Good, gentle youth, tempt not a desperate team.
Shakespeare wrote that 500 years ago about UCLA's game this Saturday against Virginia. Do you believe that? How could he foresee it all the way from Elizabethan England at a time when college football didn't enjoy a wide renown? That is the bottomless mystery of true genius, something most mere mortals couldn't understand . . . .
It is easy to parse The Bard's meaning, though, as this vintage of Virginia Wahoo football could be called London's Last Stand. Cavalier's head coach Mike London, entering his sixth season, sits on a coaching seat that's not so much hot as it is actually caught fire. He is engulfed in flames and needs to put them out immediately to keep the work.
After taking the Hoos to the Chick-Fil-A bowl in 2011, his second season on the job, London has gone 11-25 overall and compiled a 5-19 record in ACC play. Going into this year it was made fairly clear that it's time for London to make a move, or the University of Virginia will cut him loose.
But London's losses haven't all been the Cavaliers getting sliced and diced. Last year, they finished 5-7 with three losses by a combined 18 points, including an eight-pointer at the hands of UCLA. In that game, the season opener played in Charlottesville, the Bruins had three defensive touchdowns in the first half and needed another goal line stand in the fourth quarter to keep Virginia from tying the game. It was the beginning of a strangely dominant, strangely passive season for UCLA.
Virginia's experience, and desperation, is a boon for this year's Bruins. In addition to a coach with a sense of urgency, the Cavs bring veteran offensive and defensive lines to Pasadena, and the Bruins will have to deal with them. Behind the defensive line is one of the ACC's top secondaries, which already is giddy thinking about UCLA's true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen dropping into the pocket for the first time in game action and working through his reads.
This is not a "gimme" game for UCLA, and Virginia definitely will not go quietly into that good night. The Bruins will be challenged to play 60 minutes and figure out immediately what it takes to finish a team. Saturday will not be some little scrimmage against a middling FCS school in which everybody feels overly good if it's a predictable blowout, or overly bad if the little guy kept the game close. What do you get from those FCS games, really? They are lose-lose, in the opinion of your humble correspondent.
The highly touted Virginia secondary includes sophomore free safety Quin Blanding, who at 6-feet 4-inches and 215 pounds led the team with 123 tackles as a true freshman. Blanding added six pass breakups and three interceptions to a season that saw him named to multiple freshman All American teams. Next to Blanding, strong safety Maurice Canady, a senior, also intercepted three passes, broke up 12 more, and was named third-team All-ACC. Senior corner Demetrious Nicholson and junior corner Tim Harris round out a salty defensive backfield.
The Cavs start three seniors and an experienced sophomore on the defensive line, and have back six of their top seven linemen from last season. They are replacing all three linebackers and that second level could be a place for the Bruins to hammer at with the running game, assuming the veteran UCLA offensive line gets fast out of the gates and starts plowing.
Rosen is the first true freshman ever to start at quarterback for UCLA, which is quite the high honor. It would be okay to see him make a few honest mistakes early on—not too many, of course—and get a legitimate immersion into college football. With the skill players around him, both in the backfield and those on the outside catching the football, the Bruins ought to have more than enough speed and power to get the flank on Virginia and drive the ball with some consistency. Rosen getting immediate work against a high-end secondary probably is the best way to make him feel the punching power in his new weight class, and learn to respect it.
Over on the Virginia offense, last year's top quarterback Grayson Lambert is gone. Other than Nigel Cromwell the XII I'm not sure Virginia could have trotted out a more aptly named quarterback for their blue-blooded university. Rich Lowry must have gone apoplectic when he heard the news. Lambert has been named starting quarterback at Georgia, where there's also a certain built-in respect for the pedigree of the Patrician class.
Matt Johns started three games last year for Virginia and played in 12. He threw for 1,109 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions on 55-percent passing. Behind him is highly recruited but underwhelming running back Taquan Mizzell, and outside is a group of serviceable receivers but no stars. The offensive line has 68 combined starts and five players who have been starters at some point, but replaces both starting guards off last year's team. They will be a good test for the Bruins deep, experienced front seven.
This is an interesting opportunity for UCLA and new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. The Bruins likely will test different packages throughout the game in an effort to distinguish reliable pressure men. Bradley is known as a zone-blitz mastermind, but figuring out which linebackers can bolt through the line and hit their target, and which linemen can drop into coverage and make a play, likely will be an on the job experience. A lot more will be known after Saturday and this will be an exciting phase of the game to watch.
The Bruins will have to do it without electrifying playmaker Ishmael Adams. In last year's game, Adams housed a pick-6 and scored again on a punt return that was overturned by a penalty. Adams has become a strange case. Last year's first team All Pac-12 staring cornerback, Adams lost his starting job to Marcus Rios in fall camp, then allegedly robbed an Uber driver for his cellphone on campus earlier this week. With a cryptic Tweet about Satan taking over his body, Adams mental health is more important right now than his football career and I do not expect him back anytime soon.
In UCLA's favor, Virginia is 3-11 in its last 14 road openers, and hasn't won a true road game since 2012. The Bruins will enjoy a sizable talent discrepancy in this game, but their opponent will be desperate to prove itself and, if he is worth fighting for, keep their coach employed. If the Bruins impose their style on the Wahoos they will win with room to spare and send Jim Mora to 4-0 in season openers. If they are sluggish, and play down as they did last season, the game will be uncomfortably close.