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UCLA Football: Previewing the Bruins home opener vs. Memphis

After an unimpressive victory over Virginia on the road, UCLA returns home to the Rose Bowl to host an improving Memphis Tigers team

Joe Robbins

For starters, let's breakdown how the score ended up vs. Virginia last week:

UCLA Defense --  21

Virginia Offense -- 20

UCLA Offense -- 7

Says a lot about how the Bruins played on offense on Saturday in Charlottesville. Also, their drive chart for the game says a lot too. (NSFW)

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The Bruins struggled behind an offensive line that gave up five sacks from the constant pressure of the UVA front seven. Brett Hundley couldn't be Brett Hundley when the pocket would collapse on him almost every other play, sending him scrambling or having to make a quick decision on the run. The run game has it's moments, but it wasn't enough to keep UCLA from being outgained by the 'Hoos 386-359. It was rough to watch in the first half, but the defense bailed out OC Noel Mazzone to push the Bruins ahead for the victory.

Memphis will be a slight step down in competition from what the Cavs were able to bring to the table, but it won't be a cakewalk for UCLA if the Offense can't get it's act together and get down the field more effectively. Here's a preview of the Bruins home opener against the Memphis Tigers at the Rose Bowl.

Memphis Flyer: Tigers 63, Austin Peay 0

This was a game a long-suffering Memphis Tiger fan base had coming. After nine straight season-opening losses - and just three years after starting a season with a 59-14 loss - the Tigers took it all out on an undermanned Austin Peay program aiming to recover from a winless 2013 season. Playing under a steady drizzle, Memphis scored touchdowns on six of its first seven possessions to secure the game before halftime, five different Tigers reaching the end zone before the season was 30 minutes old.

The only negatives to report from the Tiger side of things were four fumbles (three of them recovered by Memphis players) and a leg injury that sent senior defensive end Martin Ifedi to the locker room with just under nine minutes to play in the third quarter (the Tigers led 49-0 at the time). The status of Ifedi's injury won't be known until Sunday at the earliest.

Sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch completed 20 of 27 passes for 242 yards, passing for two touchdowns and running for two more. (Lynch was relieved by junior Jason Stewart midway through the third quarter. Senior tailback Brandon Hayes ran for 59 yards on 11 carries and scored on a three-yard dash in the first quarter. It was freshman Jarvis Cooper, though, who stole the spotlight with his running in the second half. The West Memphis product galloped 101 yards on eight carries and scored the Tigers' final touchdown with 5:53 left in the game.

"We have a lot of things we can do better," warned a stolid Justin Fuente after the game. Said the Tiger coach, "There are a lot of things for us to coach off of. We were going to grade how we played, and at times we played well. I'm happy with the way the kids prepared."

Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis prepares for Top-10 UCLA

Memphis, which defeated FCS-member Austin Peay Saturday, is 2-0 in The Golden State, having knocked off San Jose State in the 1971 Pasadena Bowl and 16th-ranked ranked Southern California to open the 1991 season.

"Obviously we are happy to be 1-0," Tiger coach Justin Fuente said Monday at his weekly luncheon. "I'm proud of the way the kids played. They came out and took care of business. I'm ready to turn the page now and get prepared for one of the top teams in all of America."

"Offensively, we pushed the tempo at times," Fuente said. "At times, we got a little bit sloppy. We didn't take care of the football well enough. If you fumble against the guys we're about to play they'll pick it up and run it back for a touchdown. They scored 21 points on defense last week."

"Defensively, we controlled the line of scrimmage," Fuente said. "We played physical. We played with urgency. There's really not a whole lot to be upset about in that performance.

"We had great leadership on both sides of the football. Guys really came out to accomplish a mission. When you play a game like that, you really want to judge how well you played and not so much what the score is or the statistics are. At times, we were playing pretty well in all three phases."

As for what awaits the Tigers in Pasadena, it's a top-10 ranked team, only the third the U of M has played since 2001.

"(UCLA) coach (Jim) Mora has done a fantastic job turning that program around," Fuente said. "I know this. Our kids will be excited for the challenge and I know they'll do a great job preparing."

We have to get our kids to understand what it's going to take to go out there and be competitive and give yourself a chance at the end of the game to pull it off," Fuente said. "We're not going to prepare to just go out there to take a trip and have a good time. We are going to prepare to go do our job."

Position-by-Position Breakdown

Quarterback: While Brett Hundley didn't play the best game last week against Virginia, he ended up being the difference maker for the UCLA offense, scoring the only offensive touchdown on a 6-yard keeper late in the third quarter to put the Bruins up 28-17. Despite UVA's front seven making a home in the UCLA backfield all game long, Hundley still completed 60% of his passes and had a total of 281 yards on offense. He's still one of the best QBs in the country, he just needs a little help from his offensive line. Sophomore Paxton Lynch took over the starting job in Memphis as a freshman, throwing for over 2,000 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2013. He's improved throughout the spring and it showed in Saturday's season opener vs. Austin Peay, completing 74% of his passes for 274 yards and two scores for the Tigers. Lynch may a year or two away from being the best weapon the Tigers have an offensive, so I'll give the nod to UCLA. Advantage: UCLA

Running Back: Memphis's backfield got a huge bump when it was announced leading rusher Brandon Hayes was granted his sixth year of eligibility, and now he'll have the opportunity to be the Tigers's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009. Last week, Hayes and the young group of RBs behind him combined for 303 yards last week in the win over Austin Peay. This group could be a underrated part of the Tigers offense in 2014. UCLA's run game didn't overly impress in last week's win over Virginia, but they still broke 100 yards thanks in part to Paul Perkins 80-plus yard game. UCLA's group is deep, like Memphis's, and both should have significant contributions this year. Advantage: Push

