Five Key Players For UCLA Bruins In Pac 12 Championship
Five Key Players For UCLA Bruins In The Pac 12 Championship
The UCLA Bruins had a mission in Jim Mora’s first year as head coach: Get tough.
For years, the UCLA football team had been seen as “soft” and unable to come through the difficult moments that define great teams. They were defined by their fading in the spotlight, but Mora was here to change all that.
In year one, you can officially say he succeeded. UCLA defied expectations this season and ran out to a fast start this season. They met adversity with poise and resolve and overcame some difficult challenges to play to their full potential week in and week out.
They responded to their first loss by going on the road and taking care of business the next week. They bounced back from getting trounced one week by returning home and winning tough the next. They win close, they won big, but most importantly they kept finding ways to win. They didn’t fold down the stretch like they’ve been known to do, and the dividends have been immediate.
They are the kings of Los Angeles for this season after beating the cross-town “big brother” USC Trojans and champions of the Pac 12 South division. Now they go on to face the Stanford Cardinal in the Pac 12 Championship game with a chance to go to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
But they will have to overcome yet another challenge to get there. They’ll go toe-to-toe with Stanford for the Pac 12 title just six days after getting blown out by this very Cardinal team in their home stadium to close out the regular season 35-17. Mora will have to rally his team on a short week and find a way to get the better of a team that manhandled them the last time they were on a football field.
If the Bruins hope to achieve a different outcome this time against the Cardinal, here are five players who will need to step up in a big way on Friday.
Datone Jones is a talented player along the defensive line for UCLA who has the ability to be a major disruption in opposing backfields. He’s a dynamic playmaker who can play at both end and tackle. He set career marks this season in tackles (50), sacks (5) and tackles for loss (15.5) while also forcing two fumbles while being named second-team All-Pac 12.
In the first game against Stanford, Jones was his typical self, making five tackles with a sack. However, Jones did not do enough to contain the Stanford offense, which exploded after the first quarter. Stepfan Taylor ran wild on the Bruins defense and the Cardinal pulled away as Jones and the defense looked helpless to stop it.
In the rematch, Jones will have to become an even bigger disruption in the Stanford backfield. He will have his work cut out for him as the Stanford offensive line is one of the most physical groups in the country, but without Jones disrupting the offense of Stanford, Jim Mora and the Bruins will be in for another long day.
One of the underrated stars of the Pac 12 this season was Bruins tight end Joseph Fauria. The senior was one of the most consistent weapons all season long for UCLA and would have garnered a lot more attention if two of the premier tight ends in the country (Austin Seferian-Jenkins of the Washington Huskies and Zach Ertz of Stanford) weren’t in the same conference.
On the season, Fauria has caught 39 passes for 544 yards with 11 touchdowns. He’s had multiple receptions in every game this season and caught a touchdown in nine of 12 games. He’s averaged 10 yards a catch or better in all but one game this season.
In last Saturday’s game against Stanford, Fauria was one of the few offensive weapons to strike, catching four passes for 66 yards with a touchdown. It was the only receiving touchdown of the day for UCLA and was tied for the lead in receptions while being second in yards.
On Friday, UCLA will need even more from Fauria. He showed himself to be one of the few offensive players who could do damage against the Stanford defense, and the Bruins need him to break out if they hope to win. By being a presence in the passing game in the middle of the field, Fauria can draw up coverage from the safeties which could then open up the big pass play over the top, which is something that was missing for most of the game last week.
Anthony Barr has been sensational for the Bruins this season, making the transition from fullback last year look seamless. He went from not having taken a defensive snap in his career in August to first-team All-Pac 12 and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in November.
The junior has taken control of the linebacker position this season making 66 tackles with 11 sacks and five passes defended. He recorded at least one sack in his first six games this season and in nine of 12 games total. Jim Mora calls Barr one of the premier defensive players in the conference who could become one of the premier defensive players in the country with another season to learn how to play defense.
In the first matchup with Stanford, Barr played well, recording nine tackles, a season-high, with a pass defended. But he failed to record a sack in the game and struggled in coverage against Stanford’s excellent tight end Zach Ertz. The big tight end finished the game leading the Cardinal in receptions and yards with five catches for 71 yards.
In the rematch, Barr will have to get back to what he does best, which is disrupting opposing offenses in their backfield. The Bruins need to set him loose with blitzes to try and throw off Stanford’s offensive rhythm. When he drops into coverage, he has to do a better job of denying the pass and disrupting routes, especially when he’s responsible for Ertz. Barr has been surprisingly good all season long, but he must overcome his inexperience and be great to propel UCLA to a win.
The freshman arm of Brett Hundley has been sensational all season long and is one of the reasons why UCLA has the opportunity to play for the Pac 12 Championship in the first place. He was an exceptional gift left over for Mora from the Rick Neuheisel era in Westwood that has made the first year coach’s transition so smooth.
On the year, Hundley has thrown for 3,234 yards while completing 68-percent of his passes. He’s thrown for 26 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions. He’s thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game this season and has added eight rushing scores to boot. His dual-threat abilities have been dangerous for opposing defenses unable to stop his arm or his legs.
The Cardinal, however, did a pretty good job bottling him up in their first meeting last week. Hundley had his lowest completion percentage of the season, completing just 20-of-38 passes for 261 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Those numbers don’t seem so low, except that UCLA was playing catch-up all day trying to throw their way to a rally.
In the rematch, Hundley will have to be more efficient with the football and break off a few more big plays over the top of the Cardinal defense. He did have a 71-yard completion and a 38-yard run last Saturday, but he failed to go over 300 yards passing and finished the game with zero net rushing yards. Stanford caged Hundley in the first go-around, but the young signal caller cannot be penned in on Friday if UCLA is to have any shot.
The engine that has made the UCLA Bruins run all season long has been running back Jonathan Franklin. The senior runner has enjoyed a career year with the regime change in Westwood and has used it to turn in a spectacular senior campaign, making it as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and being named second-team All-Pac 12.
On the year, Franklin rushed for 1,506 yards, averaging 125.5 yards per game which was good for ninth best in the country. He scored 11 touchdowns on the ground and added 29 receptions for 297 yards with a pair of touchdowns in the receiving game as well.
Against Stanford last week, though, Franklin was grounded and looked downright ordinary. The Cardinal limited Franklin to just 65 yards on 21 carries. His 3.1 yards per attempt was the lowest of the season for Franklin, and he failed to break off a run longer than 11 yards. He did still find the end zone once, though, accounting for half of UCLA’s touchdowns.
The second time around, Franklin will have to find a way to bust out some tough yards. Stanford’s front seven is one of the best in the conference and they are coached to be physical at the point of attack and punish opposing ball-carriers. Franklin has to find another gear and rise above that though to allow the UCLA offense to get something done. Without production from Franklin and the running game, the Bruins offense gets stuck in neutral and their Pac 12 title hopes go up in smoke.