September 2, 2011

UCLA on their way to Houston

Talk about a critical opening game. Saturday, Ucla invades the sauna that is Houston for the first game of the year - and a huge one for both teams.

Houston came into last year highly vaunted - a Heisman Trophy candidate redshirt senior quarterback, talk of a possible high bowl bid. All that hit the rocks in Pasadena against the Bruins when quarterback Case Keenum tore his knee up trying to run down the ball after a Ucla interception in Ucla territory.

Later on in that same game his understudy, Cotton Turner, also went down to a season-ending injury and after that it was Katie bar the door as the Bruins laid their ears back and left the Cougars entire season DOA on the Rose Bowl turf.

Something like that kind of tends to light the fire in one's belly especially with the chances for revenge coming on their own home turf, in their own home weather, to open the 2011 season.

At the same time, the Bruins followed a nice early season in which they gave away a likely win at Kansas State but staked a realistic claim to the mythical - as in non-existent - Texas football championship with spectacular victories over both Houston and the University of Texas by falling off the deep end of the remainder of their schedule.

The Bruins lost seven of their final 9 games behind an offensive line fatally depleted due to a variety of causes including injury, academics, an LDS mission, and disciplinary reasons.

So both teams have a way to go to impress the nation's football pundits who established the home team - Houston - as a three point favorites (total points in the game 61) at the start of game week.

The Cougars come in ranked number 46 by The Rivals Network. UH return six starters on offense and seven on defense.

Analyzing a game, one looks at a number of factors. These include athleticism, size, quickness, speed, caliber of athletes, line play, skill positions, location and conditions of the game, experience, coaching, motivation, tradition and more. In this game, it quickly becomes a game of "yes, but."

The Cougars are terrific in the offensive backfield starting of course with quarterback where Keenum returns and is healthy again. Keenum, on just about every pre-season award watch list, is close to breaking several NCAA records including total offense, passing yards and touchdowns. He could become the first player to throw for 5,000 yards passing in three separate seasons, could easily become the NCAA's all time passing yardage leader, and enters the season with 13,586 yards on 1,118 completions, totaling 107 touchdowns.


UH is also strong at running back, including Bryce Beall (5-11, 210), Michael Hayes (5-9, 190) and Charles Sims (6-0, 195). Beal is the star but all three are good both running and catching passes out of the backfield.

Houston's system does not employ tight ends. They employ a four wide-out package and do so effectively. Their receivers start with, Redshirt senior Patrick Edwards. At 5-foot-9 and 175-pounds, Edwards is projected as first team All-Conference both at wide receiver and punt returner. He is also on the Biletnikoff and other award watch lists.

Last year in 12 games he had 71 receptions for 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 15.5 yards per catch and 91.7 yards per game.

Others to watch are Tyron Carrier, E.J. Smith, and Justin Johnson. The Cougars receivers aren't very big - two standing 6-1 and the other two going 5-9 and 5-8; only Johnson has significant weight coming in at 223-pounds. Impressively, all four are seniors so there is experience in this corps of UH receivers.

On the other hand, like last year's Bruins, the 2011 Cougars are lacking some in experience on the offensive line, starting one redshirt freshman and one true freshman up front. The line averages 6-4 and 292-pounds a man. They are not an offensive line that figures to overwhelm the Bruins' defensive front seven by any means.

The true freshman could be a key to the game. He's Rowdy Harper, 6-6 and 285-pounds, playing right tackle. He was first team Texas all-state in high school a year ago. He clearly has talent but it's a huge step up from high school to college, especially as a true freshman on the offensive line and even more specially when the task is to try to read and react to the Bruins' Pistol offense, the Ucla players now having a year under their belts learning the system and this year with the expert guidance of a coach - Jim Mastro - newly come over from Nevada, the program that developed this system.

Houston's starting center, 6-2, 285-pound Chris Thompson is on all the pre-season awards watch lists at his position and their 6-4, 295-pound left tackle, Jacolby Ashworth, makes the all-conference watch lists at his position.