Receivers: UCLA's receiver group had a solid outing vs. Virginia last Saturday, averaging 12.0 yards per catch in the season opener, but they'll need help from the Offensive Line if they hope to have a bigger day against Memphis this Saturday. The Tigers return a veteran group with the top seven receivers from 2013 back this year. Like Bruins, they had a decent performance with ~12.0 YPC and around 200 receiving yards in their win. Neither group has made a big statement this year, so it'll be interesting to see who can make an impact on Saturday. Advantage: Push

Offensive Line: The Memphis Offensive Line returns some solid depth and experience up front this season, with 63 career starts back for 2014. This line should see some improvement in 2014. UCLA's Offensive Line came out flat and it showed last week against Virginia, and it showed. The Bruins gave up five sacks and the pocket collapsed on Brett Hundley too often. The line is still experienced, but we'll need to see improvement before conference play starts if the Bruins want to compete in the Pac-12. Advantage: Push

Defensive LIne: While the front three didn't have the best outing against Virginia, it's still a very solid group that can disrupt the pass and run game. Kenny Clark had a solid game with eight tackles against UVA, and Owa Odighizuwa added a couple tackles and batted a pass at the line that resulted in Ishmael Adams pick six of Greyson Lambert. UCLA will have to bear down opposing run games and create more pressure (0 sacks vs. UVA last week) if they want to be a successful front line. Memphis returns six of their top nine lineman from last year, and seem to be improving each year. An excerpt from Bill Connelly's 2014 Memphis Football Preview:

Memphis has produced its fair share of strong defensive linemen through the years. Dontari Poe was drafted in the first round in 2012, two other defensive tackles have been picked in the draft since 2004 (Clinton McDonald and Eric Taylor), and others like Kellen Heard and Tony Brown have bounced around through the years.

It would probably make sense, then, that the line was the first thing to come around for Odom's defense. Memphis' 2014 line was damn strong, with basically three down linemen and a "DAWG" rush end/OLB (not a "TIGER?"). Martin Ifedi was a strong pass rusher, Ricky Hunter was great against the run, and while the tackles don't really have tackle size, Terry Redden, a former star recruit, proved himself a potential play-maker.

All four of those players return. Despite a lack of wonderful size in the middle, Memphis ranked 15th in Adj. Line Yards and 31st in Rushing S&P+. I don't see those numbers dropping much, especially considering all three starting linebackers also return. The pass rush wasn't amazing outside of Ifedi, but you still win one battle by forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. Memphis did it in 2013 and could do it again in 2014.

The Tigers had a solid outing vs. Austin Peay, but it's a whole different game against UCLA. However, if last week's Bruin O-Line is what we'll see this year, Memphis could create a lot of pressure early on Hundley. Very close match-up, but I think the Tigers have a slight advantage with the return of All-AAC Martin Ifedi. Advantage: Memphis

Linebackers: Memphis may have one of the best LB corps in the AAC, with all three LBs from 2013 returning this year. Charles Harris, Tank Jakes, and Ryan Coleman were among the top four tacklers last year for the Tigers, and Jakes lead the team in TFL with 5.5. The group is experienced and will definitely make some noise in 2014. UCLA's defense saw the most work being done last week from their LBs, with Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks leading the way with a combined 29 total tackles (11 solo) in Saturday's win. Each also was good in pass coverage as well, with Jack breaking up two passes (including the one that would seal the game for UCLA) and Kendricks intercepting a batted ball for a pick six late in first half. Memphis has a very good group at LB, but Jack and Kendricks should be able to lead this group, and the defense, to success on Saturday. Advantage: UCLA

Secondary: The Bruins back line had it's moments on against UVA, like Ishmael Adams pick six of Greyson Lambert, but it still gave up several big pass plays that were able to keep the 'Hoos close late in the game. However, this secondary is still one of the best in the Pac-12, and we should expect bigger plays out of them this Saturday. For Memphis, back to Bill Connelly's preview:

Returning nine starters from a good defense is unquestionably a good thing. But it is at least a little bit disconcerting that perhaps last year's biggest defensive weakness (big plays in the passing game) is going to be addressed with two new safeties this year.

Lonnie Ballentine and Anthony Watson weren't amazing, but they were starters, which suggests they were better than the alternatives. Redshirt freshman Phillip Sumpter was a standout in the spring game, and the rest of last year's two-deep returns intact (and it bears mentioning that the top three returning corners combined for seven picks and 19 break-ups), so hope is not lost here. But we can't really say with certainty that this year's pass defense will be any better than last year's.

Still, defense is not going to be Memphis' biggest concern. Far from it.

The Tigers defense is questionable, and doesn't have the same experience the Bruins have. Advantage: UCLA

Special Teams: Kai'imi Fairbairn missed a FG on Saturday from 44-yards out to start his season, but nailed all XPs and was solid on Kickoff duty for the Bruins with 4 touchbacks. Matt Mengel punted seven times vs. UVA, with a long of 46. Memphis will have to replace all-AAC punter Tom Hornsey, who was (as Bill C. put it) "a fair-catch/inside-the-20 machine", it'll be interesting on how they'll replace his production. Jake Elliot hit 9/9 XPs last week vs. Austin Peay, and he's coming off a very good freshman year for the Tigers. I would give edge to Memphis with Elliot, but their ST coverage was spotty at best last year, so I'll say it's a tie. Advantage: Push

Prediction: UCLA 37, Memphis 17