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November 29, 2007

UCLA X&O Preview

So it all comes down to this.

One game for the conference championship and another BCS appearance. Lose it, and it's off to the Holiday Bowl to play Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, or Texas. Win it, and Ohio State or Georgia likely waits on the horizon. And, oh by the way, it's against the team that ruined USC's dream of a national title last season.

The Bruins beat the Trojans last season with defense, and if they are going to repeat that feat, they'll have to do it with defense again. Here's a look at the Bruins.

UCLA Offense vs. USC Defense

The Bruins have been horrible on offense in the second half of the season. They have only cracked 300 yards once in the last six games. Injuries have played a tremendous role in the disintegration on that side of the ball. Ben Olson was injured in the Utah game, and Patrick Cowan replaced him the next week against Washington. Cowan sustained a leg injury late in that game, and Olson came back. But after Olson went down early with a bad knee in the Notre Dame game, the fireworks really started.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson flailed around against the Irish in a loss. Cowan returned for a win over Cal, only to look terrible against WSU, and then to go down against versus Arizona. So Osaar Rashaan, a QB converted to WR and then brought back to QB because of the emergency, was inserted in the Arizona game and led a comeback that fell short.

Rashaan started the last two games, and the results have been disastrous. The Bruins were competitive against ASU, but not because of the offense. Things were even worse against Oregon. In the second half of that game, Karl Dorrell went back to Olson, and the offense was upgraded from comical to abysmal.

Cowan could be available this week, but my guess is that Olson will start. He is your classic pocket quarterback, but UCLA will use him on half rolls to keep him from being an easy target in the pocket. He generally gets the ball out quickly, but he has not been accurate, only completing 50% of his passes. He gave the Bruins a slight spark in the second half of the Oregon game, and with a week to prepare, he'll likely look better than he did last week. The problem for UCLA is that he hasn't started a game in almost two months, and he's bound to be rusty.

Rashaan could be used in certain situations as runner. He is a big kid and a good athlete, but he couldn't hit the side of a barn with a pass. His 39% completion percentage is anemic, and he didn't throw a TD pass in eight quarters of play. Trojan fans remember Cowan from last season's workmanlike performance and big runs. I doubt we'll see him though unless Olson gets hurt.

The injuries have not limiter the Bruins at QB only. A rash of downed players at tailback has forced the Bruins to play walk-on Craig Sheppard a lot the past few weeks. Chris Markey finally enjoyed some health last week and was able to get extended carries. At this point, Markey runs in between the tackles, and Sheppard runs outside the tackles. Sheppard reminds me a little of Petros Papdakis. He isn't as big, but he has a similar running style.

The injuries have severely limited the Bruins offensively. They were so basic last week to the point of being funny. They run inside and outside zone plays, and they tried to incorporate some zone read out of the shotgun with Rashaan to utilize his talents. They found much the same way Charlie Weis did that you can't just implement the zone read in a couple of weeks. It was a disaster. When they brought Olson back, it enabled them to do some of the things that the did earlier in the season. UCLA had 40 yards in the first half against Oregon, and 180 in the second half. The sack totals went up, and the running game was more effective as a result.

UCLA mostly lined up in the I or in double tight sets in the last few weeks. That could change this week with Olson back. With a QB who is capable of making more reads, we could see some ace set three wide stuff. Either way, it will be dink and dunk with the occasional play action try at the deep ball.

The Bruins also like to tinker with trick plays, and wide receiver Brandon Breazell can throw the ball downfield. He is also the team's most dangerous skill position player. Terrance Austin also has big play ability. Dominique Johnson is used outside in jump ball situations, and Joe Cowan is the consummate possession receiver. The tight ends and running backs are barely used in the passing game, but we could see more of them with Olson at the helm.

The UCLA offensive line is average at best. They have been stoned continuously on third and short situations, and they haven't averaged four yards a carry since the Cal game. UCLA has only allowed 29 sacks, but mostly because their QBs get the ball out quickly. In brief, unless Olson plays a great game, the Bruins are going to have a long day on offense.

