We, of course, do this a lot, but I'm going to preface this one by stating it was one of the best opponent Q&A's we've ever done. A lot of great questions going both ways, and some very enlightening answers about a team which -- thanks to the vicissitudes of geography and far too many UCLA games ending up either opposite K-State games or on a network we can't get -- is still a great big cipher for many Wildcat fans. Joining us to discuss the Alamo Bowl is Greg (gbruin) from our SB Nation sister site Bruins Nation.
Jon: I'm going to start with an odd question that has nothing to do with the game, but which is of pretty major interest to our readership. High school quarterback Aaron Sharp's commitment stopped for a while in Manhattan after he decommitted from Utah, before he finally ended up in Westwood. What's going on with him in the program, and where -- if anywhere -- do you see him eventually contributing?
BN: Coach Mora actually talked specifically about Sharp a few days ago after practice. (Ed. note: at 2:50 in the video.) Rather than having Sharp stand on the sidelines as the 5th string QB, he has been playing receiver, mostly with the scout team, since midseason. Mora downplayed it some by noting that Sharp is "a quarterback" and the team was just taking advantage of his size and athleticism and getting him on the field. However, with 3 veterans ahead of him on the depth chart and the nation’s top QB recruit, Josh Rosen, enrolling in January, I wouldn’t be surprised if the move becomes permanent. The Bruins moved Devin Fuller, a very athletic backup QB, to receiver 2 years ago in an effort to get his skills on the field and he was our second leading receiver this year, so they may have the same plan for Sharp.
Jon: We're running a series of questions with your rivals in the Pac-12, letting them tell us why we should hate you guys (among other things). Your turn to offer a rebuttal of sorts: what's great about UCLA, and what sort of common bonds, if any, do you think you have with K-State?
BN: LOL, I’m looking forward to their responses... I think. Well, maybe on second thought... But no matter what our conference friends tell you, there are a lot of really great things about UCLA. It is a gorgeous campus in a great part of Los Angeles (yes, there are some great parts of L.A.!). It is an outstanding academic school, consistently one of the top 3 public schools in the country. The weather and the beach make college life in Westwood fantastic, and it is hard to beat tailgating at the Rose Bowl on Saturdays in the fall. UCLA has an unprecedented athletic tradition with 112 NCAA titles and the incredible legacy left by John Wooden both on and off the basketball court. It really is a special place.
(Ed. Note: I lived in Westwood Village for awhile. He's not exaggerating, and Aggieville denizens would feel right at home there.)
I always feel a common bond with other public schools around the country that exist in a conference that appears to outsiders and ESPN to be only about the marquee names (Texas or Oklahoma for you, Southern Cal for us) but when you really look at things, you see that some of those "other" schools are actually the true quality schools and programs in the conference. I also think we can both commiserate over many of the same painful feelings regarding the inaugural 1998 BCS championship.
Jon: I don't want to come across as dismissive, but I do feel in the interest of full disclosure that I thought UCLA was overrated early in the season. How concerned were you in the moment with the close wins over Virginia, Memphis, and Texas? Did you just feel as though it was early-season rust, or were you casting a suspicious side-eye at the polls?
BN: That’s not dismissive. I think that’s very fair, and time proved you right. I think we secretly feared the possibility we were overrated in the early season, but we were so bolstered by our own hopes and by many in the media who picked UCLA as the darkhorse to get to the Playoff and even win it all that we ignored some legitimate issues that now seem pretty obvious in retrospect. Based on the returning talent, the early season expectations seemed rational. But the way we played those first games surprised and concerned us, and really forced us to start questioning why the team seemed to be playing below its potential. Rather than doubting the polls though, most astute fans started raising concerns about the coaching staff in terms of player development, play calling, week to week preparation, and in game adjustments, and I think the season bore that out.
Jon: In the middle of the season, following the blowout win over Arizona State, the Bruins had a pretty rough stretch -- losses to Utah and Oregon, and scary close wins over Cal and Colorado. What was the issue there?
