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Opponent Q&A: Talking UCLA Bruins Football

We know Josh Rosen; who else can hurt the Huskies?

UCLA v Utah Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Earlier this week we had the chance to talk to members of the UCLA community Bruins Nation regarding this week’s matchup with the Huskies.

Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:

UWDP: Josh Rosen is the best college QB in Los Angeles, let’s just get that out of the way. I don’t know if I’ve seen a young quarterback more ready to start in the NFL and toss 25 INTs as a rookie, then become a star. Rosen is throwing 45 passes a week. Is that ideal for this offense? Where can he improve? How would you assess the pass protection?

AnteatersandBruins: Hopefully Rosen’s arm is getting a bit of a break as the run game slowly improves (and I DO mean slowly). Luckily, we have a great quarterback behind a mediocre offensive line that can make up for deficiencies in that area. He is ideal for us in the mechanical sense, but I also still question his ability to read progressions. The pass protection has shown slight improvement, but could always be better. We’ve been here the days of Kevin Prince, the pocket would implode before the ball was even in his hands. He wasn’t nearly the quarterback Rosen is, and it showed. The one thing I’m sure I’ll never have an answer on is his leadership. I’ll never say that he is a better leader than Brett Hundley was.

Dimitri Dorlis: 45 passes a week is probably the only way this team wins a game, honestly. Rosen is a quarterback straight out of the Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers mold - he’s a true gunslinger that hasn’t met a throw he didn’t want to try and make. He has such raw talent that, for the most part, he’ll make those throws. If you’re looking for an area that he can improve with, it’s the same thing all true gunslingers can struggle with at times: he’s too cavalier with his throws. The vast majority of Rosen’s interceptions this year have come off of bad decisions, and there’s a handful of other throws that probably should have been intercepted as well. The nice thing is that pass protection has been markedly improved from last year. It’s still not a top-tier pass protection by any stretch, but this year the Bruins actually have an offensive coordinator who understands the unit’s strengths and weaknesses, which has been a huge boon.

Markybcool: Rosen has been tasked this year with trying to do EVERYTHING he can do to compensate for the ineptitude of our defense. Like Dimitri said, he’s the type of competitor that truly believes that he can make any and every throw, and he can and tries to. If Rosen has time, he will pick a defense apart. He still misses occasional deep balls, but overall he can make every throw. I think that our offensive line has actually been better than average in terms of pass protection. Rosen has dropped back 319 times and has been sacked 16 times. Not perfect, but when every team that we play game plans to stop Rosen, and teams pretty much believe we cannot run the ball effectively, that puts a huge onus on the offensive line to protect Rosen.

Joe Piechowski: Heading into the season, the offensive line was the biggest concern because it was so bad last season. The line has proven to be much better than expected. The challenge was to keep Rosen upright and they have risen to the challenge. And, while it might not seem like it, the offense has been pretty balanced between the run and the pass. But, against a good team like the Huskies, Rosen will likely need to throw more to win because the Bruin defense has been awful and throwing the ball is the easiest way to score.

UWDP: The Wide Receiving corps is lead by Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley. Describe their roles in the offense. What other receivers are key contributors? Who do you expect to step up for injured TE Caleb Wilson?

AnteatersandBruins: Andrews has been a beast this year, and losing Wilson is a definite blow to the unit. Luckily, the receiving corps on the whole is performing better than last year. In 2016 they dropped passes more often than not, so it’s a relief to see they’ve gotten rid of the butterfingers. Christian Pabico seems to be fitting in nicely, and Theo Howard is grossly underused. We should see more from Howard since losing Wilson.

Dimitri Dorlis: Andrews and Lasley are thunder and lightning. Andrews is the dependable, possession-type slot receiver who knows how to get open, while Lasley is the big play, quick strike receiver who can take a pass to the house from any spot on the field. I’d also look at Theo Howard as big part of this unit - he was the third WR on the field during the comeback against A&M, and while he’s been in the doghouse a bit recently, the loss of Caleb Wilson basically necessitated that ending. Speaking of, it’s almost impossible to replace what Wilson brought to the offense, as he’s a quarterback’s best friend, being able to catch anything thrown near him, while also having the body size to be a traditional blocking tight-end. Jordan Wilson is the closest approximation to Caleb’s complete skillset, and he had a solid game this week against Oregon, so he’d be the one I’d expect to fill in that huge hole.

Markybcool: Darren Andrews has been a difference maker this year, as was Caleb Wilson before his injury. I still feel like the group drops too many balls, and that has still been a problem this year. Jordan Lasley has also contributed some big plays for the offense and led the team with 17.0 yards per reception. Notice I said “led”. Lasley was leading the team in that category until last week’s surprise contributor had a big game, Christian Pabico. Guys like Pabico find ways to make their presence felt, and I would not be surprised if he continues to be a contributor from this point forward. The TE position has traditionally been a huge part of Coach Fisch’s offensive philosophy, so I again agree with Dimitri that Jordan Wilson should see continued action at TE.

