There are a lot of thoughts knocking around in my brain today regarding the UCLA football team's final game of the season against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, as I sit down to write the last Pregame Guesses of the 2015 season. Interesting subplots abound in this game for Bruin fans.
For starters, the Bruins are playing the 'Huskers for the third time in four years, with the Bruins taking both games, at home in 2012, and in Lincoln in 2013. The 2013 game was especially memorable, as both schools honored Nick Pasquale, who tragically passed one week before. I was fortunate enough to take my family to Omaha and Lincoln for that game, and the outpouring of support, humanity, and grace from the Nebraska fans was something I will never forget. I am a Nebraska fan for life.
Ironically, if tragedy has not struck Nick, today would have been his last game at UCLA. This is last time we will be seeing true Bruins like Jake Brendel, Ka'imi Fairbairn, and Jordan Payton in Bruin uniforms. UCLA has several talented and NFL eligible juniors, some of which we not be seeing in a Bruin uniform again. Guys like Paul Perkins, Kenny Clark, and Thomas Duarte. I always get sentimental about these games knowing that certain players will not wear the four letters in competition again.
The seniors on the Nebraska team that went thought those two losses at the hands of the Bruins will bring extra motivation to this game, and also to show that they belong in the postseason, st the first 5-7 team to be selected to a bowl game. Can UCLA match that intensity after a season defining loss to the Trojans?
The guy coaching the team on the sideline opposite the Bruins is no stranger to PAC 12 football. Although Mike Riley's first season in Nebraska fell well below expectations, he has a familiarity with PAC 10/12 football, having coached the Oregon State Beavers for fourteen years (a two year stint in 1997 and 1998 and a twelve year stint from 2003-2014). Riley always seemed to be able to get the most out of his guys and compete with higher rated players and bigger named schools while in the PAC 10/12. It will be interesting to see if he can right the ship in Lincoln next season.
Finally, it has been a season of discord for the Bruins. At the beginning of the year, we wondered if our freshman phenom quarterback might be the only thing holding back an experienced group from the College Football Playoff. For the most part, Josh Rosen erased those concerns in game one, completing 80% of his passes against Virginia for 351 yards and 3 TDs.
But then came the injuries, mostly on defense, and Rosen, the occasional freshman mistake aside, became one of the players Bruins fans could count on, along with Perkins and Payton. An unexpected loss to ASU, the all too predictable loss to Stanford, another unexpected loss to Wazzu on the last play of the game, and a demoralizing loss to our crosstown rivals, the first of Jim Mora's tenure, and UCLA is sitting 8-4, well below expectations.
Questions remain about the play calling on offense, the coaching of the o-line (which played its best football when the position coach was suspended for the first few games of the season), and whether Coach Mora will address these questions. UCLA's best positional coach played fullback for our crosstown rival.
Finally, several players have voluntarily left the program this season, including Chris Clark, Fred Ulu Perry, and Alex Redmond. In a season that has been anything but smooth, the Bruins have been All Mixed Up.
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"All Mixed Up" also happens to be the name of a track from a band who hails from Omaha, Nebraska, just a one hour drive from the place the Cornhuskers call home. The song has personal significance for me, as the single was released on October 29, 1996, exactly two weeks after I loaded up my moving van for the permanent move from San Diego to Orlando. It is almost a line of demarcation of when my Florida life began. Although 311 is from Nebraska, the track definitely has a California vibe (I remember being surprised when I first learned these guys hailed from NE), with some reggae overtones, so it has significance for a UCLA v. Nebraska football game being played in California and watched by this guy in Florida.
In a season of chaos, one that has been All Mixed Up, the Bruins can salvage a 9-4 record with a win today. Although that is will below expectations, it is not a complete cratering.
The next couple of weeks, through National Signing Day, will be critical for UCLA. The same can be said for Coach Mora's 2016 season, with a stud QB who has a year under his belt but who will be without as seasoned a supporting cast.
Onto the Guesses!
