback runs for Hundley. Rather, he was able to use his legs to evade a couple sacks, including a would-be sack on third and thirteen in the second quarter that would have put the Bruins on the ropes but instead ended in a crucial first-down scramble. He’s had another season with his receivers, yes, but the most important thing for Hundley progression-wise this offseason has been the little things, learning to throw the ball away and live for another down and learning to slide and not let linebacker hits pile up throughout the season.
bc.net: What type of defense does UCLA employ and given the fact that Aggies will be starting true freshman quarterback King Davis III, do you expect them to alter their defensive strategy at all to try to pressure him more and get him rattled early on?
AE: UCLA’s defense is a pretty basic 3-4 scheme on defense, one that allows both defensive ends and linebackers an opportunity to make plays in the backfield on blitz packages. When opponents don’t have an inordinate amount of receivers on the field, the Bruins have been known to remove a defense lineman and replace him with another blitzing outside linebacker to try to get more backfield penetration. The interesting thing about King Davis III is that UCLA has very little tape on him, it appears. Jim Mora called him “elusive” the same way he did for Nevada’s Cody Fajardo or Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez. I don’t expect UCLA to completely change its defensive strategy just because of Davis III’s inexperience, but especially in the Aggies’ first few drives, he should expect some extra third down pressure.
bc.net: The Aggies have struggled with turnovers so far this season, coughing up the ball eight times (three through the air and five on the ground). How aggressive is UCLA's defense in trying to force turnovers (i.e. jumping routes, aggressively trying to strip the football) based on NMSU's seeming inability to hang onto the ball?
AE: I don’t think UCLA is any more aggressive in this respect than the next team. Through two games, the Bruins have zero interceptions, which is both a tribute to the abilities of Taylor Martinez and the fact that the Bruins haven’t been challenged too much over the top so far. In the fumble game, however, the Bruins have forced five and recovered one with Nebraska deep in their own territory in the fourth quarter of their last contest. In practice this week, UCLA recognized the Aggies’ fumbling issue, but Mora talked specifically about Davis III’s ability to hang onto the ball, indicating he’s a step up in that regard from McDonald. Linebacker Anthony Barr alone forced two of those fumbles last game, so expect him to once again try to punch balls lose in this game.
bc.net: Linebacker Anthony Barr is the reigning Defensive Player of the Week from several media outlets after his performance against Nebraska. Tell us a little bit about Barr and how the coaching staff uses him.
AE: The funny thing about Barr is that up until last season, he was used for all the wrong reasons, playing fullback and not linebacker. Now in his second season at outside linebacker for the Bruins, Barr has shown the ability to cover tight ends and the occasional receiver, as well as blitz and pursue quarterbacks well. In his first game, it was pretty apparent that Nevada included him in the scouting report and was running plays to the opposite side of the field, but against a more talented Nebraska team that challenged both sides of the field, he led the Bruins in tackles and forced two fumbles. The one thing that is slightly bugging Barr, he admits, is that through two games, he has yet to record a sack. After leading the team in sacks with 13.5 last season, it has been only defensive linemen that have been able to record the Bruins’ four sacks, a stat that I’m sure Barr will try to change this weekend. Defenses are more aware of him this season, but it’s not exactly easy to contain a 6-foot-4, 250 pound outside linebacker who can apparently run a 4.46 40-yard dash, regardless of his popularity.
bc.net: Other than Hundley and Barr, who are a couple of other difference makers on offense and defense for the Bruins that the Aggies should be aware of?
AE: As I said earlier, running back Jordon James has been a pleasant surprise for the Bruins on offense, and it stems from his being able to run immediately through the holes created for him, waiting until he reaches the second level to use his shake and elusiveness, resulting in larger gains. The man responsible for a large number of those gains is left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, easily the best UCLA offensive lineman. “X,” as he is referred to, is frequently pulled to the right side on run plays to add an additional blocker and has already pancaked several defenders this season. At wideout, there have been a number of players who have shown the ability to make plays, but expect Su’a-Filo and James to have strong performances, especially in what could be a run-heavy game for UCLA. On defense, inside linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt have been responsible for the majority of the team’s tackles and have earned reputations as effective defenders against the run.
bc.net: Who are one or two players on both offense and defense that haven't had stood out after the first two weeks but that you think could have a breakout game against New Mexico State?
AE: On defense, Eddie Vanderdoes is a player that will eventually be a starting defensive end but hasn’t completely broken out yet, recording just nine tackles. A five-start recruit with demonstrated five-start ability, I think Vanderdoes will finally have a breakout game against New Mexico State, especially not that it’s his third game and his wind keeps getting better. On the other side of the ball, expect wide receiver Devin Fuller, who has been held to just a few receptions in each of UCLA’s first two games, to show his versatility on Saturday, spreading the field on drag routes and other short passes for long gains. If Fuller is able to make a few people miss on passes over the middle, this game could turn into a track meet in a hurry for him and UCLA’s corps of wide receivers.
UCLA will win this game if… it can stick to the game plan of taking care of the football on offense, keeping King Davis III in the pocket on defense and not fumbling snaps, punts and kickoffs on special teams.
The Aggies can keep this game close if… They come out in their first and second offensive drives and put points on the board, putting UCLA’s defense on its heels a little bit. If King Davis III is able to rise to the occasion and energize his team in his first-ever collegiate start, then I think it’s pretty easy to throw a 42.5-point spread out the window.
Your prediction: 60-21, UCLA