UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin repeatedly gashed the Longhorns last season in Austin. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Talent + Effort = UCLA against Texas
There's no denying that UCLA has a tremendous amount of talent -- it's the major difference between now and the beginning of Rick Neuheisel's stint in Westwood -- but the effort part of the equation has often been missing. Through two games this season -- a loss to Houston and a victory over San Jose State that required a fourth-quarter comeback -- UCLA has managed to show up for about three quarters total, sleepwalking through the rest.
It's a lack of effort that extends to practice as well, as Neuheisel had an outburst before the SJSU game asking the team if anyone cared besides himself. For most of the game, it appeared that no one else did until running back Derrick Coleman exploded for 135 yards in the second half to help UCLA finally pull away. A similar story unfolded for most of the 2010 season -- excepting the Texas game, of course -- as the Bruins stumbled to a 4-8 record and Neuheisel cleaned shop in a manner similar to Mack Brown's busy offseason.
The absolutely terrifying thing for Texas is the fact that the Bruins cared last season when they came into Austin and stomped the Longhorns 34-12, rushing for 264 yards and forcing five Texas turnovers. And they will probably care on Saturday when Texas travels to the Rose Bowl because, well, that's just what UCLA does. Against any other team, the Bruins could reasonably be expected to mail it in. But not against Texas. They'll try against Texas, that much seems a certainty and after the trauma of 2010, that prospect is terrifying.
Watch out for that Pistol
Texas defenders have probably had a few nightmares about UCLA running backs Johnathan Franklin and the aforementioned Coleman coming downhill at them, as they did at DKR last year to the tune of more than 200 yards between them. NFL talents both, the Longhorns will have their hands full once again on Saturday trying to stop them or at least slow them down.
Much improved run fits last week against BYU helped severely limit the Cougar rushing attack, aided by the return of defensive tackle Ashton Dorsey to the lineup and the linebackers taking better angles to the football. Texas can't afford any setbacks in run defense this week, because UCLA isn't going to do and his defense any favors by abandoning the run if it's working.
Entering the second year running primarily out of the Pistol, UCLA has already racked up some serious yardage on the ground -- 500 yards in two games at six yards per carry and five touchdowns. Franklin and Coleman are averaging 6.5 and 7.2 yards per carry as the primary backs, with quarterback Richard Brehaut adding 131 yards at 6.6 yards per carry himself.
Make no mistake, as poorly as UCLA has played at times already this season, the rushing attack will provide Texas with another serious challenge only a week after passing one test.
Time for a fast start
Bryan Harsin's offense hasn't exactly exploded out of the gate in either game this season, scoring only three points in the first quarter overall and 16 points combined in the first half. Against BYU, the Longhorns couldn't pick up a first down until the fourth drive, which ended, of course, in a Garrett Gilbert interception.
So while the strong finishes in the fourth quarter speak well to the conditioning and toughness of the team, it's time for a fast start, as the Bruins seem like exactly the type of team that could be quickly taken out of the game and give up with a strong start to the game.
Moving freshman sensation Malcolm Brown to the top of the running back depth chart and giving him some early carries could help, but the bigger issue has been execution of the base running plays early in the game and the fact that DJ Monroe hasn't gotten early touches. It should come as no surprise that the first Longhorn first down of the game came on Brown's first carry and the second on Monroe's first touch.
More of each early, please.
Will the Ash package expand?
Before the fourth quarter of both games so far this season, the most effective rushing attack for Texas has been out of the David Ash package with the true freshman typically running the zone read or speed option with DJ Monroe. In the triple option look in that package, the Longhorns still haven't run the dive to Fozzy Whittaker yet -- and might want to consider using Malcolm Brown, Cody Johnson, or Joe Bergeron in that role instead -- to keep the linebackers inside of the tackles.
More important may be Ash's decision-making on the speed option, as the young quarterback left some yards on the field by failing to make a needed pitch to Monroe on one play and in general opted to keep the ball. While it's understandable and admirable that Ash is most concerned about protecting the football and not making dangerous pitches under duress, the primary objective of the play should be to get the ball in Monroe's hands on the edge as much as possible. To do so, Ash needs to do a better job of attacking the force player directly and forcing him to make a decision instead of being so willing to give the player a shoulder fake and trying to get inside.
The other question surrounding Ash is how much his package will expand this week. With a bye week before heading to Ames, the biggest expansion could come during that extra practice time, but since the only downfield passing so far this season came from Garrett Gilbert, will Bryan Harsin give Ash a few more opportunities to take shots in the passing game?
How will UCLA defend Case McCoy?
David Bailiff and the Rice Owls elected to often play with a safety in the box in an attempt to slow down the Texas rushing game, a tactic that worked for about three quarters until the Owls became physically worn down and succumbed to Malcolm Brown and the Texas offensive line late. As a result of putting that extra player in the box, Garrett Gilbert was able to take some shots over the top of the defense off of playaction, with Mike Davis running free behind the defense four times.
A key to the game will be how UCLA defensive coordinator Jim Tresey opts to defense Case McCoy. Bruin fans are already upset with Tresey for failing to make in-game adjustments to take away the short passing game against Houston, exactly the area in which Case McCoy could excel given such space. A better choice for Tresey would be to allow his big cornerbacks to get up on the line of scrimmage and jam the smaller Texas receivers and not allow McCoy to make the short and intermediate passes at which he excels, instead forcing him to throw over the Bruin defense, an area in which McCoy certainly does not excel.
However UCLA opts to defend the likely starter for Texas, some wide receivers other than Jaxon Shipley need to step up for the 'Horns, as the true freshman has been the only consistent target for any of the Texas quarterbacks, with both Mike Davis and Darius White suffering from drops. The return of Marquise Goodwin could be a major boon for McCoy, as he's the best option in the screen game to the wide receivers and excels on tunnel screens.
Paging the Texas tight ends
Despite playing with a tight end and an H-back on the majority of snaps this season, Blaine Irby, DJ Grant, and Dominique Jones haven't contributed much -- two catches for 19 yards -- though Grant's first reception was a big one, converting a 4th and 4 late in the game against BYU.
It could finally be time for Grant or Irby to step up as a threat down the seam against UCLA, taking advantage of UCLA's relatively slow linebackers, the major weakness of the Bruin defense. Threatening opponents down the middle of the field with tight ends is something the Longhorns haven't been capable of doing since Irby's knee injury in 2008, but this weekend presents an opportunity for a welcome return.