Preview of San Diego State Game

Rayn Lindley

The game is on, and UCLA has one big advantage in the match-up: its defense. The one advantage San Diego State has is its element of surprise, since they have two new coordinators. But that's a bump in the road for the Bruins who might not have to get that much production out of its inexperienced offense...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA opens its 2009 season at home against the San Diego State Aztecs, Saturday at 4:45.

-- The game will be televised locally on FS West with Bill Macdonald and James Washington calling the action.  

-- UCLA is, of course, coming off a 4-8 season, its worst in 20 years (the 1989 Bruins went 3-7).  

-- San Diego State topped UCLA for bad seasons a year ago, going 2-10.  

-- Shortly thereafter, the Aztecs fired head Coach Chuck Long and hired Brady Hoke, who had been the head coach at Ball State, where, in six seasons, he guided the Cardinals to a pair of bowl games. In 2008, Ball State went 12-1 and appeared in the GMAC Bowl, which was the school's best season in its history.  The Cardinals were as high as #12 in the AP poll a year ago.  

-- The series between UCLA and San Diego State is a long one, dating back to 1922.  UCLA has never lost to the Aztecs in that time, with the series standing at 20-0-1.   The time came in 1924 and since then UCLA has won 18 straight.

-- The meeting Saturday will be the fifth time this decade the two teams have met, with the last game in 2005.  

-- Since SDSU became a Division 1 team (in 1969), in 14 games against UCLA the Aztecs have only led after halftime on one occasion (in 1989).  

-- The last time the two teams met, in 2005 at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, UCLA won 44-21.

-- Before that, UCLA played SDSU in 2002, 2003 and 2004, and UCLA's average margin of victory for the four games was 23 points.

-- UCLA is starting its 91st season of football, and 28th season in the Rose Bowl.

-- If UCLA doesn't win the Pac-10 championship this year, the decade of the 2000s will be the first it didn't win a conference or league title since the 1920s. 

-- Hoke went to Ball State from Michigan, where he was an associate head coach and defensive lines coach.   He also coached the DL and linebackers at Oregon State in the early 1990s.

-- One of the biggest curiosities for Bruin fans in this match-up with the Aztecs are SDSU's two coordinators.  The Aztec offensive coordinator is Al Borges, who was the OC at UCLA from 1996 to 2000 under Bob Toledo, and the architect of the great Cade McNown offenses.   SDSU defensive coordinator Rocky Long was the UCLA DC for two seasons, in 1996 and 1997, also under Toledo.  Borges and Toledo were the coordinators in 1997 when UCLA went 10-2, won a Pac-10 championship and ended the season ranked 5th in the nation.  Borges, since then, has been the OC at California, Indiana and Auburn.  Long left UCLA to be the head coach at New Mexico and was there until he was fired after last season.

-- Tony White, who was a UCLA linebacker in the late 1990s, is also the SDSU cornerbacks coach.  He was, most recently, a UCLA grad assistant.

-- There are also about 30 players on the two rosters combined who went to various high schools together.

-- San Diego State has a four-game losing streak in season-opening games.   They are 2-7 so far this decade in season openers.   The Aztecs, with season-opening road games, have a nine-game losing streak going.  They haven't won a season-opening game on the road since 1981.

-- Hoke has been preaching that he's trying to change the culture at SDSU football, which has been considered soft to outsiders.  He has publicly questioned the toughness.

-- Last year, the Aztecs were among the worst teams in Division 1.  They ranked among the few worst teams in the nation in scoring, rushing, scoring defense, rushing defense and total yards.   They allowed opponents to score 35 or more points eight times last season, including the 70 points to New Mexico and 63 to Utah.

-- Because of the state's budget cuts, as employees of the California State University system, the Aztecs coaches must take two unpaid days off per month. So, SDSU's coaches had to shut down fall camp for two days in August, but they continued to work without getting paid.

