The UCLA Bruins meet the Baylor Bears in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl tonight in San Diego. It promises to be a matchup of explosive offenses featuring big-armed quarterbacks and exciting running backs. While the offensive stars are easy to spot in this game, it will be the defensive side of the ball which decides this game. One key stop or momentum swinging turnover could be the difference. For UCLA, that difference will come from linebacker Anthony Barr.
Barr is playing his first season ever on the defensive side of the ball. For the first two years at UCLA, the junior was a fullback. Last spring, however, head coach Jim Mora made the decision to move him to the defensive side of the ball, and it has made all the difference in the Bruins’ 2012 season.
The fullback-turned-linebacker quickly became one of the premier pass rushers in the country, leading the nation with 13.5 sacks on the year. He led the Bruin defense in rushing the passer as the team averaged 3.31 sacks per game, good for seventh best in the country. Barr’s game only got better as he continued to grow and learn how to effectively use his athleticism on defense.
That pressure will be key in slowing down the seemingly unstoppable Baylor offense. Nick Florence leads the nation in all-purpose yards this season and has been nearly as effective as Robert Griffin III was in 2011 when he won the Heisman Trophy. He’s led the Bears to the No. 3 rated passing attack and No. 5 scoring offense in college football.
And he’s only gotten better as the season has gone on. Through the first seven games of the season, in which Baylor went 3-4 ,Florence was scoring plenty of touchdowns (26 total), but he was also turning the ball over frequently as he threw 11 interceptions. In Baylor’s final five games, Florence cut down on the turnovers, throwing just two interceptions while scoring 13 total touchdowns. The Bears won four of their last five to finish 7-5.
The key for UCLA will be to force Florence to make some of those mistakes he was prone to early in the season. The best way to do that is to apply pressure, and that’s where Anthony Barr comes in. The linebacker will need to be a constant force in Baylor’s backfield to disrupt the well-oiled machine that has become the Bears’ offense.
If Barr can apply pressure and force a couple turnovers, the Bruins’ offense can press the advantage and distance themselves from Baylor. If he can’t, expect a shootout that will stress the Qualcomm Stadium scoreboard’s ability to keep up without blowing a bulb.