Five questions: Salt Lake Tribune’s Kyle Goon on Utah

UCLA needs two more wins to clinch the Pac-12 South, but closing out its schedule on the road won’t be easy. Before next week’s regular-season finale against USC, the Bruins must travel to Salt Lake City and upset No. 18 Utah. The team has come back to Earth after a 6-0 start that vaulted them to third place in the AP poll, but is still the type of tough, defensive-minded squad that often spells trouble for UCLA. The Salt Lake Tribune‘s Kyle Goon answered five questions about the Utes.

(Here are the questions I answered for the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News.)

1. Utah is likely out of the playoff picture after brief stay in the national top five, but it’s still in the midst of its best season since joining the Pac-12. What’s the bar the rest of the way for closing out on what players or fans would consider a “successful” year?

I think fans would really like to go to the Rose Bowl. The Utes have never gone to that game, which — despite its lesser importance in the College Football Playoff structure — is still the Grand Old Lady of the Pac-12. It’s a status symbol that Utah would like to attain, and since it’s in Los Angeles, a lot of people would probably make the trip. Of course this year, it will be the Pac-12 champion that goes, and Utah doesn’t control its own destiny (USC has to lose). I think winning out against UCLA and Colorado would also probably welcomed as a success, as long as Utah finishes first or second in the Pac-12 South.

2. How big of a blow to Utah’s offense is the loss of Devontae Booker? What’s the plan for the Utes moving forward?

It’s a huge blow. Booker is among the top 10 players in all-purpose yards per game (157 ypg), and Utah’s offense accounts for his production a lot to set up play action passing and keep the box stacked. The Utes don’t really have a guy who can replace Booker’s power and vision, as well as his receiving production. The Utes will turn to Joe Williams, who showed some promise last week and is probably faster than Booker. Continue reading

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Five questions: The Spokesman-Review’s Jacob Thorpe on WSU

UCLA will play at the Rose Bowl for the last time this year at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, hosting a Washington State team that had turned itself around over the course of two months. WSU has already become bowl eligible, but is seeking to ruin the Bruins’ Pac-12 South hopes and further cement this as Mike Leach’s most successful season in the Palouse. The Spokesman-Review‘s Jacob Thorpe answered five questions about the resurgent Cougars.

1. Washington State lost to Portland State and nearly lost to Rutgers. How did this same group of players nearly upset Stanford on the way to what is now a 6-3 record?

Heading into this season, there were many pieces in place for the Cougars to show significant improvement: returning all five offensive linemen, a veteran receiver corps, lets of returners on defense.

But WSU also had a new defensive coordinator who had never had the reins to his own defense before, and a sophomore quarterback in Luke Falk with just three career starts under his belt.

Falk did not exactly put up Air Raid numbers in the nonconference games, throwing for 303 yards or less in two of WSU’s first three games. But he hasn’t thrown for less than 389 yards since and the WSU offense has seen its scoring average rise from 28.3 points per nonconference game to 39.3 against Pac-12 opponents.

The offensive uptick has coincided with the defense finding its footing under Grinch, making the Cougars a much more dangerous team than they were at the start of the season.

2. Mike Leach-coached quarterbacks always put up big numbers, but are often dismissed as system guys. How does Luke Falk compare to “Air Raid” predecessors such as Connor Halliday?

While Falk doesn’t have Connor Halliday’s bionic arm, he may be a better pro prospect than most of Leach’s QBs. Continue reading

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Five questions: The Oregonian’s Gina Mizell on Oregon State

UCLA appears to have found its course again after back-to-back losses in October, and is now riding consecutive victories over Cal and Colorado. The Bruins still have their issues — the most glaring of which is a banged-up defense — but Saturday’s trip to Oregon State gives them a chance to build momentum into the final stretch of the season. The Oregonian‘s Gina Mizell answered five questions about the Beavers, who are still searching for their first conference win under new head coach Gary Andersen.

1. What are the biggest changes that Gary Andersen has instituted in the program since taking over after Mike Riley’s departure?

