UCLA and USC both had disappointing seasons in 2015 (both had goals of making it to the College Football Playoff). However, the regular season could end on an extremely high note for one of the school's with a victory tomorrow. Greg Burcham, one of the managing editor's at Bruins Nation, took some time to talk UCLA football with us.
1) UCLA is most likely going to have at least nine wins for the fourth straight season. Jim Mora has done a great job at UCLA however the Burins have not taken that next step and make it to meaningful January game. Are people happy with Mora in Westwood?
It's somewhat of a mixed bag right now. Any honest UCLA fan would acknowledge that Mora has greatly elevated the Bruins program and he should get a lot of appreciation for that. Granted, the program was a dumpster fire under the previous 2 coaches (we won't mention that last SC game before Mora came along), so compared to that era, being a solid team with 9+ wins was more than welcome. But you're exactly right to say the Bruins haven't taken that next step, and that's where Mora's cache of good will is starting to fade. It was Mora himself who first said his intention was not just to compete but to win championships, but the program seems to have plateaued the last couple years, and now Bruin fans are questioning whether Mora and staff are able to take that next step, particularly when the same old problems resurface every year. The heat is particularly on a couple of his coaches and fans are watching closely to see if Mora is willing to make the tough move to better the program or if he settles for good-but-not-great. I can tell you that Saturday's game will push opinion a long way in one direction or the other, depending on the results.
2) Josh Rosen has been fantastic in the last five weeks with three 300-yard passing games and zero interceptions. Expectations were high for Rosen entering this season, has he exceeded those expectations by a long shot?
Yeah, I'd say Rosen has definitely outplayed his expectations. I think most Bruin fans would have been satisfied if Rosen started out as a safe game manager who didn't make mistakes and could occasionally make a big play and then improved steadily through the year. Instead, Rosen was a weapon from day one and fans are looking for him to make big plays every time the Bruins get the ball. He only had one real "freshman" outing during the first half of the BYU game, but he shook it off and played a smart efficient second half and led the team to a come from behind victory.
Rosen has a great arm and great accuracy, his decision making has gotten better through the season, and he's been proactive in making adjustments on offense. One early surprise was just how unflappable he is during the game for a freshman QB. He never gets too high or too low and just focuses on executing the next play. Aside from the physical skills, those intangibles inspire a lot of confidence in his teammates (and fans) and have established him as a trusted leader.
3) USC has been the team known for wide receivers but in 2015, UCLA has the dynamic duo of Thomas Duarte and Jordan Payton? What makes this duo so special?
I think what makes Duarte and Payton special players is that they are complete players. Neither of them has burner speed. Neither of them is a dominating physical mismatch. Neither of them is that ultimate any-play-can-be-a-big-play threat. So while they aren't necessarily the top end player in any one category, they are just very good in all categories. Both of them are very strong, run good routes, find the open spots in zones, have reliable hands, and are great competitors. Payton is one of those kids that gets every ounce of accomplishment out of his skill set, and Duarte has the knack for being that key go-to third down guy, and Rosen has the faith and the ability to put the ball in their area.
4) This defense has lost so much this year but they still are one of the best in the conference. Who are players to watch out for on Saturday?
Defensive lineman Kenny Clark should be a top candidate for the Pac-12 defensive POY. He has dominated all year from his nose tackle position, typically against double, and sometimes triple, teams and lately has become a serious pass rush threat. His motor and strength are amazing as evidenced by him making big plays in the 4th qtr after playing 70 snaps against Utah and 100 snaps (!) against Colorado. Jayon Brown has filled the enormous shoes of Myles Jack and done an admirable job in both run and pass coverage. The Bruins hope to get ILB Isaako Savaiinaea back as a key run stopper this week to shore up a shaky run defense. Deon Hollins is the best speed rusher on the edge. Randall Goforth has been the best player in the secondary, while John Johnson has emerged as probably the Bruins' best cover man.
5) It’s rivalry week. UCLA has dominated the past three meetings. What do the Bruins need to do to make it four in a row?
The Bruins win when they don't beat themselves. Penalties have killed them at times this year. Poor play calling and a failure to adjust in game on both sides of the ball have also been big problems at times during the year. Two key turnovers were a major difference in the loss to Wash St. If the Bruins can avoid doing things that hurt themselves and instead play smart disciplined football, get good aggressive and fluid coaching, and not give the ball away, they should have a good chance to keep the streak alive on Saturday.
6) Game Prediction.
Let me first say, it's very cool that the South title and a shot at the Pac-12 title comes down to UCLA-USC on the last Saturday of the regular season. If SC can't go 0-11 (sorry, but, you understand), then let it come down to a face to face battle on the final weekend for all the division marbles and may the better team win. That's how the city rivalry should be. It also means that I don't want to see any more injuries (both teams have suffered enough) or horrible calls by the refs (the whole conference has suffered enough) so the Bruins and Trojans can trade haymakers and see who's left standing in the end. Honestly, it depends on which UCLA team shows up on Saturday. If it's the focused and enthusiastic Bruins who faced SC the last 3 years, the Bruins should be in good shape. If it's the Bruin team that typically follows big wins with flat disappointing performances in bigger games, then it could be ugly.
Thanks to Greg for taking the time to talk UCLA football. You can read all the latest about UCLA here.