Beyond the brilliant inanities of "Kheeston Randall needs to play well" or the "Texas running backs need to run better" in assessing the UCLA game that you all pay $8.95 a month for, I thought we'd discuss some keys to the game that aren't being as widely discussed.
DB vs. WRs In The Run Game
UCLA's WRs and TEs are big (220, 205, 260) and though they have been a disappointment in the passing game, they're willing blockers and have been key in UCLA's success running the ball this year at 5.7 ypc (sack adjusted). When Pistol teams run inside, the WRs release inside on your safeties. Our secondary guys need to rise to the challenge in run support without losing their minds (helllloooo Chykie).
Gideon must demonstrate a willingness to be physical in run support. He has been against the pass, but hitting someone trying to catch a ball and taking on a 230 pound RB faced up on you are different expressions of physicality. Gideon needs to fill the alley. This game is right in Scott and Vaccaro's wheelhouse, obviously.
As we've discussed with Blake Brockeymeyer in our podcasts and I've written in my post-mortems, our WR blocking has been miserable. A lack of effort on a number of plays from the whole unit has led to negative plays on our outside zone run and prevented a couple of 5 yard runs inside from popping for 25. Everyone is an offender, but Kirkendoll, Davis, Goodwin have been notably poor. If a corner makes a tackle on our Power play, the WR across from that corner needs to watch the game from the sideline.
It's discouraging when you consider the history of selfless, physical blockers we've had here - Limas Sweed, Quan Cosby, Kwame Cavil, Wane McGarity, Jordan Shipley...OK, kidding on Shipley, he never blocked anyone, but catching 100+ balls and housing punts makes up for blemishes. The point is that some of our best blockers have also been among our best pass catchers. The traits are not mutually exclusive.
Sealing The Edge
The TE position has only been marginally better than WR blocking and Matthews has had his moments, but Greg Smith has provided no punch at the point of attack and nothing in the passing game. This is particularly important this week as UCLA has shown an inability to deal with the running game pursuing sideline to sideline. There are big plays available here, but our TEs have to turn someone's shoulder.
Defensively, I have zero concerns for Acho/Jones holding the edge play side.
The Other DTs
We've masked these guys and created a deception of the #1 rushing defense in the country playing Acho and Okafor inside against spread passing teams and asking little of Randall's sidekicks. It's time for Tyrell Higgins or Calvin Howell to step up and show that they can provide a situational run-stopping ability, not unlike what Ben Alexander gave us last year. We'll slaughter UCLA on third and long, but these guys are crucial to getting us to 3rd and long with productive 1st and 2nd downs. Option football exposes weak links quickly and if they can't set the LOS with Kheeston, it's going to be an irritating day.
Also - consider that Emmanuel Acho is not a traditional plug and thump MLB. If we need to beef up the middle, don't be surprised to see Jared Norton get his first real snaps of the year inside with Acho moving outside.
UCLA struggles with it, we're so damn good at it that we may take ourselves right out of plays.
Keenan Robinson has been our best LB this year - and the best LB we've seen since DJ - but he has struggled historically with aggressive overpursuit. This year, he has shown marked improvement and I am consistently awed by the ease with which he operates out in space (covering Detron Lewis in the slot was amusing to see). Muschamp is going to stress keeping inside-out pursuit and if we do, The Pistol will fire blanks.
Similarly, our DE are going to be tempted to crash down hard backside and run down Prince, but UCLA does a decent job of coming back the other way with Josh Smith on a end around or using counters. Thankfully, we have experienced guys like Jones and Acho and a 18 year old going on 40 in Jackson Jeffcoat who won't follow the easy candy trail.
On the other side of the ball, UCLA's front four is huge. Generally, if you can get big guys flowing laterally, seal the edge, and get a RB to make a good plant cut, we won't get the backside pursuit that has been murdering us. DJ and Fozzy can win a footrace to the corner with a 300 pound DE. If we keep running straight at a front four that averages 290+ and is backed by two 250 pound MLBs, we'll underperform.
For our WRs and Gilbert, this is a chance to face a quality secondary and establish some real chemistry. Tech had some talent, but was inexperienced. Wyoming had some guys at corner, but slow safeties. Rice had excellent SAT scores. UCLA isn't Nebraska quality six deep, but they're in the ballpark. Similarly, UCLA's big front is similar to Nebraska in terms of physicality.
Defensively, this is a fantastic preparation for the Huskers and a decent approximation of some aspects of Oklahama and Kansas State. Nebraska will give us more looks than the Pistol obviously, but the run blocking flow, the size and strength of the players, and assignments will be similar. The primary difference will be adjusting from the speed of Kevin Prince to Taylor Martinez and NU's larger splits.
All in all, this game is an excellent scout for our toughest challenges ahead.
Our defense is built to destroy one dimensional passing teams and the moment UCLA puts the game on Prince's arm, it's going to get ugly for them. Our defense needs to help itself by not allowing an early scoring drive as we often do. Offensively, it would be fantastic to start a game quickly and not keep UCLA hanging around late so they can work their game plan and wear down Randall.
Squash hope early. I'd like to see some killer instinct.