-- UCLA released an announcment Thursday: "Based on the current and projected information regarding conditions at the Rose Bowl provided to us by the AQMD (Air Quality Management District) and Pasadena city officials, including fire and health personnel, and after consultation with our medical staff, we are confirming that the game will be played as scheduled," said UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. "We will continue to monitor the situation in conjunction with city officials in Pasadena and the AQMD."

"Based on recent air quality measurements from a monitor stationed at the Rose Bowl this week and expected weather conditions Saturday, it should be game on for UCLA," said Barry Wallerstein, AQMD Executive Officer.

-- UCLA announced today that it will offer complimentary tickets to all Southern California Firefighters and their immediate families to the UCLA -San Diego State game this Saturday at 4:30 pm at the Rose Bowl and to the UCLA - Kansas State game scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 19 at 7:00 pm at the Rose Bowl. To receive tickets, firefighters may show their ID at the Rose Bowl ticket office on game day or at the UCLA Ticket Office in advance of the games.

SAN DIEGO STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

The UCLA coaches, of course, don't have film of the San Diego State offense under new Offensive Coordinator Al Borges.

There are plenty of instances when coaches don't have film of their opposition's scheme, but luckily UCLA is very familiar with Borges. He was, after all, the UCLA offensive coordinator under Bob Toledo, the offense with Cade McNown that former USC head coach John Robinson called the best offense ever in college football (at least up until that time).

Borges, too, spent the last several years at Auburn.

So, it's not as if Borges has been in a cave and no one knows what he's been doing. And it's not as if this guy is going to suddenly depart from what he's been doing offensively for 20 years.

Borges, who has been known as a quarterback mentor, traditionally runs a pro-style set that emphasizes the run. At Auburn, a program that is a traditional running power, he ran the ball quite a bit.

He, still, though, is considered one of the best offensive minds in the business, and it was quite a coup for Head Coach Brady Hoke to bring in Borges.

Borges's offenses definitely emphasize a quarterback's talents and ability to run an offense, and luckily (at least for San Diego State), probably one of the SDSU's strengths is its quarterback. If you're an offensive coordinator, with a new scheme, coming into a program that went 2-10 the previous season, you have to be thanking the gods that you inherit a quarterback like Ryan Lindley (6-3, 205) . Last year, as a freshman, Lindley passed for 2,653 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The numbers are even more impressive if you consider that SDSU had the second-worst running game in the nation. He also did it with a banged up shoulder.

Receiver Vincent Brown.
Borges is claiming that Lindley has the potential to be as good as the best quarterbacks he's coached (including McNown). Lindley is a big, strong kid, with a very good arm and very good accuracy. Last season, the Aztecs averaged 239 yards in the air per game, which was 42nd in the nation – which is exceptional for what overall ending up being a pretty poor offense.

While Borges likes to run, with Lindley and SDSU's receivers being the strength of the offense, you'd think he might emphasize the pass this season.

Receiver Vincent Brown (6-0, 180), the junior, has been named to the Moutain West pre-season all-conference team, coming off a season where he caught 64 balls for 631 yards and five touchdowns. Brown is a very good possession receiver, with good hands. Starting opposite him is another returning starter, senior Roberto Wallace (6-4, 225), who UCLA recruited out of high school. Wallace is experienced, with good size. Another receiver to keep an eye on is senior Mekell Wesley (5-10, 180), who brings the shifty element to the pattern.

Junior tight end Alston Umuolo (6-4, 245) is a returning starter, and is a legitimate threat. Senior tight end Tony DeMartinis just recently quit football due to on-going injuries.

The fullback, who is really a converted tight end, senior Matthew Kawulok (6-2, 235), is being utilized as blocking back to try to give the running game some added muscle.

The reports out of SDSU's practices since last spring say that the Aztecs need to enliven a running game that gained just 73 yards per game last season and was ranked 117th in the nation. Borges wants a smash-mouth running game, one that runs tackle-to-tackle, but it's going to be hard to pull off without the smash-mouth kind of personnel.

