As I just wrote the other day in my season preview article, the UCLA Bruins football team opened the 2014 regular season with a LOT of hype and lofty expectations. Saturday morning’s game in Charlottesville against the University of Virginia was supposed to be the first of many wins leading up to a potential berth in the new college football championship. Well, MOST of the team showed up Saturday morning, and the Bruins did leave town with a 28-20 victory. However, the offensive line–alone–nearly single-handedly doomed UCLA’s season before it had ever really started.
During the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Bruins gave up a combined total of 88 sacks–yes, EIGHTY-EIGHT–in 27 games. That was good for third worst (two teams were tied for worst with 89 sacks allowed) in the nation (out of 127 teams). For a major college football program, that’s beyond embarrassing and entirely unacceptable. Keep in mind two things: 1) the Bruins gave up all of those sacks with All-American Xavier Su’a-Filo anchoring the interior of the line–and Su’a-Filo was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans, and 2) Brett Hundley is one of the biggest, fastest, and strongest quarterbacks in college football, so those sack totals could have been a LOT worse.
In all fairness, the Bruins were missing junior center Jake Brendel, who’s still on the mend from a knee injury suffered during training camp, and oft-injured, junior tackle Simon Goines, who’s recovering from surgery to remove bone spurs from his ankles. Sophomore back-up Scott Quessenberry started at center and noticeably struggled. Senior transfer Malcolm Bunche appeared to hold his own at left tackle, but sophomore right tackle Caleb Benenoch had three false start penalties. In all, the offensive line accounted for six penalties and Hundley was sacked five times. That’s just simply not good enough for a team with championship aspirations against a mediocre Virginia team.
The Bruins, otherwise, appeared to have the game under control, despite the close score. As I predicted in my season preview article, the Bruins’ secondary was dynamic: Ishmael Adams returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown, and Randall Goforth returned a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown. As I also predicted, linebackers Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack were difference-makers: Kendricks had 16 tackles, returned an interception for a touchdown, and earned Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week honors, while Jack chipped in with 13 tackles of his own. Setting statistics aside momentarily, both Kendricks and Jack appeared to be flying all over the place on defense throughout the game–they weren’t just generating statistics.
Senior defensive lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa–who was sorely missed last season due to surgeries on his left hip–was also a disruptive force all game long. Although he wasn’t credited with many tackles or any sacks, he wreaked havoc on the Virginia offensive line, leading to at least two of the touchdowns UCLA scored on defense.
While Brett Hundley scored the Bruins’ only touchdown on offense with a strong six-yard run in the third quarter, wide receiver Jordan Payton looked great–reeling in eight catches for 98 yards, including a huge 35-yard reception that essentially iced the game for UCLA. The Bruins opened the game with a beautiful 48-yard pass from Hundley to Eldridge Massington. Unfortunately, that didn’t end up being a sign of things to come for the Bruins on offense. The running game was workmanlike, with Paul Perkins rushing for 80 yards on 16 carries, but that was about it. Considering how poorly the offensive line played, minus Malcolm Bunche, Perkins acquitted himself pretty well, but Jordon James and Steven Manfro were nowhere to be seen–combining for minus 2 rushing yards on seven carries.
Ka’imi Fairbairn also just barely missed a 44-yard field goal on the Bruins’ opening drive, and Adams returned a punt 85 yards in the first quarter for an apparent touchdown, but the Bruins were penalized because Priest Willis lost his helmet during the play and put it back on before the whistle–so UCLA certainly allowed this game to be a lot closer than it should have been.
All in all, the Bruins won the game, didn’t appear to suffer any serious injuries, and offensive line reinforcements (i.e. Brendel, Goines) should be back in time for the Bruins’ third game of the season on September 13th against Texas. So expect Head Coach Jim Mora to make the necessary adjustments before the Bruins’ home opener this Saturday against Texas. UCLA can’t afford to let the offensive line sink the entire ship before they even get to start their run toward a national championship playoff berth.