Five questions: Arizona Republic’s Doug Haller on Arizona State

UCLA responded to losing three defensive starters in a big way last weekend, rolling out to a 56-30 win at then-No. 16 Arizona. Can the No. 7 Bruins keep it going against an Arizona State team that might be the most disappointing in the conference? Doug Haller, who is covering his sixth season of ASU football for the Arizona Republic and, answered five questions about the Sun Devils.

1. During Arizona State’s 42-14 loss to USC last Saturday, you called this the worst half of football you’d seen out of the Sun Devils in your time covering them. What set this apart from their performances in other blowout losses?

Mostly, the overall sloppiness. They fumbled twice in USC territory — once at the 1-yard line. That one was picked up and returned for a touchdown. Then on the ensuing kick-off, ASU’s returner made a poor decision to bring the ball out of the end zone and fumbled. So that gave USC 14 points in about 30 seconds. Contributing: The defense tackled as poorly as it has all season and couldn’t get off the field on third down. It was ugly.

2. Mike Bercovici’s numbers haven’t slipped that far overall compared to last season, but against Texas A&M and the Trojans, he’s only completed 56.5 percent of his passes for 471 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Was he playing over his head during his three-game tear in 2014, or was that stretch closer to his true abilities?

When I think back to his performance last season, I always wonder: Had that last-season Hail Mary fallen incomplete, giving Bercovici one win in three starts, how would that have changed the offseason excitement? It’s a hard question to answer. Either way, here’s what’s changed: Last year, ASU had a solid offensive line. This season it has two first-time starters at tackle. Continue reading

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Five questions: Salt Lake Tribune’s Jay Drew on BYU

After easily dispatching Virginia and UNLV to start the season, UCLA suddenly finds itself in one of just four of the top-25 matchups in Week 3. BYU has outperformed expectations through the first half of September, vaulting to No. 19 in the latest AP poll following dramatic wins over Nebraska and Boise State. Are the Cougars playing above their heads, or do they have the makings of a surprise contender? The Salt Lake Tribune’s Jay Drew answered five questions about the team, which kicks off at the Rose Bowl at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

(Also, here are five questions I answered about UCLA for the Deseret News.)

1. Now in his 11th season, Bronco Mendenhall is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the FBS. How is he viewed by BYU fans, and is there any thought that he peaked when the Cougars were in the Mountain West?

I think most BYU fans view Mendenhall favorably, but there is certainly a vocal contingent out there that would like to see him resign or be replaced. Since Mendenhall took over in 2005, BYU ranks 12th in total wins among FBS teams, so it is hard to ignore his record. He’s won games, albeit against some lackluster schedules since BYU went independent in 2011.

By comparison, legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards posted 94 wins in his first 131 games in Provo; Mendenhall has 92 wins in 131 games.

The argument that Mendenhall peaked when BYU was in the Mountain West has legs, especially since he saw early success using former coach Gary Crowton’s recruits. Not many guys that Mendenhall recruited himself have reached the NFL.

Perhaps the biggest knock on Mendenhall is that he hasn’t won a lot of “big” games against the tougher opponents on the schedule; Also, he has lost four straight games to rival Utah, an unforgivable sin in Provo. Three have been razor-close, but that doesn’t cut it for BYU fans.

Still, the coach has guided the Cougars to bowl appearances all 10 years at the helm, and BYU is 6-4 in those postseason games.

Personally, I think he has one of the most difficult jobs in the country, seeing how his hands are somewhat tied by the BYU honor code and now non-Power 5 affiliation. He once said there are about 40-50 players across the country each year with Division I ability who are in BYU’s recruiting pool, due to the school’s fairly tough academic standards and the honor code.

If he’s done anything wrong, in my opinion, it is that he has fueled some lofty and unrealistic expectations among the BYU fanbase with talk about competing for national championships and the like. From my view, he just doesn’t have the horses, or the resources, to get that done.