For beginners, the Aztecs are low on running backs. The starter is supposed to be junior Brandon Sullivan (5-11, 220), but he's banged up and questionable. Senior Attiyyah Henderson is out with a back injury. So, the majority of the carries might go to true freshman Anthony Miller (6-0, 220), who is being touted as a tough runner without great speed. He was the one of three true freshman tailbacks who emerged from fall camp with the best chance to contribute, and now has been thrust into a potentially starting role.

There is also junior Davon Brown (5-9, 180), who brings a bit of quickness, but had just two carries last season. Miller, Brown and Sullivan could all carry the tailback load Saturday.

On the offensive line, it's that age-old quandary: On one hand, it's good you have three starters returning, but on the other hand, it's not good you have three starters returning. When new strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman arrived last winter, his first task was to make the returning OL starters lose some weight. It was done at Borges' request to make the OL more mobile in blocking for his version of the West Coast Offense.

Perhaps the best OL is junior center Trask Iosefa (6-0, 290), who is going into his third year as a starter. The right side of the line has the two other experienced OLs, but the left side will start two guys without any starts. Sophomore guard Mike Matamua (6-4, 290) might be in for a long day trying to block UCLA's defensive tackles Brian Price and Jerzy Siewierski.

Defensive tackle Brian Price.
UCLA's defense should be the strength of the team this season, and it matches up well against SDSU's offense. New Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough isn't going to change much from how the defense has been in recent years, but you can probably expect the aggressive Bullough to pressure the quarterback a bit more. He has the personnel to do it, especially matched up against SDSU in this game. Defensive end Korey Bosworth had 7.5 sacks a year ago, and you can expect him to be in the SDSU backfield quite often Saturday.

It's a quandary how to contain Price. He's expecting double-teams all year long this season, but in SDSU's case against UCLA, if they double-team Price, they don't have the personnel to match up with the rest of UCLA's d-tackles. A key for UCLA will be the play of junior David Carter, as the third guy in the defensive tackle rotation, who looked very good all fall. It's tough for a young and not so talented offensive line to fight off two good defensive tackles, but when a defense has the luxury of bringing in a third, fresh DT, it can be the breaking point.

UCLA's linebackers are easily one of its strengths, and they'll be staying in the box, trying to limit SDSU's attempt to mount a running game. They can do that because UCLA is confident in its secondary in one-on-one coverage. UCLA has one of the best cover corners in the nation in Alterraun Verner, but you can expect Lindley to look to the other side to try to pick on new starter, redshirt freshman Aaron Hester.

Advantage: UCLA. Even though SDSU has been talking like they want to go to a balanced offense and run the ball, it's a mystery how they're going to accomplish it. With a questionable offensive line, and questions at tailback, it just doesn't seem that the Aztecs will be able to do much to improve their rushing production from last season – at least for the UCLA game. You can see Borges recognizing he's going to have to throw the ball in this game, and then UCLA will be able to send more and more pressure on Lindley. Watch for UCLA's linebackers to have a big day Saturday, with middle linebacker Reggie Carter getting his name called often.

Really, the biggest advantage SDSU has is the bit of mystery about what the offense will actually do Saturday. Hoke has closed practices, and there has been very little leaking out. But even so, UCLA's defense shouldn't have a problem with the occasional surprise. Remember, Borges likes to throw in a trick play or two during the course of the game, so probably expect that.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. SAN DIEGO STATE'S DEFENSE

San Diego State had one of the worst defenses in the country last season, and it's most of the same guys who have returned.

What SDSU has going for it is new Defensive Coordinator's Rocky Long's 3-3-5 alignment, which can very well mask a lack of talent and size with surprise.

But, as with Borges, is not as if UCLA has never seen Long's defense. He was UCLA's DC in the late 1990s, and then was head coach at New Mexico. Again, Long isn't going to depart from the defense he knows.

