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August 30, 2013
WHAT: UCLA Bruins (0-0) vs. Nevada Wolf Pack (0-0)
WHEN: Saturday, 7 p.m. (PT)
WHERE: The Rose Bowl
TELEVISION: Pac-12 Networks
BIG ISSUE: UCLA will look to begin the 2013 season with a rebounding win after a three-game slide - including an uninspiring loss to Baylor in the bowl game - ended its 2012 season. Those three losses aside, the Bruins were able to win nine games in Mora's first season, but if they want to repeat that win total, they'll have to do it without all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin. The offense will have a new leader in Brett Hundley, and the defense will continue to rally around All-American LB Anthony Barr. UCLA will need both to play well Saturday to avoid a shocking loss to the Wolf Pack.
Nevada, meanwhile, ended its season with a heartbreaking, last-second loss to Arizona in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl and finished 7-6 for the season. To add insult to injury, head coach Chris Ault, innovator of the Pistol offense, retired, and the Wolf Pack subsequently lost its leading rusher Stefphon Johnson to the NFL when he declared early. Although Ault is out, Nevada retains offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich after he directed the offense to the eighth-ranked offense in the nation behind Cody Fajardo, who returns to quarterback this weekend. The Wolf Pack would love to begin head coach Brian Polian's tenure with a win.
NUMBERS, PLEASE: Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo, who accounted for almost 4,000 yards of total offense and 32 touchdowns in 2012, was able to have his way with defenses both with his arm and legs last season. As the leading returning rusher, Fajardo presents a major threat to break loose against teams that lose containment. UCLA endured some struggles against mobile quarterbacks last year, including Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Baylor's Nick Florence and Rice's Taylor McHargue. As strong a runner as Fajardo is, the Bruins cannot forget he is a 67 percent passer, and although a great deal of that is set up by the play-action, the fact remains Fajardo is as accurate as any Pac-12 QB.
The Bruins aren't exactly bringing a slouch at the quarterback position to this matchup either. Brett Hundley was a revelation for UCLA fans, accounting for 4,100 yards of offense and 38 touchdowns. While Hundley only rushed for 355 yards last season, his mobility makes him a threat to run, which only helps him improve on his 67 percent accuracy from 2012. Nevada was not particularly stout against the run or pass last year, and is breaking in six new starters in the back seven; so look for the Bruin offense to have a big day against this defense.
ONE-ON-ONE: As mentioned before, Nevada will be breaking in a number of new defensive starters. UCLA, however, will also be breaking in three new starters in the secondary. The freshmen may be talented and highly-touted, but they don't have much experience, especially at the corners, and that could be an issue Saturday. Fajardo is accurate with a strong arm and will be throwing to a big target in 6-foot-3, 225-pound Brandon Wimberly. Neither Ishmael Adams nor Fabian Moreau has the size of past UCLA cornerbacks, so look for them to be tested by Wimberly's size.
Nevada's offensive line, meanwhile, will be tested early and often by the Bruins front seven, which should include Anthony Barr this week. Nevada is replacing three starters on the offensive line, and will likely lean on the running game more than usual to protect Fajardo. If, however, UCLA can force obvious passing downs by keeping the run game in check, look for Barr to have a big day.
SUPPORTING ROLE: If Nevada is going to have a chance to win, they'll need to keep Fajardo upright in the passing game and open holes in the run game. Offensive tackle Joel Bitonio will be one of the unsung players asked to help Nevada in those areas. He'll have his hands full with UCLA's best pass rushers, and he'll also need to create running lanes against the Bruins best defensive ends. He'll have to perform well if Nevada is going to come away with a win.
With such a young secondary, Randall Goforth is going to have to go from true freshman to secondary captain. Although only a sophomore, Goforth has the most playing time of any of the starting defensive backs this weekend, and he's going to be counted on to be a leader. His range, speed and ball skills will be a huge asset against the explosive Nevada offense. If UCLA is to win, Goforth needs to be consistent throughout the game.
HEADSET GAMES: Nevada's gameplan should be to attack the young, inexperienced corners of the UCLA defense and set up big passing plays with play-action. They'll need to protect the quarterback and establish a somewhat successful rushing attack. UCLA's front seven will be difficult for Nevada to neutralize, but if they can manage them for four quarters, keep their offense rolling, and get a stop here and there on defense, they'll have a good chance to win in a shootout.
UCLA is stronger on both defense and offense. Defensively, they'll need to contain Fajardo and not allow him to break the pocket for big gains, especially with an inexperienced secondary. The outside linebackers will need to rush much more disciplined than they would normally against a non-mobile quarterback. When playing man coverage, UCLA needs to be ready to turn and tackle a scrambling QB. Offensively, ball security and control will be the name of the game in order to limit the number of offensive possessions Nevada's explosive offense will have.
-Mora announced linebacker Aaron Porter, defensive end Ian Taubler, offensive lineman John Lopez and fullback Luke Gane would miss Saturday with concussions. Corner Johnny Johnson will also miss the season with shoulder surgery. Everyone else (outside of Eli Ankou, who was injured later in the week), the head coach said, should be ready to play Saturday night.
-Defensive end Lenny Jones (knee) and running back Don Jackson have been battling a few nicks, but should be good to go for Saturday. Tight ends Stephen Jeffers and Randy Horton have been reportedly ruled out for Saturday's game.
Nevada is capable of great offensive explosions, but it never played a defense as talented as UCLA in 2012. Plus, the Wolf Pack is breaking in a hoard of new starters both defensively and offensively.
So look for a close half or so, but for UCLA to adjust at halftime and pull away behind strong defensive and offensive performances. UCLA wins 38-17.