BRIDGEPORT EDUCATION HOLIDAY BOWL
PLACE: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, CA
DATE & TIME: Thursday, December 27, 6:45 p.m.
TV: ESPN Network
OPPONENT: Baylor Bears
UCLA – 9-4, 6-3 Pac-12 Conference,
Baylor – 7-5, 4-5 Big-12 Conference
LINE: UCLA by 1
I know it’s a cliche, and I’m generally not a fan of cliches, but what a difference a year makes.
Actually, it’s a case of “what a difference that several years make” as UCLA’s football team, after a season that can easily be characterized as much improved in more or less every way, finds itself in a bowl that’s definitely an upgrade over post season games like the Silicon Valley Bowl, the Eagle Bank Bowl, and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl which they played in last year.
As a reward to the improvement that Jim Mora’s team showed, the Bruins, and what promises to be a large part of their fan base, will be traveling 120 miles down I-5 to San Diego to play in the Holiday Bowl for the first time, where they will face a Baylor Bears team that is much like a previous opponent, Arizona, in their play.
The top characteristic of Baylor, a Christian Baptist school located in Waco, TX who won their last three games, including an upset over then-number one Kansas State to earn their Holiday Bowl bid, is an offense that is ranked first in the FBS in yards per game with 578.8, and third in passing with 353.3 yards a contest.
Using a spread offense, Bears quarterback Nick Florence had the most unenviable task of replacing last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III. It’s safe to say that Florence did an excellent job in doing so as he passed for 4,121 yards and 31 touchdowns, his main target being wide receiver Terrance Williams, who caught 95 of Florence’s throws for a whopping 1,764 yards and 12 scores.
Along with fellow receivers Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson, who have 51 catches apiece, as UCLA’s secondary has been inconsistent all year Baylor’s passing attack will be a cause for concern.
As will running back Lache Seastrunk, who although he didn’t have a 1,000 yard season on the ground, has come on like gangbusters with long touchdown runs against Kansas State (80 yards) and Oklahoma State (76 yards) in the last few weeks.
What makes these green and gold-clad Bears vulnerable, and the reason that their record is 7-5, is the fact that their defense is as horrible, and perhaps more so, as their offense is good.
With Baylor’s defense being ranked 119th out of 120 FBS schools – that’s next to last, folks – and having given up as much as 70 points in a game, the Bruins’ chances of having a field day are quite good as the only statistic worth mentioning on that side of the ball is linebacker Bryce Hager’s team-leading 115 tackles.
Indeed, as high-flying as Baylor’s offense is, UCLA’s isn’t shabby either.
Brett Hundley has had probably the best season of any freshman quarterback in Westwood, completing 68.2% of his passes for 3,411 yards and 26 touchdowns.
When you add Hundley’s nine rushing scores, that has made him one of the nation’s best dual threats behind center as he has shown all season that he is as capable of beating opponents with his legs as with his arm.
Johnathan Franklin, to put it bluntly, has had the season of his life at running back. The senior rushed for a career-high 1,778 yards,which broke the single season record held by Gaston Green, averaging 6.3 yards a carry. He also set the career rushing mark at UCLA as his total is 4,369 yards on the ground.
Franklin, as well as receiver Shaquelle Evans with his team-leading 53 catches and tight end Joseph Fauria’s 11 touchdowns, will pose just as big a threat to the Bears as Baylor’s offense will pose to the Bruins.
The biggest difference between these two teams is that UCLA’s defense has performed better overall than Baylor’s. The Bruins have 43 sacks this season, led by linebacker Anthony Barr’s 13.5, and fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks’s 137 tackles led the Pac-12.
And as much of a concern as the defensive backs’ play has been at times, they do have 15 interceptions, led by Andrew Abbott and Sheldon Price’s four.
Tackles for loss was also a thing that UCLA did a good job in as four Bruins -including Barr, defensive ends Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh, and outside linebacker Damien Holmes – each have more than ten TFLs.
All of these numbers point to a likely shootout in Qualcomm Stadium on December 27, which is always good for the fans and the TV people at ESPN, who will televise the game.
It is essential that UCLA wins this game, which would be their tenth of the season and the first time they will have won that many since 2005, as a final record of 10-4 would look a heck of a lot better than 9-5. Plus the Bruins, after all the hard work and progress that they have made in 2012, definitely do not want to end the year with three straight losses.
They key for the Bruins will be the same as they have done in the majority of their wins: pressuring quarterback Nick Florence and not letting him have time to throw to his vaunted receivers, which is how Baylor’s damage is done. If UCLA can do that, their chances will be good.
A prediction of how I think the game will go, who I feel will win, and what I think the final score will be, will appear on this site on December 26.