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UCLA-Arizona Preview: An Overrated Coach and Diminished Special Teams

The Bruins head down to Tucson to take on the Arizona Mildcats, and while they'll face an experienced head coach, they will get to square off on Arizona's own football version of the Hoosier Loser Steve Alford, an overrated coach out of good ideas. With the Bruins on their way to the desert, we preview Arizona, wrapping it up with a look at their head coach and their special teams.


Remember Rich Rodriguez?  Remember those high-flying spread-you-out West Virginia teams that made a big splash but never got quite over the top?  Well, after his high profile failure in Ann Arbor, RichRod has brought his unique brand of offense to the Arizona desert to try to rejuvenate a conference also-ran into a consistent winner.

Too bad he's not really the man for the job.  Yes, his career coaching records stands at 134-91-2 heading into Saturday's game, and yes, he took a 4-8 team and got them to rebound into a 8-5 team, but he's really not the kind of coach UCLA should be worried about.  While his overall record, especially from his time in West Virginia, makes Rodriguez look impressive on paper, the bulk of those wins (60) came at West Virginia, which played in a depleted and dying Big East Conference, which no longer even exists for football.  When Rodriguez arrived in Morgantown in 2001, the conference slate was made up of Boston College (left for the ACC in 2005), Miami (left in 2004), Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, and Virginia Tech (left in 2004).  By the time he was winning big, the traditional football powers (BC, Miami, and VT) were all in the ACC, replaced by Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida (plus the addition of Connecticut which finally added football prior). So, kudos to RichRod for winning big in the weakest BCS conference there was: you know the conference that sent Connecticut to get slaughtered by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2010-11 season.

Much like Steve Alford, who struggled in the Big Ten, Rodriguez hasn't done much of note in any legitimate conference he's been in: his time in Michigan is universally seen as a major flop (15-22 and never beating Ohio State), despite playing in a conference that had its only BCS-worthy teams in the past decade (Ohio State in 2006 and 2007) get curb-stomped by their SEC opponents (Florida in 2006 and LSU in 2007).  And while he's fared better in the Pac-12 (14-7 entering into this weekend's game), as our own Bruins know, the Pac-12 South slate can be pretty forgiving, especially with the complete collapse of Southern Cal's once-mighty built-by-impermissible-benefits empire. So, just like UCLA's hoops opponents have nothing to fear from the Hoosier Loser, Bruin fans shouldn't be too worried about RichRod or his run-heavy spread offense, especially with the athletes that UCLA has brought in to run Lou Spanos' 3-4 defense.

Turning to the special teams unit, the kicking game has a whole new cast of characters, with both punter Kyle Dugandzic (52 punts, 43.2 yards per punt, 24 inside the 20, 10 of 50+ yards) and kicker John Bonano (14-20 FGs, long of 46 yards; 87 kick-offs, 59.8 yards per kick-off, 42 touchbacks) both graduating.  So, the Mildcats will turn to sophomore punter Drew Riggleman (38 punts, 38.6 yards per punt, 13 inside the 20, 6 of 50+ yards) and senior kicker Jake Smith (913 FGs, long of 53 yards; 55 kick-offs, 61.0 yards per kick-off, 26 touchbacks).

The main punt returner from 2012, now-senior CB/WR Richard Morrison (13 returns, 10.2 yards per return, 1 TD, long of 63 yards) has given way to sophomore WR Johnny Jackson (13 returns, 8.5 yards per return, long of 25 yards), who has really not shown the big-play or big-return ability as Morrison did the year prior.  Likewise, in the kick-return game, 2012's top return man, now-senior RB Daniel Jenkins (16 returns, 20.6 yards per return, long of 56 yards) has given way to a returner-by-committee approach of freshman WR Nate Phillips (6 returns, 19.3 yards per return, long of 26 yards), freshman WR Samajie Grant (5 returns, 19.0 yards per return, long of 23 yards), sophomore RB Jared Baker (4 returns, 22.5 yards per return, long of 28 yards), and the main punt returner, sophomore WR Johnny Jackson (4 returns, 17.0 yards per return, long of 24 yards).

In short, while the kicking game has only fallen off a bit (mostly on the punting end), the return game has really taken a step back, with none of the current return men presenting any realistic big-return threat, which should be welcome news to Coach Ulbrich's special teams squad, which has done a very good job of stifling opposing return men all season long.

So, with an easy bounce back opponent in Colorado down and in the books, the Bruins hit the road again for the third time in four weeks, facing a conference also-ran seeking revenge for last year's embarrassing 66-10 beatdown at the Rose Bowl at the hand of Hundley and the Bruins.  With the Ducks falling to Stanford last night, if the Bruins want another shot at the Cardinal in the Pac-12 title game, the road to Palo Alto runs through Tucson tomorrow: it's win out or settle for the What the F**k Bowl Sponsored by Some Stupid Company.  Let's see if Mora and his coaching staff can get it done against an overrated Big Ten flameout or will wilt under pressure on the road again.