Deservedly or not, UCLA football has been tabbed with a reputation of being soft. Maybe it’s the powder blue uniforms — former head coach Rick Neuheisel posited as much this past winter — but more likely, it’s the Bruins’ record against opponents with physical identities.
The most notable example since Jim Mora relieved Neuheisel in 2012 is UCLA’s 0-5 record against Stanford in that time. The Cardinal built a reputation as the West’s most physical team en route to three conference titles in four years. Along the way, they won four games by double-digits against the Bruins, contributing to Mora’s change in offensive approach this past offseason.
His hire of Kennedy Polamalu to coordinate the offense brought a deviation from the spread, with more use of tight ends and a lead-blocking fullback. Because a change some believe is cultural doesn’t happen overnight, however, UCLA opened the 2016 season by losing to a Texas A&M team with a physical defensive line.
Despite wearing white jerseys instead of powder blue, the first half of the Bruins’ Week 1 trip to College Station resembled the UCLA stereotype:
A collapsing pocket for quarterback Josh Rosen. An inability to establish the run. Zero sacks of A&M quarterback Trevor Knight.
The second half might have signaled a turning of the corner, though. UCLA rallied with a great defensive effort and improved protection for its quarterback. Just how far around the corner the Bruins turned will be revealed Saturday in Provo against BYU.
BYU comes in with a 1-1 record matching UCLA’s, accrued against a pair of the Bruins’ Pac-12 South counterparts, Arizona and Utah. The Cougars could easily be 0-2, but could just as easily be 2-0.
BYU is still finding out its offensive identity under coordinator Ty Detmer, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in his playing days at BYU, but a novice in the coaching world. Detmer returned to BYU from coaching high school ball in the Texas Episcopalian League.
One certainty of the Cougars early into the Detmer experiment is that they can and will run. Taysom Hill may have been the nation’s best ball-carrying quarterback in 2014 — Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez suggested as much — but 6-foot-2, 225-pound running back Jamaal Williams wields the hammer that will test UCLA’s defensive toughness Saturday.
The Bruins saw neither in last year’s thrilling UCLA win at the Rose Bowl, with Hill injured for the season (in Week 1) and Williams suspended. Their first introduction to the thunder-lightning duo comes with uncertainty on the defensive line.
Defensive end Deon Hollins has yet to play in 2016, and on the other side of the front four, Mora was noncommittal about Takk McKinley’s status as of Tuesday. The UCLA head coach seems more optimistic about getting back tackle Eddie Vanderdoes. Otherwise, Eli Ankou would be UCLA’s sole preseason projected starter going Week 3.
Linebacker Kenny Young said after the Bruins’ Week 2 win they “made the adjustments that needed to be made,” and downplayed the significance of injuries going forward.
“Honestly man, when it comes down to it, I’m just zoned in,” he said. “I don’t know who’s in as far as d-linemen, because I trust they’ll do their job… The guy who was behind Eddie stepped up.
“We have depth at D-line and linebacker,” he added.
The true measure of Bruin toughness should be taken with the team’s offensive line play. BYU clamped down on Arizona’s typically explosive offense in Week 1, holding the Wildcats to just 16 points and putting a consistent stream of pressure on quarterback Anu Solomon.
Such is the calling card of first-year BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, a defensive guru whose units while an assistant at Utah ranked among the nation’s best.
Sitake has brought the same kind of aggression to BYU’s front seven that made Utah the national leader in sacks in 2014. A swarming linebacker corps featuring Butch Pau’u and Fred Warner will make yards difficult to come by for running back Soso Jamabo, UCLA’s own physical ball-carrier in a similar vein as BYU’s Williams.
In the years since Mora came aboard, the Bruins have added a heavy dose of black to complement the blue in their color scheme. Fittingly, they’ll get black-and-blue in their pursuit of a win Saturday.