2. BYU has a bit of a reputation for being a dirty team, with Ului Lapuaho’s punch and last year’s Miami Bowl brawl both attracting widespread coverage. Is that reputation being overblown due to a few isolated events, or is there some truth behind it?

Not sure how to answer this one. It’s probably more about perception than anything else, because the Lapuaho punch got so much play on television and the internet, to be sure. Like you said, mostly just an isolated event. Continue reading

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Five questions: Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Mark Anderson on UNLV

UCLA is set to go on the road for the first time in 2015, heading to Las Vegas to play a UNLV program that has just one winning season in the last 15 years. However, the hiring of former Bishop Gorman coach Tony Sanchez has invigorated the Rebels’ community. The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Mark Anderson answered some questions about UNLV, and what Sanchez has done in his first few months on the job.

1. What has Tony Sanchez done to show the UNLV community that he can snap the program out of its doldrums? Does this feel markedly different from the last few coaching hires?

He has really sold the community. There was initial skepticism, as there always is with UNLV football, but Sanchez had a dynamite introductory news conference. Then he assembled a veteran college coaching staff and a promising first recruiting class given the late start. Sanchez has been aggressive in recruiting, and already has nine commitments for the 2016 class, which is unheard of at UNLV this far out. He also has incorporated Las Vegas in his promotion of the program to recruits and the community, which has gone over really well locally.

UNLV’s first game under him was competitive. The Rebels were more than three-touchdown underdogs, but had their chances to beat Northern Illinois. This remains a tough job and there is still an enormous amount of work to do to turn around UNLV, but Sanchez couldn’t be off to a much better start. There is rare optimism, something that hasn’t existed with this program since John Robinson’s first three or four seasons.

2. Given the Rebels’ recent struggles, what would be a reasonable timeframe for Sanchez to make them into a bowl contender? What most needs to change about the team for that to happen?

It helps that the Mountain West is way down from what it used to be when BYU, Utah and TCU were in the league, so that could speed up the process. It wouldn’t be completely crazy if the Rebels were pushing for bowl eligibility in 2016. They played in a bowl just two seasons ago. My expectation is 2017 is the key year in that regard.

As for what needs to change, there is so much. Continue reading

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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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Five questions: Seattle Times’ Adam Jude talks Washington

After beating then-No. 14 Arizona at home, No. 18 UCLA is slowly crawling back up the national rankings. But to stay alive in a tight Pac-12 South race, the Bruins can’t afford to lose any of their last three regular-season games. They visit Washington on Saturday for their last road trip, and are currently listed as a 6.5-point favorite over a team that doesn’t have any victories over ranked opponents. Adam Jude of the Seattle Times answered five questions about the Huskies.

1. Since moving to running back, how valuable has Shaq Thompson become to Washington’s offense? What does the Husky defense miss most when he’s not in?

Shaq has quickly become the Huskies best offensive weapon, with 272 yards on 36 carries in two games as the Huskies’ featured running back. Before that, you could make a strong case that he was UW’s best defensive player. His four defensive touchdowns this season are the most in college football over the past decade, according to ESPN research, and he was drawing some national pub at midseason as a national defensive player of the year candidate. There’s no doubt, though, that he is more valuable to the team as a running back right now. It’s likely that he will play some at linebacker against UCLA, but the Huskies are fairly comfortable with the depth they have on defense behind him.

2. UW also has a pair of Bednarik semifinalists in Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton. How much does the defense rely on their performance? And given how much UCLA struggled against a similarly aggressive Utah front, do you see any soft spots the Bruins could try and find?

Two of the best (and nicest) guys I’ve covered. Kikaha is as good as any player at this level at getting to the quarterback; he leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. And Shelton leads the team in tackles — as a 340-pound nose tackle. Not sure I’ve ever seen that. When the Huskies can pressure the quarterback with four linemen, it makes life much better for the back end of the UW defense. That’s true for every team, but especially so for a UW secondary that will start three true freshmen against UCLA in the wake of Marcus Peters’ dismissal late Wednesday. Continue reading

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