What to watch: No. 13 UCLA vs. Virginia

UCLA football is back.

The Bruins hit the field again at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, just the second time in the last six years that they’ll open their season at the Rose Bowl. Lining up across from them will be Virginia, a struggling program that nevertheless stuck close with UCLA in a 28-20 decision in Charlottesville last year.

This weekend, the Cavaliers enter what could be a do-or-die year for sixth-year coach Mike London, while Jim Mora’s No. 13 squad is eyeing a conference title — or more.

Here’s what to look for on the field.

When UCLA has the ball

For the first time since he’s been in Westwood, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone won’t have Brett Hundley to operate his scheme.

How quickly can Josh Rosen fill those shoes, and will his style of play result in new wrinkles in the playbook? That question won’t be fully answered in Week 1, but don’t be shocked if the true freshman pulls out a few highlight plays, particularly in the second half. Early on, UCLA will likely hand the ball off to reigning Pac-12 rushing champion Paul Perkins and let him chew up the field behind what should be a stout offensive line. Continue reading

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Weekly Q&A — 9/3/5 Answers

Q: Tom Bradley vs. Jeff Ulbrich — Differences at practice, with the media, with players? What differences are we likely to see on the field?

A: Very different people, both in terms of personality and experience. On the field, UCLA should immediately benefit from having an experienced college defensive coordinator for the first time in the Jim Mora era. The defense arguably underachieved last season considering its talent, wavering between average and above-average for long stretches. Bradley, who is one of the most well-regarded coordinators in country, should turn that around.

Off the field, Ulbrich was a more fiery guy. You saw that in his sideline exchange with Mora during UCLA’s loss to Oregon last season. It’s difficult to imagine that happening with Bradley, whom linebacker Myles Jack called a “Yoda figure” back in spring.

As for media interactions, I’d give Ulbrich the edge. He was a bigger personality, and that resulted in some great quotes as well as useful information. Bradley is fine to deal with as well, but he keeps things closer to the vest.

Q: How does the D-Line two-deep look this year compared to last year? Last year it seems that sometimes they would get pushed around. Do players like Jacob Tuoti-Mariner, Eli Ankou, Matt Dickerson, Ainuu Taua, Rick Wade, and Najee Toran look much improved and/or ready to contribute?

A: Definitely improved, even though UCLA loses Owamagbe Odighizuwa. A full offseason of development for Takkarist McKinley will help fill that hole, but the JUCO transfer just isn’t that caliber of player yet. Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson both look very promising, and Wade looked physically ready to play at this level right when he arrived at camp.

Q: Any predictions on how many sacks the Bruin D will get against Virginia?

A: I’d probably put the over-under at 2.5.

Q: How long do you think Ishmael Adams is going to be out? Continue reading

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VIDEO: Jim Mora on advantage of UCLA starting season at home

When UCLA steps into the Rose Bowl this Saturday against Virginia, it will mark just the second time in six seasons that the Bruins have opened the season at home.

From 2010-12, the team traveled to Kansas State, Houston, and Rice to start the fall. They finally hosted Nevada the year after that, before traveling to Charlottesville to face the Cavaliers last season.

That the Bruins don’t have to deal with a cross-country flight should only help a team that is already a 19.5-point favorite for the 12:30 p.m. kickoff.

“You don’t have to travel, and I don’t mean that facetiously” said head coach Jim Mora. “Last year, we had to go out two days early because it was a long flight and it was a long bus ride. It knocks you off your routine a little bit. We’re all about our routine as we get closer to the game.”

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Five questions: Daily Progress’ Andrew Ramspacher on Virginia

UCLA is just two days away from its season opener, which means it’s time to check in with opposing beat writers again for some perspective on the Bruins’ opponents. First up is Andrew Ramspacher of the Daily Progress, who gives his take on a Virginia team that is coming off a 5-7 season.

(Also, here are the questions I answered for the Daily Progress about UCLA.)

1. It seems like Mike London’s job security is perennially under scrutiny. Is this finally the do-or-die season for the sixth-year head coach, or is the seat at about the same temperature it was last fall?

A buzzword around UVa and Mike London’s situation entering 2014 was “improvement.” What did London have to do to stick around for 2015? Show great improvement from the dismal 2-10 campaign. And, well, that’s kind of exactly what the Cavaliers did last season. Sure, they went 5-7, but five of those losses came by eight points or less. With a more appropriate schedule, they’re easily into a bowl game.

As for this season, I think it’s more than safe to say it’s finally do or die. London has two years left on his contract. A popular thought is he either does enough to stay and Virginia extends him or he falls short and is let go. (It would be REALLY hard to recruit with one year left on a contract). What’s a reasonable expectation to have him back in 2016? A bowl game appearance in the least. Something else to consider is attendance. Virginia had a 15 percent decrease in Scott Stadium seat fillers last year. Notre Dame and Virginia Tech coming to Charlottesville should give this year’s numbers a decent bump, but it’ll be interesting to see how administration factors everything in.

2. London said in spring that the quarterback competition wasn’t close, but Greyson Lambert is now the starter at Georgia. Is Matt Johns really that much better, or is there any thought that UVa picked the wrong guy?

Lambert, although he wasn’t always healthy, had a full season to prove he was the right guy for Virginia in 2014. His numbers — 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions — proved Johns, who made occasional appearances last year, still had a chance in the competition.

Coaches were adamant they charted all of the QB throws in spring practice and, as London noted, Johns beat out Lambert by a significant margin. On the flip-side, Virginia offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said the QB battle was a “fluid situation” and the post-spring depth chart simply reflected if the Cavaliers were playing a game that day. That head coach-offensive coordinator disconnect perhaps is symbolic of the way Virginia’s handled quarterbacks since London’s hire. It’s been a non-stop carousel that’s directly related to London’s 23-38 record. Continue reading

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