UCLA vs. SDSU: Bruin Barometer Heading Into Aztecs Matchup

As the UCLA Bruins look to build upon their season-opening win versus Coastal Carolina, they travel about 125 miles south to visit the Aztecs of San Diego State. As 13.5-point favorites, the Bruins will face an Aztecs team that is 2-0 with prior victories over Ohio and Idaho State. 

Averaging 28 points per game, the Aztecs are led by senior quarterback Jalen Mayden, who’s been 31-47 for 251 yards passing with two touchdowns and zero interceptions over the Aztecs’ inaugural two triumphs. Mayden also leads the team in rushing with 166 yards on 17 carries and an additional two rushing touchdowns. Complimenting Mayden on the ground is junior running back and Los Angeles native, Jaylon Armstead, with his 18 carries for 136 yards and one rushing touchdown.

From a receiving standpoint, the Aztecs significantly rely on senior tight end Mark Redman and his six receptions for 69 receiving yards and two touchdowns. With three of the Aztecs’ top five receivers serving as either running backs or tight ends, expect this game to be played firmly in the box with the Bruins front seven taking center stage. San Diego State will attempt to control the line of scrimmage with a methodical rushing attack from their “Two J’s”, timely play action to their underneath playmakers, an occasional deep shot to keep the secondary from cheating up and jamming, with lots of ball control.

If Chip Kelly was mortified about only four first-half possessions last week, he may be in for a horror show this Saturday as there’s a chance the Bruins may only have three or fewer. Thus, execution must reign supreme to fully capitalize on fewer touches. 

As we head into Saturday, here’s where the Bruins “stoplight” barometer stacks up.

UCLA vs. SDSU: Bruin Barometer Heading Into Aztecs Matchup

Green = Solidified Strength

Dante Moore as QB1: Beyond the 7-12 for 143 passing yards, two touchdowns, and one interception, it was Moore’s poise, touch, and dynamism in two crucial game stretches – the end of the first half and the beginning of the fourth quarter – that has made it abundantly clear he’s the next teenage prodigy within LA’s rich sports tapestry, following two guys named Magic and Mamba. Now, Kelly’s interpretation of a quarterback “battle”? More on that later. 

J. Michael Sturdivant as Stokes 2.0: We saw it all spring and fall, so is it surprising? Hardly. Is it nonetheless impressive? You better believe it. JMS’ five catches for 136 yards and one touchdown, courtesy of the spectacular variety, further reinforced him as not only the Bruins’ best receiver by leaps and bounds but also its most explosive overall offensive weapon in prime position to be a PAC-12 First Team selectee. The most gifted receiving prospect since JJ Stokes, Sturdivant will continue being a matchup nightmare for all UCLA opponents while serving as the Bruins’ quintessential security blanket and game changer. 

Laiatu Latu Captaining Pass Rush: If it’s possible, Latu is building upon last year’s success, just as he prophetically claimed at PAC-12 Media Day. After week one, the 2023 conference defensive player of the year betting favorite leads the FBS in total pressures (10) and sacks (3), while second in the country in quarterback hits (3). The four quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss aren’t small potatoes either. When defenses aren’t anxiety stricken about Latu, they have to incur the wrath of the Murphy twins and Carl Jones Jr., making pass rush the unanimous Bruin defensive strength. 

Yellow = Work in Progress

Running Game: It’s not that Carson Steele and TJ Harden played badly. With their 152 combined rushing yards (exactly 76 yards a piece) and 21 combined receiving yards including Steele’s 14-yard touchdown reception, that’s hardly a fair assessment. However, the Bruins were coming off a year averaging a PAC-12-leading 237 yards on the ground, so only finishing with 153 yards versus a non-Power Five opponent leaves a lot more to be desired. That, coupled with Steele only having 24 yards after the game’s second drive with Anthony Adkins and Colson Yankoff not receiving any rushes. It seems the Bruins vaunted ground attack is still finding itself. 

Linebacker Spacing: This group was a close second to the front four in the off-season with respect to talent depth and projected impact. Darius Muasau was his usual dynamic hole-plugging self leading the team with nine tackles, while Kain Medrano admirably and conventionally chipped in with seven tackles of his own. However, the Derwin James-esque versatility of JonJon Vaughans coupled with the DK Metcalf-esque physicality of Oluwafemi Oladejo is what made prognosticators salivate. Neither had a tackle last week and if/when these two get in form, watch out. This group is just scratching the surface of its potential. 

Secondary Resistance: This was one of two groups that was of significant concern coming out of the off-season. Lack of role clarity, collective tenacity, and consistently disciplined gap integrity were all concerns that systemically stemmed for a few years now. However, the repeatedly sound gap judgments from Kamari Ramsey, coupled with the feisty and timely interceptions from John Humphrey and Jaylin Davies, respectively, was a sight for sore eyes. Does this group still have to work on things? Most definitely. Were they a pleasant surprise and a group primed for meaningful improvement this year? Most definitely. 

Red = Cause for Concern

Kelly’s Quarterback Judgment: First, it was letting Garbers back in the game for the first Bruin drive of the second half immediately following the Chanticleers’ touchdown to cut the UCLA lead to 14-13. That was questionable, but defensible, given a limited sample size with only three first-half possessions for Garbers.

Next, was sticking with Garbers for the second Bruin drive of the second half after he threw an interception on the prior possession. That was puzzling and indefensible, as Kelly was fortunate Coastal Carolina didn’t capitalize on that Bruin offensive lull period in the third quarter – one that could’ve drastically changed the complexion of the game heading into the final period.

Now, it’s continuing to suggest all three quarterbacks will play against San Diego State. That’s downright perplexing and begs the question: “What more does Kelly need to see?” For it’s as obvious as gelato on an Italian summer afternoon, that Moore is head and shoulders above the rest. 

Offensive Line Depth: Outside of Duke Clemens and Spencer Holstege, there was real concern as to the quality and depth of the Bruins in the trenches. The lack of depth in particular tends to rear its ugly head in the second half of games as the starting rotation gets weary. Lost in the fireworks of Moore’s heroics was, outside of the now household highlight 62-yard touchdown pass to Sturdivant, the Bruins only mustered six second-half points, where both field goals were courtesy of short fields.

It was a bit of a slog offensively to close out the game against a Group of Five opponent. Certainly skewed given Moore’s interception midway through the fourth after a lengthy drive, but the Bruins didn’t exactly impose their will in salting that game away. How this group responds Saturday will be a critical indicator going into conference season. 

Already so much to keep an eye on, just wait until we have another four quarters of actual game action to unpack.

[pickup_prop id=”34653″]