At Last Word, we like to dig deep into college football analysis. We don’t do a lot of pre-game match-up pieces. But UCLA and Cincinnati have no history against each other in football. And the Pac 12 and AAC have limited experience together, (UCLA has played Memphis and Houston). So, we throw the formula out on this rare occasion and introduce the two; UCLA Bruins Meet The Cincinnati Bearcats.
With the coaching change at UCLA, the quarterback change, changes in the offensive line and well, just overall changes in the program, this would already be a game of curiosity. With Cincinnati being a program that has struggled in recent years, and a young team trying to find an identity under second year coach Luke Fickell, the game gets multiple question marks. If Fickell’s name rings a bell, it is because he stepped in to guide Ohio State the last time there was trouble in Columbus, (yes, there is now a running list). He went 6-7 in 2011 as interim head coach when Jim Tressel was fired during the off-season.
The Bearcats are coming off back-to-back losing seasons, (4-8 the last two years), for the first time since the 1998-99 seasons.
If they are looking for a quick turnaround, this is a tough way to start. This is a young roster with not a lot to build from. Cincinnati was picked to finish fourth in the AAC East media pre-season poll. UCLA was picked to finish fourth in the Pac 12 South, so there is that parity going into the game.
The Bearcats do return their leading rusher from last season. In fact, they are the only team in the AAC that does. Sophomore Gerrid Doaks had 87 carries for 513 yards and two touchdowns last year.
Conversely, UCLA’s leading rusher, Bolu Olorunfunmi, needed 30 more carries to gain only 52 more yards. UCLA’s horrific run game was well-chronicled last year. With Soso Jamabo suspended for the first two games of the season, the Bruins will go deep with carries. Josh Kelly, Kazmeir Allen and Brandon Stephens are all going to see the field Saturday.
Cincinnati also returns an experienced play-caller. Senior Hayden Moore was 239 of 424 for 2,562 with 20 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in his first full season as a starter last year.
All of this makes it sound like it an even match. And it very well may be. But this is where we go back to the question marks. It is the question marks and UCLA coach Chip Kelly’s ability to answer them that is likely to decide the game.
By any measure going into camp, the biggest issue the Bruins had now, and frankly for the last two years, was a consistent offensive line. Defensive lineman Boss Tagaloa was already moved over to center during the Spring, and is now suspended for the first three games of the season. Now freshman Chris Murray or junior Zach Sweeney will get the call. Grad transfer Justin Murphy is seeing plenty of work at right guard. Murphy would be quite an accomplishment since the Texas Tech transfer has not played football since 2016 after retiring due to multiple knee injuries. Kelly had invested plenty of time and effort in getting Tagaloa ready to play on the offensive line. The suspension for the out-of-conference schedule does significant damage to the depth of the line.
While the offensive line will be critical in protecting UCLA’s quarterbacks, for this game it is an obvious. The Bearcats ranked 123rd in the country last year with 1 quarterback sack per game. The team leader was Marquise Copeland with three-and-a-half sacks for the entire season. It’s a coaching cliché to say the team that controls the line controls the game. Here we are making it a sports writer cliché as well.
Whether it is Wilton Speight, Devon Modster, or Dorian Thompson-Robinson behind center, (and you may as well put a question mark after each name), they just might have time to see the field for a change. They will also be going up against a defensive secondary that only had five interceptions all season. Taking some risks with the wealth of receivers UCLA has in Chase Cota, Theo Howard, Dymond Lee, Christian Pabico, and Kyle Philips is not out of the question. The safe plays to the tight ends should be a given.
While we are on the subject of question marks, UCLA’s new 3-4 defense could be one for fans and Bearcats alike.
The flex defense was already designed to allow the Bruins the ability to shift players around from linebacker to the edge of the line, and from the inside to the outside linebacker positions. It is designed to maximize on the athleticism of guys like Jaelan Phillips. But with linebacker Josh Woods out for the season with a knee injury and defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa suspended for the game, there is going to be a lot more shuffling along the front seven.
Expect to see Tyree Thompson, Leni Toailoa an freshman Bo Calvert moved around the linebacker spots. Mique Juarez Will finally make his UCLA debut, complementing Keisean Lucier-South, and Phillips.
Think that is a lot to take in? Think it is hard to figure out? It’s enough of a question mark that the SB Nation digital media site that covers Cincinnati football ran an article that listed the top three linebackers the Bearcats would face all year. They profiled players from SMU, South Florida and Central Florida. Not a Bruin in site. And that was before Woods went out for the year.
Season openers of any year always have their anticipation points for fans. This is different. These are two teams who have never faced each other. This is a first-year coach at UCLA who was the home run hire fans in Westwood have been waiting decades for. He’s facing a second-year coach with the ability to build his program into a regular conference contender.
UCLA is coming off the Josh Rosen era without knowing who the starter will be as of this point. There are three very diverse options. And then there is the looming shadow of week 2, with UCLA traveling to Norman to face to Oklahoma Sooners.
But, Kelly doesn’t figure to leave a lot of question marks on the field. This is not the Karl Dorrell or Jim Mora era. Anyone who has studied the Kelly era at Oregon knows he did not keep things undercover to hide them from next week’s opponent. He threw everything out on the field and then re-grouped with a different plan for the next opponent. He gave them new question marks to deal with.
Question marks will be turned to periods by Saturday night.