UCLA enters this week’s rivalry game reeling after losing consecutive games in which they held and early lead.
They have been eliminated from the postseason because of a 4-7 record and rumors have begun to circle that an assistant coach or two may be fired at season’s end.
But first, there is some very important business to take care of. Saturday’s game against USC at the Rose Bowl marks the first time since 1980 that neither team has a chance at going to a bowl game, so this game, in effect, becomes the most important game of the season for both teams.
“I know they are looking forward as we are to finishing the season on a positive note,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. “It’s been a long year with our share of adversity, so to have this kind of a chance in the season’s concluding game is exciting. To be able to play on this stage with USC as the opponent I think is as exciting as it can get.”
The Bruins have shown flashes of good play at times this season but have not shown consistency on either side of the ball—something they will need if they want to end a three-game losing streak to USC.
Here is a look at some of UCLA’s strengths and weaknesses as they prepare for the 7:30 p.m. game at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night:
Johnathan Franklin—Franklin has flourished in the run-based pistol scheme and became the Bruins’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. He has shown the ability to run with different styles, grinding out three and four yards at a time when necessary and also using his quickness and good field vision to break off big runs.
The statistics clearly show Franklin’s effectiveness directly impacts the effectiveness of the Bruins' offense. He has four 100-yard rushing games and the Bruins have won all four of those games. He’s 4th in the Pac 10 with 92.6 yards rushing per game, but he has averaged only 60.8 in UCLA’s seven losses.
Resiliency—The Bruins have twice bounced back from periods of poor play. They opened the season with consecutive losses, including a 35-0 drubbing by Stanford, but came back to win three consecutive games.
After getting hammered by California and Oregon by a combined score of 95-20, UCLA rebounded with a near-upset of Arizona, then defeated Oregon State on a last-second field goal.
So even though the Bruins have been embarrassed in their last two games, USC can’t quite count on facing a team that’s down.
Kickers—Jeff Locke has emerged as one of the nation’s top punters. His 45.71 average is seventh in the nation, second in the Pac 10. He has become a valuable field-position weapon for the Bruins, putting 17 of his 58 punts inside the opponents’ 20 and is on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s top punter.
Kicker Kai Forbath is not having quite the season he had last year when he won the Lou Groza award as the nation’s top kicker, but he’s still formidable.
He has connected on 13 0f 18 attempts, including a 51-yard, game-winner on the final play against Oregon State. He’s currently tied with Jon Lee for the most career field goals in school history and would be well ahead if not for UCLA’s offensive woes this season. Forbath’s 18 attempts are the fewest in his four years at UCLA. He had 30, 22 and 31 attempts the last three years.
Passing game—Although showing signs of life in recent weeks, the Bruins have been among the nation’s worst passing teams all season. They rank 116th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing offense with 133 yards per game.
All areas of the passing game have hurt. It starts with inconsistent quarterback play, with Richard Brehaut taking over for Kevin Prince, who was never really healthy most of this season. Brehaut is still raw but did pass for 321 yards last week.
Poor pass protection has also hampered the aerial attack. The Bruins' offensive line has been hampered by injuries and other attrition since early in the season, and UCLA is eighth in the Pac-10 in sacks allowed.
The receiving corps also deserves blame for a multitude of dropped passes throughout the season. Poor route running has also been an issue.
Tackling—Whether it’s simply missing tackles or not being in position to make them, the UCLA defense has been burned by big plays game after game.
Opposing quarterbacks, running backs and receivers alike have all had big games against the Bruins at times this season. UCLA is giving up nearly 200 yards rushing a game this season and three times in the last five games, opponents have gained 582 yards or more.
Inexperience on defense combined with a season-ending injury to middle linebacker Patrick Larimore have hurt the Bruins, but this has been an issue since Week 1 against Kansas State and seven teams have topped 200 yards rushing against the Bruins.
Ball Security—Only eight FBS teams have lost more fumbles than UCLA’s 13 and the Bruins have had only two games this season in which they didn’t have a pass intercepted.
Bruins quarterbacks have had 13 passes intercepted and Brehaut has had a pass intercepted in every game since taking over as the full time starter on Oct. 21.
UCLA has gone the last three games without losing a fumble, but still ranks 112th in the nation and last in the Pac-10 with a turnover ratio of -0.91. Part of the reason is that UCLA forced four fumbles against Texas on Sept. 25 but in the seven games since, the Bruins have forced only four more.