Q: What's better than College Football Saturdays in the fall?
A: College Football Fridays on Thanksgiving Weekend when the UCLA Bruins have a chance to wrap up the Pac-12 South Title and secure a meeting with Oregon next week for the Conference Championship.
Oh look, guess what we have today...
We own Los Angeles.
Now it's time to own California.
After thoroughly trashing Southern Cal last weekend, the stakes ratchet up even further today when our Bruins host the Stanford Cardinal at the Rose Bowl. Kickoff is at an early 12:30 pm so everyone who is heading to Pasadena today needs to stop reading this right now and get on the road. The stadium was packed with blue last weekend and the Bruins will need that same home field advantage to get past a team that has beaten the Bruins in the last 6 consecutive meetings. For Stanford, this game is a chance to get a big win for the season and improve their bowl outlook. For UCLA, the prize is just a bit higher.
The fantastic weekly opponent previews by AHMB (with an assist from Patroclus this week) are here and the awesome weekly statistical analysis from dbear737 is here. Go read those. I don't know why anyone would need anything else, but the local and national media weighed in this week, too.
"They just play football," quarterback Brett Hundley said. "Big, physical team, and they get at it."
Stanford is allowing just 16.5 points and 290.2 yards per game, ranking seventh in the FBS in both categories, despite the graduation of several players that formed the backbone of consecutive conference champion and Rose Bowl teams.
The Bruin offense has really found a rhythm the last few weeks though, and on senior day, our redshirt junior quarterback will also likely be playing his last home game for the Bruins. But while Hundley was the known commodity for this season, the emergence of multiple offensive weapons has been a big reason for the Bruins success and improvement at the end of the season.
Of those weapons, RB Paul Perkins took the biggest step forward this season. The sophomore leads the conference in rushing and the Bruins will need a big performance from him to keep the Stanford defense guessing. Kevin Gemmell at ESPN had a nice piece on Perkins' breakout season.
The ascension of UCLA running back Paul Perkins to becoming the Pac-12's leading rusher didn't come from a late surge or a couple of otherworldly, 300-plus-yard rushing games. Much like the way he runs, it's been a solid and consistent effort each week.
"He's not a flashy guy at that position," said UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. "He's a grinder. But you look up, and without even noticing, he's got 100 yards rushing and you wonder when that happened."
"He's amazing, it's ridiculous how good he is," said wide receiver Devin Lucien. "He can slow down defenses and make moves in small spaces like I've never seen before. It's something special. He's going to be a great running back. He already is. He's got a solid future."
Speaking of Lucien, the junior WR's play has mirrored the Bruins season in many ways. Both started with sky high expectations but experienced a lot of unexpected obstacles along the way. Ryan Kartje of the OC Register wrote a great article about how Lucien is facing both the frustrations of his season and the much larger and more important issue of his mom, Trina Matthew, and her fight against breast cancer.
"It's been weird," Lucien said. "Going into the season, you're supposed to be that guy and the season comes and people are asking if you're hurt because you aren't doing nothing. I know I can do it. But when is the opportunity going to come?"
He wanted to succeed for Matthews' sake, to give her something to look forward to on Saturdays, when the effects of her Thursday chemotherapy treatments often affected her most. On the field, he thought about her in pain at home and agonized as he stood helpless on the sideline.
Eventually, he said, the pressure started making football feel like a "burden."
But like the Bruins, Lucien is showing signs of that early season promise. He caught a TD against Washington that the SPTR's took away with a horrendous call, and caught another against Southern Cal that no one could take away.
But as one of the toughest years of his life comes to a close, there is hope that things will get better, that maybe, after so many obstacles, his opportunity might finally be approaching.
"I hope it's coming now," Lucien said. "This would really be a great time for that opportunity to come."
Alongside Lucien in the receiving corps, Thomas Duarte, who had a great game against Southern Cal, has nursed a sore hamstring this week. SI.com reported that he missed practice Tuesday but is expected to be able to play today (HT to clim for the fanshot). Those two, along with the Bruins' top receiver Jordan Payton and freshman star Mossi Johnson will need to come up big performance against a tough Stanford pass defense.
