We got together with Ryan Rosenblatt down at Bruins Nation to get a close up analysis of the unbeaten, and possibly once again Big Bad Bruins from Westwood as we get ready for Oregon St.'s trip to the Rose Bowl to take on UCLA on Saturday.
Brett Hundley seems to be pretty much everything everybody inside and outside Bruins Nation suspected and hoped or feared he might be. He has thrown a few interceptions though, and made a few off-target throws. Is that just normal freshman inexperience, or are there any concerns over either mechanics or decision making that still need correcting? And along that line, he had his best overall game against Nebraska, the best of the three opponents UCLA has faced. Does he appear to "rise to the occasion", or was that more a product of matchups?
Johnathan Franklin is the nation's leading rusher. Everyone in the Pac-12 already knew he is a premier running back, but it seems he has really flourished in Noel Mazzone's offense. Given that Mazzone is known for his passing game, the degree of success Franklin has had is again at the high end of any reasonable window of expectations. What's made that work so well? Is it more a technical thing, or more a mental/confidence thing, with both Franklin and the rest of the offense?
You're right that Brett Hundley has been everything that we hoped he would be. He has been composed and accurate, throwing short and long. He has had unbelievable pocket presence for a freshman and has made plays with his legs. UCLA fans are ecstatic about having a real quarterback for a change and his game against Nebraska, while somewhat a product of match-ups, was also a showcase of his versatility. The Huskers didn't know what to take away because he could do so much.
That said, he still shows flashes of being the freshman that he is. Last week against Houston they played with smaller, quick linebackers that moved all over the place and it gave him some trouble. Oregon St.'s dime defense with a rover could do the same.
Still, the most impressive thing about Hundley has been his maturity. He has complete control of the huddle, is a true leader and rarely makes the same mistake twice. That is what makes some of his problems, like the ones he had against Houston, so easy to swallow. Odds are he'll learn from it and be better for it.
In general, the playcalling has been much, much better under Mazzone. He is know for his passing offense, but Jim Mora insisted on having pro-game run principles and that has given the team the aggressive blocking schemes and attitude necessary to run the ball effectively.
Mazzone's spread principles has made it really difficult for defenses to stack the box, as has the deep threat that the Bruins have lacked in recent years. That has have given the Bruins a fighting chance in the running game and created a lot of man-on-man situations in the box and in those situations, without three guys keying on him, Franklin is usually going to win.
Oregon St.'s defense proved to be effective at containing a pretty good rushing offense in Wisconsin; if the Beavers can at least curb Franklin, is Hundley and the passing game ready to carry the UCLA offense if need be?
The passing game is certainly capable, but Hundley did have that shaky game last week. Did he learn from that? So far, he has shown a marvelous ability to learn from his mistakes, but it's a small sample size. We'll have to see again this week if he has learned.
If Hundley has learned from last week the passing game can get it done. He completed passes to nine receivers in the first game of the season, right in the second and 11 last week so he is spoiled for choices. There are options everywhere and while Devin Lucien and Joe Fauria get a lot of the attention from defenses, Hundley can spread it around to really put the sword to teams.
Much, some times even most, of Hundley's completions come to backs; Steven Manfro and Franklin are his favorite targets. Who in the WR group is going to be the go-to guy down the field for the Bruins? Will Mazzone try to stretch the field against the Beavers, or work primarily underneath the coverage?
The Bruins will stretch the field against Oregon St. Mazzone hasn't run guys vertically regularly, but he's picked out spots to work play action and other misdirection in to open up the deep pass in each game. Lucien is especially dangerous and is a threat to pick up a huge chunk of yards on any play, while Fauria can use his 6'7'' frame and athleticism to abuse a linebacker or safety for 20 yards.
That said, a lot of the passes are shorter. One of the goals of the Bruin offenses is to get the ball into playmakers in space. A lot of times that means Manfro and Franklin for five yards on the pass, but just one defender to beat for another 20 yards after the catch. Mazzone has also leaned heavily on the quick slants to pick up first downs, which we will see more of, but keep an eye on Lucien. He can really fly, is very athletic and is a big play threat on every play.
Switching to the defense, which is new coach Jim Mora's specialty, the Bruins are playing pretty well on that side of the ball as well. How much of the improvement is a change to the defensive schemes, and how much is a product of tightening up the techniques and mental aspects of the game?
