It's a homecoming of sorts for Jim L. "Washington is my dream job" Mora and Myles "Finger Lickin'" Jack as the Bruins come to town. You might remember Jack from a series of episodes during last year's game such as:
The LB turned RB has had a modest season when inserted on offense this year as Washington's Shaq Thompson has taken the mantle as the latest two-way sensation. Can the Huskies ride Shaq to some payback and a win over UCLA?
While Washington doesn't have a long losing streak against the Bruins like they do vs. Oregon or Arizona State - they won their first blackout night game vs. UCLA in 2010 and rode Isaiah Stanback and Dan Howell to a win in 2006 - this is a rivalry that carries a lot of juice for many Husky fans. While UCLA sits in the talent hotbed of the west coast and usually has a more celebrated roster than our Huskies, it is Washington that lays claim to the 2nd best historical resume in the region behind only USC with more conference titles, Rose Bowls and National Championships. But UCLA is neck and neck with Washington, and they've had a knack over the years of beating the Huskies in various ways: stinging (the 1990 loss that took the Huskies out of National Championship contention), frustrating (the 2009 loss that kept Sark's first team from reaching .500) and humiliating (watching Maurice Jones-Drew carve up the Husky defense for 322 yards rushing and 5 TDs in 2004). And now we can add in the twist of Husky alum Jim L. Mora coaching the Bruins after once famously proclaiming that Washington was his "dream job" (while he was still coaching the Atlanta Falcons) only to spurn opportunities to pursue the job in 2009 and then use the opening this past off-season as a way to leverage more money from UCLA.
The storyline of Mora's return and that of hyped LB/RB Myles Jack though has been drowned out by yesterday's big news of the dismissal of star CB Marcus Peters from the Huskies. How the team reacts to this - both from a scheme and personnel standpoint as well as an emotional one - will be a key.
On paper, the Bruins would appear to have the edge. The strength of this Husky team is the defense, but the Bruins boast an offense that is even better. While the front four for the Dawgs has been outstanding in rushing the passer and the Bruin OL has been a sieve, QB Brett Hundley has adjusted his approach in the pocket in the last four games and is using his legs far more now, averaging 106.0 ypg rushing and taking only 1.8 sacks/game. He's very efficient in the passing game too, and with the Husky D typically set up to keep everything in front of them and prevent long plays, he'll be more than willing to take the underneath routes available to him. And of course we'll have to see how well Naijiel Hale holds up in a starting role along with fellow true frosh Sidney Jones as they battle Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte, Eldridge Massington and Devin Fuller. And then there's stud RB Paul Perkins who's averaging 6.28 ypc and 119.3 ypg going against a Husky run defense that has been vulnerable at times.
The struggles of the Husky offense are well-chronicled here. The hope is that with Shaq in the backfield that the run game becomes a strength which can open up more options in the passing game. That was the case last week vs. Colorado, but UCLA's defense is far more talented and has performed much better than the Buffs. While they're probably not as good as they showed in an outstanding effort last week vs. Arizona, they are big, fast and athletic across the board.
I'd love to think this is a game the Huskies will win. In fact, before the season started I had this circled as a win. I still think the Huskies can win the game, but if I take off my purple glasses I just don't think that's the likely outcome. I think Shaq and the running game will find some success and the Bruins are vulnerable to some big plays against the pass, and the Huskies will score some points. But the difference-maker will be Hundley. While I expect our front four to get pressure on him and drop him a few times, I also expect he'll bust out some big scrambles and for the Bruin running game to find success. Unfortunately I'm calling this one for the bad guys: UCLA 31, Washington 21
With the injuries, the overhaul in the system and, now, the loss of an All-American level contributor, it seems like a very bad time for Washington to be taking on a team that many thought would be dark horse national title contenders. As I sat down to write about my prediction of UCLA beating Washington and handing the Huskies their third home loss of the season, I was reminded of a quote that my wife had just last week dropped in the lunchbox of my oldest daughter:
"Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant."
It's the old adage of "next man up" as relayed by a Roman poet.
I'm going to dispense with the analysis and go ahead and project a Husky victory this weekend. Not because I think UW is more talented or playing at a higher level, but because I think that this team has underlying talents that have yet to fully germinate under the new schemes and systems of this coaching staff.
I like UW's front four to create pressure on Brett Hundley who, despite his greatness, is still prone to drop his eyes and start scrambling when the pocket breaks down. I like the speedy Husky LBs to disrupt the lateral passing game that is such a huge part of the Bruin offense as they have against every other lateral passing team so far this year. I like Shaq the way the rushing attack is coming together. I also am going to go on a ledge and project that both Cyler Miles and John Ross (the cornerback and return guy) have big games.
I don't think that this game won't be without its stresses. The UW secondary is going to struggle, but to beat it UCLA is going to have to go the unfamiliar route of attacking vertically - something it has not done. I also think UW's own WRs are going to have difficulty getting going against a UCLA secondary that really has been better than most people give it credit for. I also wonder if the performance from the UCLA D-Line last week against Arizona was an aberration or the long-awaited breakout from a group that has seriously underperformed to its talent level. All of these factors will make for a very close contest as the game plays out.
In the end, I think the adversity of this week will elicit talents heretofore unseen and I'm going with UW 20, UCLA 17
The Huskies have the talent to keep this one competitive against a UCLA team that has struggled to play consistently the entire season, but I don't think it will be enough to overcome the matchup between one of the league's best quarterbacks and a secondary that will start three true freshmen out of four positions. UCLA 38, Washington 27