The theory behind the 3-3-5 is that it's difficult to find a bunch of big guys to man a traditional front seven in a 4-3-3, but it's quite a bit easier to find smaller guys.

Then, to make up for the lack of personnel up front, Long will blitz at least one player, if not two, among his three linebackers and two safeties. It leaves the offense guessing on every play which of those players will be sent.

It's actually a good fit for San Diego State, since it lacks personnel in its defense, particularly the big DLs.

In fact, the Aztec front three average 256 pounds, and are outweighed by UCLA's offensive line by an average of close to 60 pounds. That's 60 pounds per man.

SDSU linebacker Luke Laolagi.
Last season the SDSU DL got the brunt of the criticism for being so poor against the run. They're hoping to change the point of attack from the line of scrimmage to the offense's backfield, with SDSU sending a different fourth guy in on a blitz to perhaps stop the opposing running back before the line of scrimmage.

That's the hope.

It's going to be tough, however, to hold that line of scrimmage. Usually in a 3-3-5 you're hoping that at least your front three are pretty big and strong, but for SDSU's that not the case.

Perhaps the best among the three is junior end B.J. Williams (6-3, 240). He and the other d-end, senior Johathan Soto (6-3, 260), have a combined 39 starts.

The Aztecs intend to also rotate in other linemen, all of which have very little experience.

Easily the strength of SDSU's defense is the linebacking crew. It starts with middle linebacker, senior Luke Laolagi (6-1, 225), who, you might remember, was pretty highly recruited out of Van Nuys Birmingham High. Laolagi is going into his third year as a starter and is athletic. From there, the linebackers aren't greatly experienced, but the SDSU coaching staff thinks they're talented. Senior Jerry Milling (5-10, 215) missed most of last season with a foot injury, but they like him. Sophomore Miles Burris (6-2, 235) hasn't started a game, but beat out returning starter, junior Andrew Preston (6-1, 215).

Like with the front three, SDSU will keep rotating in linebackers to try to keep them fresh.

The secondary is definitely the weakest unit on the D, already hit by injuries. Starting safety Romeo Horn is out with a stress fracture. Starting cornerback Davion Mauldin is questionable for Saturday, and isn't even listed currently in the SDSU two-deep.

It's left the Aztecs scrambling to find guys to adequately fill the five secondary spots. Junior Jose Perez (6-1,180), a converted receiver who is also coming off a torn labrum, and looked to be beaten out at cornerback, will start. Redshirt freshman Josh Wade (6-0, 180) won the other starting corner spot in fall camp, and has never played in a college game.

At one safety spot is sophomore Brandon Davis (6-2, 185), who played receiver last year. Junior Dey Juan Hemmings (5-11, 190) was beat out but now is starting.

The coveted "Aztec" position, the one that tends to blitz and fly around a great deal, is manned by senior Nick Sandford (6-2, 210), who is a solid player and given the distinction of the position because of his nose for the ball.

UCLA's offense will be trying to turn over a new leaf starting on Saturday, coming off a horrible year offensively in 2008. It has a new quarterback in redshirt freshman Kevin Prince, and practically a new offensive line.

All eyes will be on Prince Saturday. He'll have a ton of pressure on him, pretty much taking on the responsibility of turning around UCLA's offense – and trying to do it playing in his first football game in two years. He's talented, and smart, and has the arm and the tools, but you're going to have to expect some hiccups on his way to consistent effectiveness.

Those hiccups are what SDSU is hoping they can parlay into a win. The primary objective of Laolagi and company will be to pressure the young Prince and force him into mistakes, and hopefully turnovers.

Despite having less experience, UCLA's offensive line is more talented. But again, it's going up against the funky Rocky Long defense, which could give it some fits in its first game.

