Five things to watch: UCLA at Houston

September, 2, 2011
9/02/11
9:10
AM PT
1. THE QUARTERBACK SITUATION


Kevin Prince will start, but coach Rick Neuheisel has promised Richard Brehaut will get in the game. He didn't say when or for how long either would play or if they would rotate or any other details of the dual-quarterback plan, so it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

If Prince is on fire in the first half, but the game is still close, does he pull Prince anyway? Will Prince play more conservatively in fear of making a mistake that will put him on the bench? Will Brehaut go in there and try to do do much in an attempt to show he's the man for the starting job?

Dual quarterback systems rarely work out over the long haul of a season, but it's certainly not unprecedented for a team to win a game using two quarterbacks. Still, this is an interesting decision for Neuheisel in an opener that will set the tone for a season in which his job is on the line.

2. THE OFFENSE

Last season, UCLA's offense was pitiful for the first two weeks of the season and while the running game showed some life, the passing game never got much better.

This year, there have been wholesale changes on the offensive coaching staff in the hopes of producing a more dynamic and not-so one-dimensional offense after the Bruins finished 32nd in the nation in rushing, but 116th in passing last year.

UCLA's first series last year was a harbinger of things to come as Morrell Presley dropped passes on the first two plays and then Prince missed Taylor Embree for a quick three-and-out. The Bruins will need to get off on the right foot in this game in order to gain confidence in the new schemes.

Johnathan Franklin, 1,127-yard rusher last season, is UCLA's best weapon and the Bruins certainly won't be shy about handing him the ball because they need to control the clock in this game, but they will need other elements to prevent Houston from keying on stopping him. Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Mike Johnson have promised to add such elements.

3. THE KICKING GAME

Mr. automatic Kai Forbath is no longer with the Bruins, leaving the field goal kicking duties to redshirt freshman Kip Smith. Forbath shares the school record of 85 field goals and had an .842 field goal percentage--second in school history.

Smith learned from Forbath all last season and appeared ready to carry on the tradition of top-flight kickers at UCLA, but began to falter in the spring and lost his confidence during training camp. He's improved, but has still been inconsistent and you have to wonder if Neuheisel will have the trust to send him in there on a fourth and short to try a 45-yard field goal.

With Forbath it would have been a no-brainer. But what if it's Smith first attempt? You'd rather have him build confidence by trying a couple of 25-or 30-yarders first, wouldn't you? And how will Smith and Neuheisel handle things if Smith misses an early attempt?

Oh, and an added special teams bonus to watch will be Jared Koster on the kickoff team. He's shouldering quite a load after getting knocked out for the season on the opening kickoff against Houston last year.

4. THE DEFENSIVE SECONDARY

Houston is going to try to pass the ball. The Cougars' spread offense, led by veteran quarterback Case Keenum, is pass happy. Keenum tore his ACL against UCLA and was lost for the season, but when he was in there the year before, Houston passed 747 times and rushed 403--65% passing plays.

Last year, with Keenum out, they were more balanced at 54% passing, but Keenum isn't tracking in on NCAA records for passing yards and touchdowns because he hands the ball to running backs and that means a test for UCLA's secondary. Last year, they held their own even before Keenum's injury as Keenum completed 10 of 18 passes for only 83 yards with two interceptions before leaving with four minutes left in the first half.

UCLA's defensive front will try to help by getting pressure on Keenum, but cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price need to be ready to run with backups Brandon Sermons and Andrew Abbott prepared to get a few more reps than they normally would. Safeties Tony Dye, Dalton Hilliard, Dietrich Riely, Alex Mascarenas, Tevin McDonald and Stan McKay will all get action in an effort to stay fresh and the Bruins will play a lot of nickel with Abbott, Mascarenas and McDonald on the field quite a bit at that spot.

James Cleveland, the receiver who torched UCLA for 144 yards receiving last season, graduated, but Houston's best athletes are still the receivers with Partick Edwards and Tyron Carrier presenting the biggest challenges because they have been favorite targets for Keenum in the past. If the secondary allows them too much daylight, it could be a long game for the Bruins.

5. THE COACHES

Neuheisel brought five new coaches into the mix this season, including Johnson, the offensive coordinator, and Joe Tresey, the defensive coordinator. Also new are running game coordinator Jim Mastro, defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield and special teams coach Angus McClure.

That's a lot of new cooks in the kitchen, especially considering Johnson, Mastro and Neuheisel will all have a hand in play calling duties. There seems to have been a good rapport brewing throughout camp, but this group has never before coached together in a game situation and personalities can certainly change in battle, so this will be the first true test of the chemistry of this staff.

If you see Neuheisel red faced and screaming into his headset, you can be sure something has gone awry. If he's smiling and laughing and looking confident, then things are going just fine.

Another thing to keep an eye on here is the hot seat temperature. It's certainly going to go up if UCLA gets off to a poor start and you have to wonder if Neuheisel will change the way he coaches, calling plays more aggressively and taking more chances, because his job status is so perilous.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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