Joe Piechowski: Without a doubt, Andrews has been our best receiver this year and Lasley has been the second best. But, aside from those two, the Bruins’ third threat has been Theo Howard. As far as tight ends go, losing Caleb Wilson hurt a lot. His replacement Austin Roberts also got hurt. Now, it will fall to Jordan Wilson (no relation to Caleb) to step up.

UWDP: Tell us about the UCLA running game. How has the offensive line performed? Who should we expect to get the bulk of the carries? Are there any running backs on the roster with names that don’t require a pronunciation guide?

AnteatersandBruins: Good luck with names, guys. I still can’t say any of them. Like I said before, we’ve seen some improvement and more yards on the ground this year as the new line coach, Hank Fraley, has worked with the front five. I’d expect Bolu and Jamabo to get most of the carries on Saturday.

Dimitri Dorlis: So the cool thing about having (what appears to be) a pretty good offensive line coach is that you can actually see the offensive line grow throughout the season, and that’s how I’d also describe the UCLA running game. I wouldn’t confuse this team as run-first, but over the past few games the Bruin run game has become a unit that teams can’t ignore, which has in turn helped out the passing game. UCLA still utilizes a running-back-by-committee approach, and Huskies fans should expect to see a combination of Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi, who are two very different backs. Soso is the flashier, finesse runner (who’s managed to add a power aspect to his game this season), while Bolu is the smaller, stockier power back (who apparently can also surf on defenders, a play I’m sure you Husky fans appreciated). If he’s healthy, also expect Jalen Starks (hey, there’s an easier name!) to see a ton of short-yardage opportunities as the fullback.

Markybcool: Overall, I have not been impressed with our running game this year, and I think it is combination of running backs that are good but not great and an offensive line that pass protects better than they run block. I would anticipate UCLA having a tough time running the ball this week against Washington’s defense.

Joe Piechowski: Just be thankful that Rod Gilmore and Mark Jones aren’t calling the game because you would get 29 different pronunciations of the same name. Repeat after me: So-so Ja-ma-bo and Bo-lu O-lo-run-fun-mi. You can expect Brandon Stephens (no pronunciation guide needed) to spell Soso and Bolu, but Soso and Bolu will get the bulk of the carries. As I mentioned in the question #1, the offensive line has shown much improvement this year and offensive line coach Hank Fraley gets the credit for developing those guys after years where Adrian Klemm seemed to do nothing but collect a paycheck.

UWDP: How would you rate the special teams and the Bruins’ kicking game? Who are the top kick returners? How has the kick coverage been for UCLA?

AnteatersandBruins: Our kicking game is light years from where is was last year. J.J. Molson has improved more than anyone else on the team, and it has definitely helped. Darnay Holmes was pretty effective at the beginning of the season, but I haven’t really been impressed by anyone else here.

Dimitri Dorlis: Molson has definitely improved, as has punter Stefan Flintoft, who won the job this offseason and has shown a marked improvement over his performance last year. The best thing he’s done is increase his hangtime, which has led to more fair catches, which has in turn helped out a coverage unit that isn’t the best (and I’d expect the Bruins to do everything they can to deny Dante Pettis the ability to return a single punt, and if not then our coaches are actual morons). You’ll see true freshman Darnay Holmes on kick returns and Adarius Pickett on punts, and while both guys have the ability to house the ball, neither has really done an amazing job in the return game thus far.

Markybcool: Our kicking game has been very solid this year. Molson and Flintoft have both been solid performers for us. Our return game has been non-existent in my opinion. We are averaging 8.5 yards per punt return, and about 19 yards per kick return, pretty much nothing of significance from either group.

Joe Piechowski: One thing I’ve been tracking all season has been our “NeverKick” percentage. That is, how frequently the Bruins go for it on fourth down. Along with that, I’ve also been tracking how many times and what percentage the team punts and tries a field goal. The good news has been that the FGAs and punts are down and the “NeverKick” percentage is up significantly. Stefan Flintoff has been a rock. He’s been punting fewer than 5 times per game, but when he steps onto the field, look out! The chances are that he will pin you deep. Molson has been more consistent. With a better offensive line and an offense that can move the ball, he hasn’t been asked to make as many attempts, but he’s been improved on the attempts he’s made.

UWDP: The UCLA defense has been… well, not great. Opponents have scored over 36 points per game and the nearly 500 yards allowed is dead last in the Pac-12. Is the defense improving? There is obviously talent there. Who are some key defenders to watch on Saturday?

AnteatersandBruins: Watch Jaelan Phillips. As a freshman he already looks like the reincarnation of Anthony Barr. The defense has been absolutely terrible this year, and has really killed the effectiveness of this team. I really can’t say they’ve improved tremendously, but they’re not as terrible as they were six weeks ago. Very specific, I know.

Dimitri Dorlis: I wrote in our site’s Eye Test (go check it out, and thanks for the clicks!) that there was “improvement” this week defensively, but we have to temper the good feelings since Oregon is so one-dimensional at the moment. The thing is, there’s been a ton of talent recruited to this entire unit over the years, so the problem is a crazy combination of bad scheme and underperformance. It’d be one thing if opponents were gaining those yards because UCLA was too aggressive, but they’ve been passive to a fault, and losing what has turned out to be 5 NFL players in a single draft means you can’t keep running the same system and expect the same results. Jaelan Phillips returned from injury this past week and provided an instant spark to the pass rush, so he’d be one to watch out for, along with lineback and this year’s annual UCLA Lott Award Contender Kenny Young, who has to have a great game for the defense to do well.

