Brett Hundley, 17 returning starters, and a top ten preseason ranking.
The stars were aligning in favor of UCLA as the 2014 season approached, with a favorable schedule with Oregon, USC, and Stanford all coming to the Rose Bowl this year, it seemed the Bruins had a legitimate chance to break into the inaugural College Football Playoff and compete for a National Championship. That optimism may have died down for now after three nail-biter victories for the Bruins to start the year. UCLA barely escaped Virginia in the season opener thanks to three defensive touchdowns in the 28-20 win over the Cavs, and then followed it up with a shootout win over Memphis at the Rose Bowl. Memphis. A program that has won just 13 games over the past six seasons.
This past weekend the Bruins had an opportunity to post a signature win over Texas, but again, they barely escaped Arlington with the victory, and lost Brett Hundley due to injury in the process. Thankfully, UCLA has a much needed bye week this weekend, with a chance for Coach Jim Mora to take a step back and take time to not only prepare for Arizona State, but correct the mistakes that have plagued the Bruins to start the year. It's not time to push the big, red panic button in Westwood just yet. UCLA still sits at 3-0 and inside the top 15. A Pac-12 Title berth is still in the cards, but there needs to be some significant improvement between now and then.
It's become reptitive, but protect Brett Hundley
So far the offensive line has given up 11.0 sacks this year, allowing an average of about three per game through the first three games. Against the Longhorns, the line gave up three sacks in the first half alone, but the group played much better as the game went on. (No sacks in the second half)
It comes down to leaving the pocket in tact for a few moments longer to give Hundley more time to work with his receivers. He's been having to make plays with his feet to keep drives alive to start the year, but every time he takes off running, there is the risk of him coming down wrong on an arm or leg and the Bruins would be in trouble. Thankfully, Hundley should be good to go vs. ASU, but UCLA fans were holding their breath for a long time after this run.
You give Hundley more time, that offense becomes much more efficient, and they'll need to be with teams like Arizona State, Oregon, and USC left on the docket.
"RUN THE DANG BALL, MAZZONE"
It doesn't have the same ring as Bobo, but still, run the dang ball.
After splitting carries with Jordan James in 2013, Paul Perkins has worked his way into being the true number one back for the Bruins this year. He's racked up over 300 yards through the first three games of the year (on pace for 1,000-plus yards), and his vision as a runner has looked much improved to start the year. He's reading his blocks better and as a result, it's leading to longer and better carries on first and second down.
Of course, none of this would be possibly behind the offensive line and their run blocking, which has been very solid to start the season. Again, pass blocking and blitz pickup continues to be an issue, but the line looks very good in paving the way for Perkins or James.
So, yeah, run the dang ball, Mazzone, Hundley can't do everything.
Perform well vs. "Big Four"
What kept UCLA from a Pac-12 Championship in 2013 were losses to Oregon, Stanford, and Arizona State.
This year, for Coach Jim Mora and the team to get a chance to return to the Pac-12 Title Game and a New Year's Bowl, they need to have solid outings against the "Big Four" of the Pac-12. It starts next week with UCLA traveling out to the desert to take on Arizona State with division title implications looming overhead. Two weeks later, the Bruins welcome Oregon to the Rose Bowl seeking revenge from their 42-14 defeat in Eugene last fall. Finally to end the season, Stanford and USC come to the Rose Bowl in games that could shake up the conference in a big way.
For the Bruins to open the new year in one of the New Year's Bowl games, I'll say they need to win at least two of these games in 2014, one being Arizona State for sure. Despite Oregon coming to the Rose Bowl this year, I don't think the UCLA team we've seen so far this year will be able to hang with the Ducks, so I'll mark that as a loss for now. That leaves games vs. USC and Stanford to end the year. The Bruins handled the Trojans with ease behind Brett Hundley's near-300 yard game, and I think we'll see more of the same come November.
It also helps that Arizona State gets UCLA, USC, and Stanford over the next three week, and if the Sun Devils can't win at least two of those games, it could move the Bruins closer to a Pac-12 title berth.
So ultimately for the Bruins, there needs to be improvement before the team travels out to Tempe for a huge game vs. Arizona. The front line needs to dig in and improve the pass blocking, giving Hundley more time to dictate the offense how he wants to, rather than risking injury on broken plays. All it could take for UCLA to play for a conference title is two big conference wins over the Pac-12 "Big Four", and they'll have their first test next week vs. Arizona State.