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As beer and math pointed out in his preview of the Nebraska defense, the Cornhuskers' run defense is elite, ranked #8 in the country. Nebraska concedes an average of 113.4 yards per game on the ground. UCLA averages 186.8 yards per game on the ground, a 73.4 yard difference. Further, the Bruins' running game has sputtered of late, gaining only 140 rushing yards against Southern Cal and 105 yards rushing against Utah, another elite (#6 in the nation) rushing defense. Alex Redmond has left the program, and the prevailing thought is that Caleb Benenoch will move to right guard, with Kolton Miller talking over the right tackle position. Luckily, Kenny Lacy will return at left guard, but may be limited. The Bruins--once again--will go into this game with an extremely thin, patchwork line and they will be facing an elite defense to boot. PREGAME GUESS NUMBER ONE: I am splitting the difference between Nebraska's conceded rushing yard average and UCLA's rushing average, which results in 150.1 yards. Will UCLA's rushing total exceed 150.1 yards, or will they fall short of this mark?
Although Nebraska's rushing defense is stout, the same cannot be said about their defense against the pass, which is #121 in the nation, allowing 288.2 yards per game. UCLA averages 285.8 yards per game in the air, so it is reasonable to conclude that UCLA should end up in that neighborhood. UCLA's Jordan Payton, who has been part of UCLA's passing attack since he was a freshman, broke the 1,000 barrier in receiving yards this season. Payton has been a "security blanket" of sorts for Rosen this season. I think Payton will be amped up for his final game as a Bruin. Jordan has four games with over 100 yards receiving this season, but has not caught a touchdown pass since the Stanford game. PREGAME GUESS NUMBER TWO: I predict that Jordan Payton will exceed 100 receiving yards today and will catch at least one touchdown pass. True or False? If you pick false, will it be because of less yardage, no TD, or both?
Isaaka Savaiinaea returned in the Southern Cal game after missing four games due to injury. He played pretty well, with nine tackles, his third best performance of the season. This should help UCLA in its rushing defense. Also, guys like Jayon Brown and Aaron Wallace have stepped up in recent weeks. UCLA's ability to tackle is critical in this game. Although Nebraska's rushing game is average at best, ranked #71 in rushing offense in the country at 167.8 yards per game, Tommy Armstrong, Jr. is a mobile quarterback and Nebraska could game plan to pound the rock against UCLA, using the read option to confuse the Bruins like the Arizona Wildcats did in the second half of that game earlier this season. Armstrong, Jr. has rushed for 38 yards or more six games this season. Nebraska feature back and leading rusher, Terrell Newby, has only cracked the 100 yards barrier twice this season. PREGAME GUESS NUMBER THREE: Will the combination of Armstrong, Jr. and Newby rush for more than 150 yards this game? Note: These numbers exclude Newby's backup, Imani Cross, who averaged 32.4 yards per game this season.
BROADCAST BONUS GUESSES: Fox, you can pass on these :) ESPN is giving us Jason Benetti as play-by-play announer, Rod Gilmore (Stanford grad still bitter about "The Play") as color commentator, and noted Southern Cal honk Shelley ("Shilly") Smith on the sidelines.
BROADCAST BONUS GUESS NUMBER ONE: True or false? At some point in the broadcast, the crew will discuss the fact that Josh Rosen used to play tennis before he took up football.
BROADCAST BONUS GUESS NUMBER TWO: How many times will Shilly mention Southern Cal in this broadcast? Whether it is the fact that the Bruins lost to the Trogans this season, the fact that the Trogans just secured former UCLA commit and 5 star DE recruit Oluwole Betiku, or some other way to shoehorn in her unfailing love for all things Trogan, I think she'll mention u$c* at least three times.
That is it for the final Pregame Guesses of the season. It has been a pleasure writing this article this season (with the exception of the UNLV game; tip of the cap to Bruinette 88 for that one). I had to fill some big shoes left by Achilles. I hope that you enjoyed this series of articles.
Please give us your guesses in the comments' section. Also, if you have any suggestions about how Pregame Guesses can be improved next season, I would love to hear your feedback and/or criticisms.