We wanted to get an inside look at the UCLA Bruins. To do that, we asked our good friends over at Bruins Nation, the SB Nation site covering UCLA a few questions about the Bruins. We cover the injuries on defense, how expectations for the season have changed and true freshman Josh Rosen.
Co-Managing Editor Greg Burcham was kind enough to answer our questions.
House of Sparky: The Bruins have started 4-0, including a thrashing of Arizona last Saturday in Tucson. What is the prevailing storyline at UCLA through four weeks?
Bruins Nation: The storyline coming into the season was Josh Rosen. He was the big question mark as a true freshman starting QB, but his play has been all we could hope for, even with one really bad first half vs BYU. Unfortunately, Rosen's story has been eclipsed by three very high profile injuries which has made the Bruin defense look much more vulnerable than expected. There is good depth, but you just can't replace your best corner, best linebacker, and one of your two best D linemen. How the Bruins overcome those losses will tell the story going forward.
HoS: What is UCLA's biggest strength and what do you think is the biggest weakness?
BR: The biggest strength has surprisingly been the offensive line. This unit allowed 41 sacks last year. They've allowed just 2 this season which has really helped the true freshman QB get settled and comfortable, while at the same time opening holes for an excellent run game that is averaging close to 250 yds/game. I always say that the team with the dominant offensive line will win the game. and this unit has been excellent so far this year.
I would have included the defensive front 7 as a strength, too, but two key injuries there have hampered that. The biggest weakness now is a loss of depth at some key positions in that group. The Bruins also looked particularly vulnerable to the read option last week, so the linebacker and end play really needs to firm up. The other big weakness is the continued propensity for penalties. Though the volume of flags is down this year, there are still too many 10 and 15 yard penalties going on and those have hurt the Bruins on offense and defense as much as their opponents have this season.
HoS: Obviously Josh Rosen has set the college football world ablaze with his great start. What kind of growth has he shown through four weeks and what do you think his ceiling is?
BR: His growth was best shown in the BYU game where he went 5-15, threw 3 picks, and looked pretty uncomfortable in the first half. He responded with a very solid if not flashy second half, going 6-8 with a TD pass and led a late game winning drive. That showed that he is capable of managing a game and leading a comeback even when he is not at his best. His ceiling is already off the charts with his vision and accuracy in the pocket, and if he can recover from the real lows as his second half vs BYU suggests, or avoid them altogether which you'd expect with continued experience, he looks to be very special.
HoS: UCLA has lost three of its best defensive players. Which players on defense have stepped up in their absence?
BR: DL Eddie Vanderdoes went down in the opener with an ACL tear, and backups Eli Ankou, Matt Dickerson, and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner have been pretty good in his place. Corner Fabian Moreau suffered a Lisfranc fracture against BYU, so the Bruins moved safety Randall Goforth down to corner and inserted Tahaan Goodman in his place. All-everything inside linebacker/nickel/corner Myles Jack tore his meniscus in practice last week, so the Bruins juggled personnel on running and passing sets with Isakko Savaiinaea and Jayon Brown playing linebacker and getting Ishmael Adams back from suspension to help fill Jack's slot coverage role. All those players played well against Arizona, but there's no way to completely replace three players who were each pegged as all-conference guys.
HoS: How do most people in in Bruin country view this ASU team heading into Saturday's contest?
BR: Bruins fans recognize they are a very dangerous team, and even more so now. I had ASU as the real favorite in the Pac-12 South to start the year, so their slow start is surprising, but it's still the same roster and coaching staff that worried me in August. ASU's loss last week bothers me, too, because they will be a desperate team with a lot to prove on Saturday and the Bruins don't always match intensity well at home for some reason.
On U.C.L.A.'s side, Rosen and the O Line have given Bruin fans a lot of faith that our offense will put up points, though ASU fans understand that OC Noel Mazzone always keeps us a bit nervous. Our defense, particularly the linebacking crew, looked shaky against the run last week, and DC Tom Bradley is a PennState/east coast guy who didn't see as much spread and read option as we get out here in the Pac-12, and that, along with the holes on defense worries me against a potent Sun Devil offense with great skill players. Setting aside ASU's slow start, they look like an excellent team that is a scary match up right now.
HoS: Because of how good Rosen has been, have preseason expectations changed for UCLA?
BR: I think so, in that it has justified the optimistic predictions. Most fans looked at the Bruins roster and schedule and saw 10 wins as a very real possibility, but it was qualified with a big "If"...If Rosen can be effective...If Rosen doesn't make many freshman mistakes...If Rosen stays healthy behind the O Line... His play so far has erased those ifs and made those optimistic predictions very reasonable.
HoS: What do you feel is the biggest key to victory for UCLA against ASU?
The Bruins have to come out ready to play. They have won 12 in a row on the road, but have frequently come out flat at home and dug themselves early holes. ASU needs this game in a huge way, so the Bruins will have to match that intensity and urgency from the start.
From there, they need to be smart and not kill themselves with penalties, be efficient with their offense because right now, efficient equals lots of touchdowns. The Bruins defense will need to play good contain with the front 7 and really set the outside edge of attack to keep the ASU running game bottled up inside. The pass rush also needs to keep Mike Bercovici in the pocket and not let him extend plays and get the ball to his playmakers in space because that will be ugly for us.
HoS: What is your prediction for Saturday?
BR: It depends on which Bruin team shows up at home. This group seems more mature and focused than previous years, and if they match ASU's urgency from the start the same way they did against Arizona in Tucson last week, the Bruins have the skill and athletes to play with anyone. If the Bruins come out flat like they did somewhat against BYU, it could be trouble.
The difference here is that BYU didn't capitalize on the Bruin mistakes and the Bruin defense never broke, so that game was always right within reach. ASU though has the talent to really punish mistakes and run up a score. The Bruins can't let the Sun Devils get confident, so I think the first quarter will really be key for UCLA and will either set up a big win or reveal a let down that could easily go ASU's way.