Stanford is one of 20 teams in the country to allow 11 or fewer touchdown passes this season.
Things have been different on the other side of the ball, however. The Stanford offense has struggled this season, particularly compared to recent years when a powerful offensive line wore down opponents with a solid ground game and opened up opportunities for an efficient pass game. The Bruins defense has had some ups and downs this year but has looked great in the last 3 games. With Stanford's top receiver out for the game, the defense will probably focus even harder on stopping the Cardinal run game. Another good piece from Kartje looks at the matchup.
In recent weeks, though, Stanford's running game has shown glimpses of its previously dominant form. Over its past four games, the Cardinal is averaging a serviceable 169 rushing yards per outing. And in last week's matchup against Cal, Wright finally looked like a vintage Stanford power back, carrying 23 times for 94 yards and four touchdowns.
It's this burgeoning running game that stands between UCLA and a second Pac-12 title game berth in three years under Coach Jim Mora. In their recent meetings, Stanford has dealt UCLA a heavy dose of the running game - 142 attempts in three games - and on each occasion, the Cardinal's ball-control tactics rendered the Bruins helpless. Expect to see a similar plan Friday.
"They have a physical run game," first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "When it comes down to it, that's what you have to stop."
After a rocky start to the season, UCLA hasn't had a problem stopping the run in November. Over its past three games, UCLA has held opponents to just 117 rushing yards per game. Last week against USC, the Bruins held then-Pac-12 leading rusher Buck Allen to just 60 yards.
Jack Wang at Inside UCLA covers a lot of ground with his weekly Q&A yesterday and is a very good and quick read. Wang also complied a nice Thanksgiving style recap of some of the major turning points for the Bruins this season, including the Oregon State upset of ASU two weeks ago that put the Bruins back in the Pac-12 driver's seat, the return of Conor McDermott to left tackle to shore up a patchwork offensive line, and the play of Jerry Neuheisel against Texas. It's been a bumpy road to get to this point, but few teams completely avoid bad luck or adversity. The Bruins have been fortunate to limit the damage along the way and have a chance today to make good on those early season goals.
It will be interesting to see what happens with little Neu in the spring and going into next season. Neu, Asiantii Woulard, and incoming freshman Josh Rosen all look to have a legitimate shot at the starting QB spot next season. The Sporting News published an article yesterday on the Bruins prize QB recruit (and recruiter) and had nothing but raves for his talent and potential.
I've done more research and background on this prospect than any other I've evaluated and everything I've found points to future greatness. This is an outstanding young man who is often the smartest guy in the room once he darkens the doorway. In my experience, the QB-coach relationship is often overblown. The only factor that counts is what the other 10 offensive players in that huddle feel when their field general looks into their eyes. By all accounts Rosen is a proven, trusted leader who his teammates will follow and fight for in the big moments.
Rosen is set to enroll at U.C.L.A. for winter quarter to be eligible for spring ball, and hopefully Hundley has two more high profile games after today before we have to worry about next season, but the prospects look good. As for recruiting, this is going to be a big weekend with the Bruins hosting a number of their top recruits as well as some players who are already committed. A definitive win and a great home crowd will go a long way toward building the future.
And at the opposite end of the spectrum from the recruits, today is the last regular season game for our seniors: Jordon James (RB), Eric Kendricks (LB), Anthony Jefferson (DB), Librado Barocio (DB), Tre' Hale (FB), Ryan Hofmeister (LB), Malcolm Bunche (OL), Owamagbe Odighizuwa (DL), and Andrew Huusfeldt (WR). There aren't enough words of appreciation for the time and effort and pain and sacrifice that these young men spent dedicating themselves to this football program and our University. #BruinFamily. Thank you to each of you.
Combining Senior Day, a big recruiting weekend, and the enormous stakes of this game, today is an enormous opportunity for U.C.L.A. to take that big step forward that we have been trying for for so long. Let's see if the coaches were able to get it done in the short week and send our seniors out in style today and set us up for one more game next week.