I think a lot of it is scheme. The previous defensive scheme was very vanilla and didn't really take advantage of the Bruins' athleticism on defense. The current scheme does and really tries to put playmakers like Anthony Barr and Tevin McDonald in positions to make big plays.
But the defense is still very much a work in progress. They have been gashed in the rushing game and have been susceptible to read options. The struggles are to be expected switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and having to learn completely different fits and techniques, but the reality is that the defense still has its problems. The key is making sure that there are enough big plays to make up for the occasional breakdown and so far there has been.
The big question everyone seemed to have when Mora was hired, both from Bruin fans and other interested observers, seemed to revolve around whether Mora could connect and relate to college kids. Sure enough, there were some moments of friction initially, but that was to be expected. But now that everyone has had time to settle in, how would you characterize the relationship between the players and the coaches?
Right now, the relationship looks great. Even early on when there were problems, it seemed less like Mora not relating to players and more the regular issues that some players have when a new coaching staff comes in to change things up. Mora is still figuring things up, but the players love his enthusiasm and he did a great job bringing in coaches who have experience and relate to players well. The relationships between the assistants and players are phenomenal.
Of course, right now the team is 3-0 and everyone gets along when they are racking up the W's. The better test of Mora's transition and his relationships will be when the team hits a speed bump.
Following up on that, winning always helps with team chemistry. If the Bruins run into a bumpy stretch, always a possibility for any team in the competitive Pac-12, where a good team can play real well and still get beat, and suffer some losses, what will happen? Does Mora already have the relationship built with the team that will allow the Bruins to bounce back rather than continue to struggle, which has happened to some UCLA teams before, ones that had both players and coaches that had proven they could win, but sometimes didn't when faced with adversity?
Honestly, we have no clue, but there are reasons to believe that things are better than they have been in past years. The Bruins made a habit of backing up a big win with a lazy loss, but that wasn't the case last week. Mora had the guys ready to play and while there were problems, energy and effort were not among them. They came out of the gates firing and that alone is a step forward for the program.
That isn't quite the same as rebounding from a loss, but it's the best indicator we have yet that the team is better than in past years. That the assistants have done a great job connecting with players gives me reason to believe that things will be different, too, and that might be more important than Mora's relationship with the guys.
Great points about the relationships with the assistant coaches, Ryan. Mora's experience as a professional coach that some saw as a possible negative I thought would be a big positive, in that he understands the importance of putting a top notch staff in place.
How about special teams? The Rice game wasn't pretty. But special teams always seems to take time to get sorted out. Is UCLA getting close to where they need to be there, or could that be what swings a close game either way?
Special teams are most definitely a concern, or at least kicks are. Kickoffs and punts have been fabulous, as is to be expected with Jeff Locke, and the return game has shown flashes of being dynamic with Manfro, but the kicking game is shaky.
Ka'imi Fairbairn is a freshman and looked like it against Rice when he couldn't get a kick up and missed three extra points. After that game, every Bruin was convinced that the kicking game would doom the team at some point. Fairbairn did a better job against Nebraska with four good extra points, but he did miss two of four field goals. Last week was perfect, though. He nailed all four extra points and three field goals and the kicking game was tremendous.
So is the kicking game okay now? Fairbairn was very highly recruited so it won't be a surprise if he turns out great and last week could be the norm for him, but it was just one week. If he has to knock down a key field goal on Saturday, we'll probably barely convince ourselves that he will make it then pace furiously praying that it goes in with a look of terror on our faces.
Finally, is the Rose Bowl atmosphere on its way back to being an intimidating factor in the Bruins favor? Or are a lot of the fans still waiting to see if the fast start can be sustained?
The fans aren't back yet. A decade-plus of not just terrible football, but awful marketing and a complete inability to sell the program to fans really depleted the fan base. Now the Bruins have won three games and the interest is ticking up, but the athletic department still doesn't know how to market the program so it is still fighting an uphill battle.
The Rose Bowl won't be full on Saturday and it won't be a fortress by any means, but it won't be a library either. It's on its way back, slowly but surely and without any help from the athletic department.
Thanks, Ryan, for the great insights (as always) about the Bruins!