Tight end Ryan Moya.
UCLA does have an advantage in its skill positions, pretty loaded at running back, wide receiver and tight end. It will be a matter if UCLA can get the ball into the hands of those guys. UCLA's stable of receivers – from Terrence Austin and Taylor Embree as wide outs, to Ryan Moya and Logan Paulsen at tight end -- should be too much for the Aztecs defense to defend all night. In these types of games, when UCLA is playing against a rag-tag secondary, it always seems that Moya tends to exploit it and have a big day.

Redshirt freshman running back Johnathan Franklin had a big fall camp and won the starting position. What you like most about Franklin is his durability, almost never getting hurt and able to run between the tackles.

Advantage: UCLA. Even though the Bruins have a lot to prove offensively, they have too much talent for the under-manned SDSU defense, and they do have Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow. Going up against SDSU's small DL, and wanting to get Prince acclimated, you can expect UCLA to run the ball quite a bit – running out of just about every formation they have. They'll also try to get Prince going by working out of the shot gun and with short drops and quick passes. The way to counteract Long's blitzes is to get the ball out on the perimeter and circumvent the pressure. Watch for quick passes to the tight ends and running backs – including the fullbacks – out in the flat, to try to get them out into space.

One of the big curiosities is the potential use of freshmen speedsters Randall Carroll at wide receiver and Damien Thipgen at running back. Their speed brings a different dimension to the UCLA offense, and Chow will try to utilize them to force SDSU into honoring that speed.

If, early on, SDSU can't stop UCLA's running game it will be an early indication that it's going to be a long night for the Aztecs. If UCLA can run, and we'd expect them to be able to, it changes the entire complexion of the game.

It's a good first-game match-up for UCLA's offense. They're not facing a big, smash-mouth type of defense that is good at stopping the run. Last season, SDSU was 118th in the nation against the run, and now they've gone to an alignment that isn't exactly run-defense oriented.

Special Teams

UCLA looks to have one of the best collection of special teams units in the nation, with perhaps the best place-kicker in Kai Forbath, and a potentially game-changing punter in Jeff Locke, and one of the most proven return men in the country in Terrence Austin. They also have a pre-season All-American longsnapper in Christian Yount. In addition, there is the possibility that UCLA could opt for speedsters Thigpen and Carroll as returners.

San Diego State's kicking game was inconsistent a year ago, and they return the same punter, Brian Stahovich, and kicker, Lane Yoshida. Mauldin was their weapon as a kick-off returner, but it appears he's out for this game.

Prediction

There will be one elite unit on the field Saturday – UCLA's defense. It consists of talent and experience. That unit will almost certainly be the difference in the game, in keeping SDSU from scoring and its offense off the field, and then potentially scoring itself. UCLA's defense will be directly or indirectly responsible for at least two touchdowns in this game, either scoring it on its own or as a result of turnovers it creates.

Then, it's not a stretch to think that UCLA's special teams is good for a touchdown, or at least setting up an easy score.

So, that's potentially 21 points UCLA will probably generate without the offense having to sustain a drive.

UCLA's running game has looked strong in fall camp, the strongest it's looked in years. Now, that might not mean that it's going to gain 250 yards against SDSU, but it's a good sign, especially against the sketchy Aztec run defense, that UCLA will be able to move the ball on the ground.

So, conservatively, let's say UCLA can mount just a couple of decent drives through its running game for scores. We'll say that results in one touchdown and one field goal for another 10 points.

I think you can probably throw in one more busted defensive coverage on the part of SDSU's defense, playing in a new scheme in its first game on the road. So, let's throw in another Kai Forbath field goal.

So, that's 34 points for the Bruins.

San Diego State's offense, on the other hand, is going to struggle to run the ball against UCLA's front seven, and have to become one dimensional and go to the pass. All that will do is lengthen the game and give UCLA even more chance to run up some points. But Lindley is pretty good, good enough for a couple of drives and scores.

UCLA 34
San Diego State 10

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