BN: If you look at the comparative rosters of those 4 teams and UCLA, only Oregon should have matched up with us, but I think the coaching issues really bit us. Utah is always a well coached and well prepared team and they compete very well against superior talent nearly every week. The Utes smartly exploited our biggest weakness at the time: pass protection. QB Brett Hundley was sacked 10 times in that game and the offense never really got on track. Meanwhile, Utah found 3 basic running plays that we couldn’t stop and they ran them over and over again and our defense never adjusted. It came down to a field goal at the end of the game and they won. The Bruins were outcoached on both sides of the ball that night and that was the difference. Oregon looked vulnerable early in the season but they got healthy on their offensive line as we played them and they were simply better than we expected. Marcus Mariota really is that good, and we never really competed with them. For a Bruins team that was hoping to take that next expected step in its growth and beat Oregon and win a Pac-12 title, those two games created a real hangover and the team was flat and typically played down to the competition at Cal and Colorado the following weeks.
Jon: What's Jim Mora, Jr. like as a coach? To what sort of coaching philosophies does he subscribe?
BN: Jim Mora has been a good, maybe very good coach, for the Bruins so far. The longer term question to Bruin fans is whether Mora can be a great coach and get the program to the top of the conference. The jury is definitely still out on that issue and many fear he has already reached his ceiling.
On the good side, Mora took a soft program and instilled some sorely needed toughness and swagger. Bruin Football needed a real culture change and Mora has brought that. He seems to have found his niche and genuinely appears to love the college game. He frequently talks about the joy he gets coaching college athletes as opposed to his years in the NFL. The way he handled the team in 2013 following the tragic death of a player the week before travelling to Nebraska was incredible. Mora recruits very well, though UCLA to a good extent recruits itself, but unlike his two predecessors, he has developed the talent better and put the players in better spots to succeed. He has no problems playing true freshman and moving players around. Anthony Barr was a forgettable running back until Mora moved him to outside linebacker and made him a top ten NFL draft pick.
The concerns with Mora have more to do with his X’s and O’s style. He still carries too much of the NFL conservatism – playing field position, settling for field goals, sticking to a game plan and being slow to make in game adjustments. That works ok when you are just better than an opponent, but it that doesn’t always translate well to being competitive with the best teams in the college game. The play calling by his assistants is too predictable and vanilla and many feel he needs to make a change in at least one coordinator position. Recurrent problems like penalties and pass protection are slow to get addressed and fixed. And while Mora has rightly set lofty goals of winning championships, the program plateaued and by most accounts underachieved this year and we started hearing some irritatingly defensive coach speak.
Under Mora, the Bruins have beaten most of the teams they were supposed to, but not always in the manner expected, and they have failed to win games against their best opponents (Oregon, Stanford). No one really doubts Mora’s character or commitment to his players and he has been a good ambassador for the program, but time will tell if he has the coaching skills to get the Bruins to that next level.
Jon: We caught a couple of stories from Southern California hinting that Brett Hundley might be more concerned about his draft stock on Friday than about the actual game. Now, obviously, part of boosting one's draft stock is performing well and -- ideally -- winning. But do you think there's a potential hype issue surrounding your quarterback this week, and do you think it might have an effect on the game?
BN: That might have been a legitimate issue earlier in the year and Hundley himself hinted midseason that some of those long tem prospects were on his mind in the early season, not necessarily from a selfish point of view but more from a feeling that those things were expected of him. I think Hundley knows that scouts aren’t watching this particular game with his draft stock in mind, and pro workouts and the Combine will have far more to do with his NFL prospects and draft position. This game is really pretty crucial to UCLA for the overall feeling about this season, and I think Hundley will be looking to make a comeback after the flop in the season finale against an average Stanford team when a win would have sent them to the Pac-12 Title game and likely a top 10 ranking.
Jon: Outside of Hundley, who should we be keeping an eye on offensively? What sort of schemes do the Bruins run, and what concerns you about K-State's defense?