So the question arises - especially after watching what Ucla's defense did to them a year ago - can Houston's offensive line keep the defense off Keenum long enough to allow the quarterback to show his stuff? The 'yes, but' comes in here by the very nature of Houston's offensive scheme.

The Cougars come at you with four receivers, no tight ends. It's an offense designed to give the quarterback a number of options to get the ball off quickly on every play. Add a mobile and highly accurate quarterback and the Cougars hope their line doesn't have to lock down the Bruins' rushers, just slow them up a second or two to allow Keenum to pull the trigger quickly and move the team down the field based on quickness rather than brawn.

The Cougars add a running game, but one that figures to be effective taking advantage of defenses that set up looking for the pass first. And defenses have to look for the pass first because that's how the offense is set up.

Houston has an experienced punter who averaged better than 41 yards a punt a year ago and a solid place kicker as well. In fact, due at least in part to having to break in a new place kicker, this could be the first season in a long time in which the Bruins won't trot out onto the field with the confidence of having a solid advantage over every opponent in the kicking game. (The competition between the two teams' punters could be a very enjoyable and impressive element of this game.)

There's the question of comparative talent. At this point, Ucla Coach Rick Neuheisel's outstanding recruiting classes are now reaching the point where they seem ready to start showing their stuff for the Bruins.

The Bruins are replacing two very important members of their defense in Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore, but they are getting key Bruin defender Datone Jones back on the field again and that will mean a lot.

UCLA has experience in the defensive backfield, only replacing one starter, but the are thin at cornerback and that might be significant factors, but there's a whole lot of talent back there for Ucla and if Keenum has to hold the ball and reset at all, defensive coordinator Joe Tresey's more aggressive Ucla defense could turn the game the Bruins' way.

On defense, Houston sets up in a 3-4 alignment. They are led by, 6-1, 293-pound junior nose tackle Tyrone Campbell. Campbell is quick having also played defensive end some for the Cougars last year. Thing is UH doesn't have any experienced depth behind the starter at this most vital position in their defensive approach.

Obviously in a 3-4 scheme, the linebackers are extremely important - even more so, again, facing a Pistol offense, especially one with the depth and talent at running back and F-Back that the Bruins are going to throw at them. Of the four linebackers, perhaps the most decorated is, 6-0, 215-pound senior Marcus McGraw. McGraw will be all over the field looking to make plays and that's exactly what he's going to have to do to give his team a chance to win this game.

The other starters at linebacker are senior Phillip Steward (6-2, 220), junior Sammy Brown (6-3, 240), and the lone sophomore of the group, Efrem Oliphant (6-2, 215).

At cornerback, the Cougars are led by D.J. Hayden, a 6-0, 185-pound junior transfer who led Navarro College to the 2010 NJCAA National Championship. Hayden will be asked to shut down the Bruins' key receiver. Hayden and McGraw will no doubt be two of the Bruins' keys when Ucla has the ball.

Another Cougar to watch on defense will be their young safety, Colton Valencia. Valencia is a transfer from SEC-member-in-waiting Texas A&M where he appeared in all 12 games as a true freshman two seasons ago. At 5-10, 190-pounds, Valencia - said to be the vocal leader of the defense - will be making his debut for UH on Saturday.

Houston figures to be very dangerous on offense and solid if not whelming on defense. Ucla comes in with confidence but in just the second year of a new offensive system, with key coaching changes, and looking to prove themselves anew. In the hot and heavy weather, Ucla will expect its ability to run the ball - newly rediscovered last year with installation of the Pistol offense - and its overall size and strength to wear the Cougars down and give the Bruins the edge by the late stages of the game. Yes, but the Bruins have to do this playing in the Cougars' home environment.

Both teams have tons of motivation and great deal to gain or lose in the very first game of the 2011 season. With serious playmakers on both sides of the ball, on both offense and defense, it figures to be among the more interesting and exciting games of the entire year.

Ted Bloom contributed to this story.


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