UCLA Defense vs. USC Offense

As a result, the Bruins will have to make some big plays here and in special teams to have a chance to win, and they have the capability to do that. The defense harrassed John David Booty last season and stuffed the Trojan running game, holding them to 55 yards rushing. They won the line of scrimmage, and that was the reason that the Trojans went down.

How did they do it? They did a good deal of blitzing, but their real secret was that their ends absolutely dominated the Trojan tackles. One of those ends, Bruce Davis, is back. He has had an excellent season with nine and a half sacks. The Bruins however were not as efficient with their pass rush as they were last season, because they did not have a replacement even close to the level of Justin Hickman, the only started that the defense lost.

Dewayne Walker, UCLA's defensive coordinator, diagnosed that early, and the Bruins became far more aggressive with blitzing. They blitz more than any other conference team except Stanford. They will blitz the strong safety and the corners. They play games with their linebackers, and they will stunt when they are not blitzing. Against a more traditional under center offense, UCLA will definitely blitz more than half of the time.

Their thought process is to attack on first and second down, make you lose yards, and then cover with three to four man rushes on third down. They will also put Chris Horton close to the line of scrimmage to bump the tight end and play one on one with him. That match-up with Fred Davis will be huge. It will be much harder for Davis to get off the line than in any other game. Their CBs are also physical as well, and young Alterraun Verner has been a playmaker.

What has really hurt the Bruins up front along with the graduation of Hickman is the loss of DT Brigham Harwell for the season due to injury. They were starting reserv type players until Brian Price was ready. He is the starter now and has great potential, but he was not in their training camp due to clearinghouse issues, and so he is behind the curve.

It's no secret what's going to happen here. UCLA has nothing to lose. They are going to blitz Booty and try to rattle him or maybe even knock him out of the game. How the Trojans combat this will determine whether the game will be sixty minutes of fun and laughter or nailbiting for Trojan fans.

Final Analysis

The Trojans cannot lose this game unless they turn the ball over or get burned in the special teams department. While UCLA's defense is imposing, their offense is awful, and will take a beating against the Trojan defense, which ranked #2 in the nation.

The Bruins will struggle to run the ball, just as every SC opponent but Oregon and Cal did. Olson could provide some plays in the passing game, but they will be sporadic, and his inaccuracy will hurt them. Plus he does not have the ability to hurt the Trojans with his legs. USC is going to do a lot of blitzing and disguising against Olson, and he just is not good enough to carry them to victory.

Special teams is cause for concern. Matt Slater has been a dominant kickoff returner, averaging over 30 yards a return with three TDs. If I were Pete Carroll, I would be tempted kick the ball high and short every time to keep Slater from hurting SC. Austin is a good punt returner as well. If the Trojans give up points in this department, the game could be close.

I think the match-up of the game is Bruce Davis against Sam Baker or Butch Lewis. It doesn't help that Baker has been banged up all season, and having to start Lewis against Davis is a daunting thought. The only sack SC gave up against ASU came when Lewis blew an assignment and the DE came unblocked. It's possible that USC could use a lot of double tight end sets to try to help out whoever the left tackle is. It will be tougher to help out with all the blizting though.

This game will come down to whether USC can hit the Bruins for big plays in the passing game. UCLA's rush defense is better than ASU's, and I suspect that the Trojans are going to come out chucking just as they did last week, which is good strategy. The Bruins will not be conservative and easy to read as ASU was. UCLA's pass rush is far better than ASU's. UCLA is great at getting teams off the field on defense, as they lead the conference in third down D.

Last season's game was lost with coaching, and that can happen again. I don't think we can expect to see the kind of rip roaring offensive success that we saw against the Sun Devils. UCLA's defense is too good for that, and the Trojans still have issues at QB and at wide receiver when it comes to execution. This time though, I don't think the Trojans will be afraid to come out of the shell.

Look for quite a few rollouts for John David Booty away from Davis. Look for Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton to be the offensive stars, as the Bruins are going to try to take Davis away as Oregon did. In the end, I expect SC to win ugly as they did against Oregon State because UCLA will make some plays, but this year they will give up some big plays, and the Trojan defense will overwhelm Ben Olson and the embattled Bruin O.

Trojans-20, UCLA-0

Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at tvenegas@comcast.net


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