There was a game against Stanford standing between UCLA and a rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship. After beating USC the previous week in the Rose Bowl, all the Bruins needed was a win over the Cardinal to punch a ticket to Santa Clara for a chance at their first Pac-12 title since 2000.
And they flat out blew it.
Kevin Hogan and the Stanford offense torched the Bruins Defense for over 400 yards en route to a 31-10 win in Pasadena, erasing any hope of the College Football Playoff for Coach Mora and UCLA. Brett Hundley and the offense struggled to find any rhythm throughout the game, mustering just 262 yards on the day. Hundley, in what may have been his final home game as a Bruin, finished with 162 yards on 53% passing, one of his worst passing performances in his career.
In order to finish the 2014 season on a high note, UCLA can't afford to dwell on their performance against Stanford, with an incredibly talented Kansas State team on tap for the Alamo Bowl on Friday in San Antonio. Each team ended the regular season with a loss, ending both's hopes of a New Year's Six or CFP Bowl. 10-win season is on the line, here's three keys for UCLA to make it two in a row:
Re-establish Offensive Rhythm Early
While the defense was the key point in UCLA's loss to Stanford, the offense's inability to move the ball effectively down ended up being another nail in the Bruins coffin. As has been the case all year, it starts with the Bruins O-Line, who allowed four sacks in the loss to the Cardinal.
Against KSU, the front line will need to pull a complete 180 to avoid a similar outing in the Alamo Bowl. The Wildcats finished 2014 with 24.0 total sacks, 5.5 coming from Senior DL Ryan Mueller, who will be coming fast off the edge all game long. Keeping Mueller, and other KSU defenders, out of the backfield more often than night will be key in the offense's success Friday night. If you give Hundley just a couple more seconds, he'll make smarter decisions/throws, and feel less likely to try and make a play himself.
Even if Hundley struggles, Paul Perkins has proved himslef more than a viable option out of the backfield, powering the Bruins rushing attack with 1,378 yards (6.0 YPC) and 7 touchdowns. One of those two players will need to carry the torch for the offense for the Bruins to have success against Kansas State.
Lockdown the Wildcats passing attack
The two biggest threats KSU brings to the table are Quarterback Jake Waters and Wide Receiver Tyler Lockett. Waters finished first in the Big 12 in QB Rating, posting a final mark of 157.8, while throwing 3,163 yards and 20 touchdowns. His favorite target all year was Senior WR Tyler Lockett, who finished second in the conference with 93 catches for 1,351 yards and nine touchdowns.
It's on the four experience members of the Bruins secondary to keep the Waters-Lockett connection to a minimum on Friday. UCLA hasn't allowed a 100-yard receiver since Jaelen Strong vs. Arizona State, and Lockett is the biggest threat to top that mark in the Alamo Bowl. You can't afford to let him behind you in coverage, and if the Bruins can keep Lockett from getting open, that's one facet of the offense down the drain.
Big Day from the Seniors (And Hundley)
It's expected by most, (including myself), that Friday's matchup against Kansas State will be the last time Brett Hundley suits up for UCLA in his College Football career. He'll be heading off to the NFL as one of the top QB prospects after three years with the Bruins, and a win over the Wildcats would be the perfect capper for the Redshirt Junior. One last big outing from Hundley is needed for the Bruins to top the Wildcats, and if he truly is leaving UCLA after this year, he's got nothing to lose.
Of course, Hundley will not be the only Bruins ending his career in Westwood this week. Butkus Award winner Eric Kendricks will look to improve his draft stock with a big performance vs. KSU, adding to his 135 total tackles and 8.5 TFL this. Fifth-year Senior DL Owamagbe Odighizuwa will be heading to the big leagues as well, hoping to move up several draft boards after Friday's game. Each Senior will be relied on to lead the Bruins in the Alamo Bowl vs. the Wildcats.
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Both teams are coming off a loss. Both teams saw their NY6 Bowl dreams dashed in the final week of the year. Both were mainstays in the Top 15 all season long. Now, in one of the best non-CFP Bowls, UCLA and Kansas State are both gunning for win #10 in the Alamodome on Friday. It's been an up and down year for the Bruins, with highs like the 62-27 drubbing of Arizona State, to the lows of the 31-10 loss to Stanford that cost the Bruins a Pac-12 title berth. Can Coach Mora and the Bruins have one more moment on top for 2014? Or will Snyder's Wildcats outshoot the Bruins in San Antonio? KSU has played incredibly well vs. top competition this year, and I would expect another big outing for Waters and the offense vs. a reeling UCLA defense. Kansas State 33, UCLA 20