This hasn’t been the season that UCLA fans expected.
Heading into September, almost everyone had their eyes trained on the newcomer behind center. Would five-star recruit Josh Rosen live up to the hype? Can a veteran cast win big even with a true freshman quarterback? Turns out, Rosen was the least of the Bruins’ problems.
As the teenager threw for 3,350 yards, UCLA’s once-vaunted defense fell apart, losing three starters to season-ending injuries in the first three weeks. That the Bruins still ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in allowing 25.1 points per game was a feat in and of itself — keeping themselves in the conference race until the final week of the season.
However, facing Nebraska in Saturday’s Foster Farms Bowl might be the least enticing postseason matchup of the Jim Mora era. Can UCLA find enough motivation to clinch a fourth straight nine-win season?
When UCLA has the ball
For all Rosen’s talent, the one knock on him as a recruit was the thought that he might be difficult to coach.
“He had a reputation for being somewhat aloof or arrogant, or kind of a know-it-all,” said Mora, who first met Rosen in early 2012. “I have not seen that person in a couple years.
“What I’ve seen is a very mature, selfless kid that wants to be involved with his team, his teammates. I think he has a lot of confidence, but he’s measured that with a level of humbleness that people respect. He’s always anxious to learn and absorb information. He never acts like he knows it all. Even when he has an idea, the way he presents it is very respectful to everybody.”
That maturation should pay off in a big way for UCLA (8-4), which has a chance to watch him bloom into a superstar through at least the next two seasons. For now, however, Rosen needs to steady himself for his first postseason appearance.
His school-record streak of 245 consecutive passes without an interception ended in ugly fashion, with his two interceptions playing a crucial role in a 40-21 loss at USC. Nebraska (5-7) could offer him a chance to get back on track.
The Cornhuskers allowed more passing yards (3,458) in the regular season than all but six other teams in the FBS. They have given up 22 touchdown passes while only recording eight interceptions.
But UCLA could also be without offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who was hospitalized last week and remains uncertain to coach in the Foster Farms Bowl. He has been present at practices, but if he isn’t available at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, then the Bruins will have a new playcaller for the first time during the Mora era.
Also troubling is an offensive line that has worn dangerously thin. Alex Redmond left the team and signed with an NFL agent, and Fred Ulu-Perry transferred to Hawaii. If Kenny Lacy sits out a lingering ankle injury, redshirt sophomore Poasi Moala — limited by a hand injury for much of this season — could be in line for his career start at guard. Another loss up front would likely force the team to turn to walk-on Cristian Garcia.
Edge: UCLA, slightly
When Nebraska has the ball
Nebraska’s chances may rest on the legs of Tommy Armstrong Jr.
First-year Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley shoehorned the junior into his pro-style offense with mixed results this season, but a bowl game could be the ideal time to scrap those plans and let the 6-foot-1, 220-pound quarterback freelance a bit more. Under Bo Pelini, Armstrong ran for 705 yards in 2014.
“It’s hard to duplicate the things he does,” said defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who added that he’s watched film from last season as well to prepare.
Pair Armstrong with the two-back tandem of Terrell Newby and Imani Cross, and Nebraska could have the ideal formula to exploit the Bruins’ questionable run defense. The pair has combined to rush for 1,132 yards and 10 touchdowns, with Cross giving the team a true power option to balance out Newby’s speed and quickness.
The good news for UCLA is that its defense is getting healthier. Junior linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea, who had double-digit tackles in two games before spraining his ankle, returned against USC after a four-game layoff. After another month to recover, he’s again approaching full speed.
“He looks like he’s got his mobility back and his speed and his conditioning and his endurance,” Mora said.
The Huskers don’t look as dangerous through the air. Armstrong has thrown nine picks in his last three appearances. Four times in his two full seasons as a starter, he’s failed to complete 40 percent of his passes. Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly are a capable duo — accounting for 1,590 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns — but UCLA has gotten surprise breakouts from defensive backs such as Johnny Johnson and Nate Meadors. The Bruins allow 5.6 yards per pass attempt, tied for No. 3 in the FBS.
On special teams
As the Big Ten’s best punter, Sam Foltz could be a difference-maker for Nebraska on Saturday. His 44.38-yard average ranks No. 15 nationally, and 15 of his 53 punts have landed inside the 20-yard line.
UCLA’s Matt Mengel, on the other hand, has been inconsistent at best. While he can boot the occasional 50-yarder, he’s been much more likely to give opposing teams good field position and put even more pressure on the Bruin defense.
The obvious bright spot on UCLA’s special teams is kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, who made a late-career turnaround to become a consensus All-American and the school’s second-ever Lou Groza Award winner. Receiver Devin Fuller also served as an effective punt and kick returner early in the season, and would be a natural fit for that role if his ankle has healed completely.
Edge: Nebraska, slightly
Prediction: UCLA 38, Nebraska 31. The time off since the end of the season could result in some surprise tweaks to either team’s playbook, but the Bruins are the more talented squad.