What To Watch For: UCLA vs. NC Central

The 24th-ranked 2-0 UCLA Bruins take the field today at 2 pm Pacific Time in the friendly confines of the Rose Bowl and with a PAC-12 Network audience tuned in. Here are five things to watch for against FCS’ #17 North Carolina Central Eagles.

What To Watch For: UCLA vs. NC Central

Avoiding The Trap

Coach Prime, Shadeur Sanders, and the Colorado Buffaloes are the talk of college football for their blistering 2-0 start. Yet, people forget these Eagles went 10-2 in 2022 culminating in a victory over Coach Prime, Shadeur, and Jackson State in last year’s Cricket Celebration Bowl that cost JSU an undefeated season.

Quarterback Davius Richard, who had 52 career passing touchdowns coming into 2023, returns from that triumph and has started the season 2-0 with 363 yards passing and three touchdowns along with 137 yards rushing and three more rushing touchdowns.

Leading rusher, Latrell Collier, also returns with 167 yards rushing and three scores in addition to being the Eagle’s leading receiver with 97 receiving yards and another touchdown.

The Eagles will rely on last year’s JSU upset as a big game experience to lean on if and when things get tough in Pasadena. That, coupled with UCLA’s emotional Dante Moore debut last week and the looming battle in Salt Lake City next game versus the two-time defending conference champion Utes, and this is a textbook trap game for the Bruins.

Stabilizing The Secondary

For all of the secondary’s highlights over the first two games that led to four interceptions already in 2023, along with Alex Johnson being named the Thorpe National Defensive Back of the Week, this group has been feast or famine.

In the opener against Coastal Carolina, wide receiver Sam PincKney went off for 9 receptions, 139 yards, and one touchdown. Furthermore, last week, Mekhi Shaw caught an impressive 21-yard back shoulder score, while San Diego State also dropped two more touchdowns.

This boom or bust syndrome is a bit of fool’s gold for this secondary because once the more talented and explosive likes of USC, Utah, Oregon State, and even Washington State come calling, pain could be on the horizon. Look for the Bruins to play more sound, disciplined, situational football in the secondary against the Eagles. Trading interceptions for eliminating big plays by being steady for four quarters while establishing a tighter more defined rotation is what success looks like this week.

Built Ford Tough

We watched J. Michael Sturdivant set the Rose Bowl on fire in week one. That was followed up by watching Josiah Norwood and Logan Loya jolt the offense with adrenaline that would make Tesla and the Energizer Bunny proud. But to win tough road games in Corvallis and Salt Lake City against those nasty, aggressive, and imposing front sevens, you need a big, intermediate target with soft hands.

Kyle Ford is the prototype for such situations and he needs to become the unquestioned second favorite receiving weapon for Moore if this Bruins team is to reach its potential in 2023. He currently is sitting on four receptions for 60 yards, ironically getting back-to-back receptions in the second quarter of each game. This is the game to get Ford into a consistent rhythm going into Utah week. Look for him to get 6-8 targets so he’s peaking just in time for the beginning of conference season.

Imposing Will

Given the question marks surrounding the offensive line going into the season, this unit led by Spencer Holstege and Duke Clemens has been a pleasant surprise. After all, Moore leads all freshman quarterbacks nationally in just about every category while there’s a spirited battle at running between Carson Steele and TJ Harden, both of whom have been equally productive, yet with their own uniqueness.

However, upon closer inspection, the offense has yet to score a rushing touchdown in the second half of either game this season. And of the two total second-half touchdowns, one was the big play 62-yard strike to Sturdivant, and the other came after Darius Muasau’s end zone interception seemed to break the Aztecs’ will and that hangover transferred to its defensive unit on the subsequent possession. This offensive line has yet to impose its physicality and salt a big lead away definitively. Look for them to place an emphasis on closing the right way.

The “Others”

Shaquille O’Neal, famously on TNT, loves to refer to key role players as “the others.” Given how much praise several position groups have gotten, there are five players who have lost themselves a bit in their respective rotations. For instance, given the wide receiver productivity, both Kam Brown and Titus Mokiao-Atimalala have yet to find a niche and establish a presence.

Furthermore, Keegan Jones, who was last year’s second-leading running back, was switched to the slot in the spring and has only had one touch on the season. Sprinkle that in with JonJon Vaughans, a bonafide defensive stalwart showcasing distinguished versatility in 2022, struggling to find a role at linebacker with Muasau and now Oluwafemi Oladejo successfully anchoring that unit.

Finally, Jadyn Marshall was thought to be the next game-breaking Kazmeir Allen, has now transitioned to the secondary for the remainder of the season.

Which of these players make an impact on Saturday will be very telling in how the Bruin rotation will look at key positions for the meat of the 2023 season.

Get your popcorn ready Bruin fans.