Markybcool: It obviously cannot be sugarcoated, glossed over, or denied, the UCLA defense has been an absolute abomination. I’m not sure that I agree that there is a significant talent level in all areas of our defense at this point. High school ratings mean nothing if you cannot translate that into college execution. In past years, it was easy to look at UCLA players on D that I knew were going to be playing on Sunday, and I do not need to list them. At this point, I simply do not look at this group and see those types of players. Has there been a coaching issue? Yes, that has to be added to the equation, but again, I do not see this high level of “wasted talent” that some see. I will temper my comments with the fact that we are pretty young, and it is my hope that I will see this unit improve itself as the year ends. Jaelan Phillips is definitely a future difference maker that can already get around the edge at a high level.

Joe Piechowski: Jaelan Phillips is back. So, that immediately makes the defense better, but it still isn’t very good. Keep an eye on Phillips and Keisean Lucier South, who played well against the Ducks. Also, watch the Darnay Holmes in the secondary.

UWDP: Heat check on Jim Mora’s butt: His teams averaged better than 9 wins in his first four seasons in Westwood, and good recruiting classes have raised expectations. Is Mora’s job in serious danger?

AnteatersandBruins: If it’s not, it should be. My only issue with firing him is the buffoon that would be in charge of finding his replacement.

Dimitri Dorlis: The situation at UCLA is all kinds of weird, with all kinds of moving parts, so the simple answer is: no, Jim Mora’s job is safe. The sad fact is he was given a ridiculous buyout by our AD, and coming off getting the big-time donors to pony up for a new on-campus football facility to bring UCLA up to par with the rest of the conference, it’s going to be hard to turn around and ask them to front the $10 million it would take to get rid of Mora. On top of that, AD Dan Guerrero has to retire in a few years, and he really, really doesn’t want to go through one last coaching search before then. But if you ask the average UCLA fan, Mora’s seat should be on fire right now, and the big question for the rest of the season is going to be if things get embarrassing enough to force Guerrero’s hand. The story was always that Guerrero did not want to fire former coach Rick Neuheisal after UCLA’s 50-0 loss to USC, and was forced into it by donors, and a similar embarrassment could force him to act again.

Markybcool: Regardless of the buyout, if the Bruins finish the next five games 0-5, which I can definitely see happening, I cannot not see his job as safe. I say that as being one of the few public Mora supporters over the last couple of years. I wanted to give Mora a chance this year to get the ship moving back in the right direction. In my mind, this year was his chance to do more with less. With all of that being said, we are talking about our athletic department, and anything is possible. If Mora was to somehow go 4-1 in the next five, maybe 3-2 and then somehow win a bowl, that might be enough to save his job.

Joe Piechowski: Jim Mora should have been fired last year. Oregon fired Mark Helfrich who had an identical record. Dan Guerrero didn’t act because he really just wants to retire and not go through another coaching search. I’ve been calling for Mora’s head since last season. After the Stanford game, I also called on UCLA Chancellor Gene Block to just send Guerrero into retirement now and pay him the final two years of his contract. If Mora finishes 6-6, he probably gets to keep his job, but if he finishes below .500 again Guerrero will likely be forced to do something. Attendance has been terrible and another sub-.500 season will really hurt next season.

UWDP: What is your prediction for this game?

AnteatersandBruins: We lose, but not by as much as people think. We’ll put up a fight, but let’s face it, the Huskies are at home, and even though the UW offense hasn’t exactly been rolling the last couple of weeks, they’re still the better team. But I can always hope for an upset.

Dimitri Dorlis: HOT TAKE INCOMING - I feel like Washington has struggled more against defenses that can, at the very least, match their talent level, or go super-aggressive against them. UCLA definitely has a talent level that can match Washington, and they showed off a much-more aggressive defense in their victory over Oregon. I’m a Jake Browning non-believer as well, so I’m going to say that UCLA SHOCKS THE WORLD…..for a half, before Washington eventually pulls away. UCLA hasn’t won a game on the road this season, why assume they’ll start now?

Markybcool: I am a realist, and there is DEFINITELY not enough talent on our defense to match Washington’s talent level. As hard as it is for me to say this, with our inability to sack the QB, tackle effectively, consistently stay with receivers, and our penchant to find the absolute best time for a penalty, Jake Browning and the Husky offense will absolutely exploit our defense early and often. Our only chance is to somehow get turnovers and score off of them. Turnovers are always the equalizers in games. On another note, I am a BIG Jake Browning believer, as a high school coach in the Sacramento Area, I have witnessed first-hand the talent that this kid has, and his success at this level has not surprised me at all.

Joe Piechowski: I don’t think it’s a lack of talent on defense. I think it’s bad deployment. Regardless, I’m not going to be surprised to see the Huskies cover the spread.

Thanks Guys. For more on the game from the UCLA perspective, be sure to check out Bruins Nation.