UCLA presents a challenge here. Not just for Nebraska on Saturday, though that’s surely true, but also in terms of assessment. The Bruins have just one game under their belts, a 58-20 win over Nevada, forcing us to turn largely to last year to venture a guess at what UCLA will be like in 2013.
Nebraska and UCLA have met 11 times total and there have been some epic games in there. Back-to-back top-5 match-ups highlight the series with the No. 2 Huskers (featuring Tom Banderas) beating the Troy Aikmen-led Bruins (No. 3) 42-33 in 1987. No. 5 UCLA returned the favor a year later in Pasadena, knocking off No. 2 Nebraska. The series has also featured two games between two top-10 teams (1973, 1984), both home wins for the Huskers. Overall, Nebraska leads the all-time series 6-5, which is fitting because I can’t find much to separate the current editions of these squads either.
Statistical anomaly alert: UCLA has achieved the strange feat of outpacing it’s expected win total in each of the past five years. Generally, these things have a way of evening out, but the Bruins’ five-year total shows them nearly four full wins ahead of where you’d expect based on their offensive and defensive outputs in those seasons. What to make of that? For one, it puts the end of the Rick Neuheisel era in a slightly different light. His UCLA teams were fairly mediocre but maybe even better than they should’ve been. Last year’s team, Jim Mora’s first, was just barely over the expected wins total (0.2) meaning the Bruins essentially earned what they got last year, but the overall trend shows that the Bruins are on a hot streak at college football craps table.
What we have here is an explosive offense paired with a defense that occasionally gets gashed. Over their last 15 games against FBS competition, either of those statements could apply to either team on the field this Saturday. A short sampling of some of the yardage totals both UCLA and Nebraska have allowed in their last 15 games against FBS foes: 653, 535, 524, 640, 589, 602. And a rundown of some of the yardage totals the offenses at each school have put up over the same span: 632, 569, 646, 653, 611, 647.
To put it another way: It should be wild this Saturday.
The above is what you get in a match-up between two power conference schools. If you’ve viewed previous iterations of this graph, there have been some pretty wild gaps on display. Not so here. The only below average categories this week are Nebraska’s run defense (still a major concern) and UCLA’s just barely off the pace pass defense. Everywhere else we’re looking at something close to “good-on-good.”
Nebraska’s biggest advantage is still the run game. Last year the Huskers went for 7.22 yards a pop against the Bruins. It was Nebraska’s second best per play average of last season behind only Michigan State. In both games, Taylor Martinez had a lot to do with that, busting a 92-yard touchdown run in the Rose Bowl last September and running for 205 yards total against the Spartans in November. But Martinez has been relatively quiet in the run game so far this season. Whether by design or not, Nebraska needs that weapon on Saturday. It’s probably the best one they have. Defensively, UCLA can hold it’s own defending the run. Based on my strength of schedule adjustment, the Bruins were even slightly better — 3.5 percent to be exact — than the numbers showed in 2012 and the numbers weren’t bad to begin with. It’s worth noting, however, that Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo got loose for 121 yards (before sacks) and two touchdowns in the season opener. Last year, Fajardo ran for 1,121 yards, ranking fifth nationally among quarterbacks, one spot ahead of Martinez.
Flip it around and the key battle is UCLA’s dynamic passing game against the Huskers’ equally dynamic pass defense. We know Nebraska can cover and we know that, for a redshirt freshman, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley was impressively accurate last season. Who wins that match-up could come down to how much pressure Nebraska’s young defensive front is able to put on Hundley because, even if the coverage is generally good, it’s hard to stay good four or five seconds into a play.
Ultimately the main event match-up of the Blackshirts’ secondary versus Hundley may be something of a dud if Nebraska isn’t able to stop the run with some regularity. Running back Johnathan Franklin is gone after gouging the Huskers for 217 yards last year, but junior Jordan James looked good against Nevada and there’s still Hundley to worry about. He’s not a dynamic runner in the vein of Martinez or Braxton Miller, but he’ll rip off a big run if given the opportunity.
HOW YOU’LL KNOW NEBRASKA’S IN GOOD SHAPE
It’s somewhat surprising to see the Huskers sitting at plus-3 in turnover margin early this season given this team’s history. Nebraska still hasn’t picked up an opponents’ fumble yet, which is largely luck of the draw, but interceptions work just as well. If the Huskers’ ball-hawking ways are apparent again in this game, that’s a very good development for Nebraska fans because a) Hundley doesn’t toss a lot of interceptions and b) it’s probably unrealistic to expect this young Nebraska defense to come up with a ton of stops on Saturday. Turnovers are swing plays in any game and people always notice them, but it may have to be the blueprint for Nebraska on defense this season. Give up yards, make up for it with turnovers. It’s not an optimal strategy, but nobody will care if it delivers wins.
WHEN TO WORRY
Last year in the Rose Bowl, UCLA had seven plays go for 20 yards or more. Five of the eight Bruins receivers who caught a pass in that game had plays go for 24 yards or more. They weren’t all shots down the field, either. Nebraska struggled with UCLA’s motion out of the backfield in 2012 and that, combined with some slipshod tackling, turned a few short passes into long ones. If the Huskers are getting gashed for big gains again it means one of two things: 1) the young defense is probably struggling to stay on the same page, of 2) the tackling woes are back. Neither is a good thing for those wearing red (or black I suppose).
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“He’s a pain in the neck,” Els said of Hundley, a redshirt sophomore who’s among the top NFL quarterback prospects over the next several years. “He’s one of these guys who’s just hard to tackle for some reason. I don’t think he’s fast, but he’s fast enough. I don’t think he’s a great thrower, but he can put the ball in there whenever he needs to. And he’s hard to bring down. He just stays alive.”
It doesn’t get much better out West than UCLA. In the first half of the 20th Century, UCLA looked a lot like Cal, dark blue and gold. When coach Red Saunders arrived, he lightened that shade, called it “Powderkeg Blue,” and, five years later, added the stripes that still circle the shoulder at UCLA. A modern classic was born.
The Bruins will be wearing their regular white jerseys in this game, while the Huskers will be donning the never-before-seen (at least on the field) black alternate set from Adidas. Both teams will be honoring Nick Pasquale, the UCLA wide receiver who died last week. The Bruins with a jersey patch, the Huskers with a helmet sticker.