In this week’s Fraternizing with the Enemy, CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero chatted with Matt Cummings of UCLA’s Daily Bruin to gather some intel on the the Buffs’ opponent for this week.
Justin Guerriero: The UCLA Bruins sit at 3-5 on the year. Does that record accurately reflect the talent of this program, or is it deceiving?
Matt Cummings: This question is somewhat complicated because of the recent season-ending injury to starting quarterback Josh Rosen.
The record is definitely deceiving based on their level of play throughout the season. All five of their losses have been closely contested games. In all five, the Bruins had the ball for a final possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.
Based on Football Outsiders’ second-order wins statistic, the Bruins have produced at a level that would qualify them for an expected win total of 4.6. That difference between their expected and actual win totals, 1.6, is the third-largest in the nation behind Ole Miss and Notre Dame.
However, much of the production that figures into that expected win total came earlier in the season when the Bruins had Rosen playing quarterback. With Rosen injured and backup Mike Fafaul at the helm, UCLA is certainly closer to the type of team its record reflects.
Still, the Bruins have one of the more talented defenses in the country, so even with Fafaul — who has been serviceable — I think they’re better than the record suggests.
JG: There are those out there that say the Bruins’ offense lacks punching power on the ground and is therefore one-dimensional. Is that a fair assessment?
MC: It’s a very fair assessment, and one that even the UCLA coaches have admitted. The Bruins are dead last in the FBS in rushing yards per game. Against Utah last Saturday, they essentially abandoned the run game entirely, opting for just 10 designed rushes out of 86 offensive plays. Their emphasis on the ground game has dipped steadily throughout the year, even with Fafaul taking over for Rosen.
Offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu did say recently he’d like to find more balance going forward, but keep in mind that the coaching staff also spoke before the Utah game about having found some things that would improve the run game, only to almost entirely scrap it from the game plan.
JG: Can you give me some playmakers on offense and defense that the Buffaloes will have to keep an eye on?
MC: The star of the season for UCLA has without a doubt been defensive end Takkarist McKinley. He’s first in the nation in tackles-for-loss per game, with 14 in seven games played, and he’s coming off a monstrous outing against Utah, in which he recorded five tackles-for-loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles.
At 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds, McKinley still has much of the speed that made him a standout sprinter in high school — he ran a 10.58-second 100 meter dash! — but now also possesses the power to bully opposing linemen. He’s earned comparisons to DeMarcus Ware from scouts, as his dominance this season has catapulted his draft stock into first-round territory.
Other impact players on the defense include defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau. Vanderdoes has been less effective recently, but when at his best, he’s a powerful run stopper that demands double teams on the interior of the line. Moreau plays left corner for the Bruins, and though he does get called for holding too often, he’s also showed an ability to lock down opposing receivers for extended stretches.
Offensively, tight end Nate Iese and wide receivers Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews have emerged as the most reliable playmakers for the Bruins. Iese, after just converting to tight end, earned a spot on the midseason watch list for the Mackey Award and backed it up with eight catches, 146 yards and two touchdowns against Utah. Lasley has seen increasing action recently and tallied 15 catches over the last three games, scoring a touchdown in each one. Andrews is the most consistent guy, having made multiple catches in each of his last 16 games.
Wide receiver Kenneth Walker is another player to watch. He’s seen his playing time dip recently because of a slew of drops, but he has home-run speed and is a threat to beat the defense over the top every time he’s on the field.
JG: What does this game mean for the Bruins? A loss means that winning out their remaining games would be the only road to a bowl for UCLA. Is this matchup against CU critical for the Bruins to win?
MC: UCLA needs three more wins in its final four games to be bowl-eligible, and the only easy matchup left is Oregon State at home. It would be very helpful for the Bruins to beat the Buffaloes, but a loss wouldn’t necessarily doom them.
At this point in the season, the fan base’s main concern is the matchup with USC. If UCLA loses Thursday, then the USC game would be a must-win, not only for the sake of the fans but also for bowl eligibility. So a Colorado win could potentially set UCLA fans up for one of the worst Saturdays ever, if the Bruins lose to the Trojans in a game that knocks them out of bowl contention.
JG: What worries you most about the Buffaloes?
MC: The pass defense. The Buffaloes allow the second-fewest yards per attempt in the nation, which is worrying for a UCLA offense that has relied almost exclusively on the passing game recently.
The secondary is full of talented guys, and they’ve been excellent at taking the ball away, with 11 interceptions on the season and eight in the last five games. Fafaul threw four interceptions against Utah last Saturday, so the Buffalo defensive backs will likely have opportunities to make plays.
JG: Rosen is out for the year. How confident are you in Fafaul?
MC: As I said earlier, Fafaul has been serviceable. It’s really not fair to ask a backup quarterback to throw the ball 70 times in a game, as he did against Utah, but that’s where the Bruins are at thanks to an atrocious running game.
Fafaul is a decent option, but if UCLA continues to rely so heavily on the passing attack, it will be hard for him to avoid turnovers against Colorado. He’s a former walk-on, and his arm is not quite strong enough for him to make risky throws without paying for it.
That said, if the Bruins had even an average running game, it might be an entirely different story for Fafaul. He’s been thrust into one of the worst possible situations and made the most of it.
JG: Overall game and score predictions? How does this one play out?
MC: As I’ve hinted at in the answers to the previous couple questions, I think the Bruins will have a hard time moving the ball because of their reliance on the passing game against a defense that’s so strong defending the pass. Unless UCLA somehow establishes a running game that takes some pressure off Fafaul, it’s hard to picture him making it through the night turnover-free.
The Bruins are talented on the defensive side of the ball, but the offense’s struggles will probably put a lot of strain on the defense, as it has to contend with short fields while also spending a lot of time in action against a fast-paced Colorado offense.
Ultimately, I expect Colorado to win in a game that becomes somewhat high-scoring only because of the pace. I’ll predict a 34-24 Buffalo win.
Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.
Contact Daily Bruin Sports Writer Matt Cummings at email@example.com.