BN: Watch for RB Paul Perkins out of the backfield. He seized the starting spot early in the year and never let go. He isn’t great at any one thing, but is very good at everything. True freshman Nathan Starks provides more of a power running presence out of the backfield, and linebacker Myles Jack often gets the ball in short yardage situations. In the passing game, no receiver is that one big play threat, but all are solid. Jordan Payton was Hundley’s favorite target, though 7 different receivers caught more than 20 passes this season. Tight end Thomas Duarte averaged nearly 20 yds/catch. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone runs a spread and frequently up-tempo offense that features a maddening amount of lateral passes, especially to WR Devin Fuller, to try to get the Bruins playmakers in space against the defense. Despite Hundley’s excellent running ability, there are surprisingly few designed runs for him, though he is very good at scrambling when the pocket breaks down.
The ability of the Kansas State defensive line to get pressure in Hundley’s face is my biggest concern and is the key to the game, in my opinion. The offensive Line struggled much of the season, and throughout Hundley’s career, to protect the quarterback, and if your defense can generate a pass rush and/or blitz effectively, it can really interrupt the Bruins offensive rhythm.
Jon: On the other side of the coin: who are the Bruins' key contributors on defense, and what are you hoping they'll be focusing on?
BN: The Bruins play a base 3-4 gap control defense but they actually spend more time in the nickel when facing spread offenses with good running quarterbacks like Jake Waters. Kenny Young, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, (pronounced like its spelled) and Eddie Vanderdoes are a solid defensive line and are good at stopping the inside run, though Owa is really the only pash rusher there. The linebacking crew is the highlight of the Bruin defense and is led by inside linebacker Eric Kendricks, this year's Butkus Award Winner and Lott Impact Trophy winner. He’s another guy who isn’t eye-popping spectacular but just makes tackle after tackle after tackle. Myles Jack is the freaky athletic outside linebacker (and short yardage running back) who often covers wide receivers, and Deon Hollins is a good pass rusher on the other edge. The Bruins rotate a lot of players through the secondary with Ishmael Adams and Fabian Moreau being the top corners, but the unit sometimes struggles with soft coverages combined with the lack of a consistent pass rush up front.
K-State looks like it can provide a lot of trouble for the Bruins by offering a dual threat running attack out of the backfield while also featuring a couple big threats on the outside with Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton. The Bruins will have to be very disciplined to manage the width of options the K-State offense can present on any play, but positional responsibility has not always been a consistent feature of our defense. Our defense had a lot of trouble with the read option at times this year. I think the UCLA defensive backs need to get physical on the line, especially with Lockett, and try to keep the ball in Waters' hands and allow the front Bruins front 7 to keep the play bottled up in front of them to be successful.
Jon: Finally (of course!), what's your prediction?
BN: I hate to cop out, but I’m going to cop out anyway. This game can really go either way and I think it totally depends on what Bruins team shows up because they are the wild card and Kansas State is the known commodity. I think the Bruins have a better roster. I think the Wildcats have a better coaching staff. If we get the motivated and smart and aggressive Bruins that dominated Arizona and Southern Cal near the end of the season, then UCLA wins. If we get the flat and unprepared and slow to adjust Bruins we saw against Utah and Stanford, then Kansas State wins. I have all the admiration in the world for Coach Bill Snyder and how, in a conference with the old guard Texas and Oklahoma and new powers like Baylor and TCU, he gets a recruiting class ranked in the 50s or higher to come to Manhattan Kansas and he turns them in to a perennial top 15 or better program, and I’m worried that he’ll have a game plan that the Bruins can’t handle and won’t adjust to. I hope for our sake that the long prep time for UCLA has given our coaches a chance to close the gap between the respective staffs. Either way, it shapes up to be the best matchup of all the "other" bowls, right?
Happy New Year to all the good folks at Bring On The Cats!
And a Happy New Year to our friends from Westwood as well. Be sure to check in with Bruins Nation over the next few days to get their take on the Alamo Bowl, both pre-game and after the carnage.