For starters, he changed the base scheme on both offense and defense. OSU is now running a spread offense that requires a dual-threat quarterback, rather than the pro-style system that the Beavers ran under Riley. The defense has also switched from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 (though you’ll still see a fair amount of packages with four down linemen and/or five defensive backs). Philosophically, Andersen’s motto is “Players make plays. Players win games.” Not saying that Riley’s staff did not put the players first, but Andersen really, really emphasizes that. He’s also tried to instill toughness and accountability with this young team, and has noted multiple times this season that the grind was going to test certain players’ commitment and if Pac-12 football was truly for them. Obviously, all of this has not translated to a whole bunch of wins this season, but the coaches still believe in the foundation they are building.

2. How does Oregon State’s offense change with Nick Mitchell at quarterback instead of Seth Collins?

Mitchell obviously is not as dynamic as a runner as Collins, but he’s athletic enough to still run the zone-read and scramble on the fly if necessary. Continue reading

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Five questions: Daily Camera’s Brian Howell on Colorado

UCLA’s window at the Pac-12 South title opened up after USC’s defeat of Utah, but the Bruins have little room for error. Jim Mora’s squad is in a three-way tie for second in the division, and should be heavy favorites in two or three of its final five regular-season games. First up in that order is Colorado, which only has five conference wins since joining the Pac-12. Brian Howell of the Boulder Daily Camera answered five questions about the Buffaloes, who are looking for more signs of progress in their third season under Mike MacIntyre.

1. Colorado lost 14 straight Pac-12 games before winning at Oregon State this past Saturday. How much of a mental toll did that take on the team?

Quite a bit, but more so than the 14 losses, it’s the amount of close losses that weighed on this team. This past Saturday was the seventh time in their last 13 Pac-12 games that the Buffs have either led or tied at the half, and it was the first time they pulled off a win. Five of their Pac-12 losses since the start of 2014 have come by a touchdown or less. So, it’s really been the fact that they’re close – but not quite there – that has bothered them the most.

2. The Buffaloes’ defense has gone from awful to middling in a year, at least statistically. How much credit does new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt deserve for the turnaround? How does he utilize the team’s personnel differently than his predecessor Kent Baer did?

Leavitt deserves a lot of credit. From the start, the players have loved his fiery personality and they love playing in this defense, which is set up to allow the guys more freedom to play, rather than having to think so much. One of the biggest, and most important, changes Leavitt has made personnel-wise is utilizing all the skills of Chidobe Awuzie, who is their best player on defense. Continue reading

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Five questions: S.F. Chronicle’s Connor Letourneau on Cal

UCLA has never lost three straight regular-season games under Jim Mora. To avoid falling into that hole, the Bruins will need to hold off a Cal offense led by star quarterback Jared Goff. The No. 20 Bears are averaging 40.2 points per game after a surprising 5-1 start, and will be eager to win at the Rose Bowl for just the second time in the last 15 years. Connor Letourneau, who covers Cal for the San Francisco Chronicle, answered five questions about the team.

(Here are the questions I answered about the Bruins for the Chronicle.)

1. After suffering its first loss, what does Cal most need to prove against a second-half schedule that looks much more intimidating than the first?

The Bears are trying to prove they can win the Pac-12 North. Though No. 10 Stanford is the clear favorite at this point, No. 20 Cal is very much in contention. The division title would likely come down to the Big Game on Nov. 21 if the Bears can win their next four games over unranked opponents.

To make that happen, they must start stringing together complete performances. Cal’s past four games have been within six points, largely because it has struggled in at least one phase. In its Oct. 10 loss at Utah, for example, uncharacteristic offensive mistakes put the pressure on an inconsistent — albeit much-improved — defense.

2. Jared Goff threw a career-high five interceptions in Salt Lake City. Did Utah do something that other defenses will be able to replicate, or did the quarterback simply have a bad day?

That was an odd performance. The first couple interceptions, which came on a dropped pass and a tipped ball, weren’t necessarily Goff’s fault. Then the takeaways seemed to throw him off-kilter a bit. Continue reading

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