Thursday, September 6, 2012
Nebraska to provide litmus test for UCLA
By Peter Yoon
LOS ANGELES -- In the eyes of the UCLA players and coaches, Saturday's game against Nebraska is just another game.
In the eyes of many others following the plight of Bruins football, facing the Cornhuskers at 4:50 p.m. at the Rose Bowl is quite a bit more than just another game.
A strong outing against Nebraska can put to rest the talk that the Bruins' opening-week victory over Rice was merely a product of playing a weak opponent. A good showing against a traditional power would answer a lot of questions about the direction of the program under first-year coach Jim Mora. A solid game against the No. 16 team could help inch the Bruins closer to the national relevance they so desperately seek.
"It’s a great opportunity," offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo said. "I think every college football player looks forward to big games with big teams, but we just have to focus on Nebraska like they are another team and don’t get all worked up. We have to prepare for them the same way we’re been preparing."
A victory over the Cornhuskers, of course, would be the ultimate answer, but it won't necessarily take a win to show that the team is on the right track. A UCLA team that stands toe-to-toe with one of the traditionally toughest teams in America would be a good start.
Last year, the Bruins faltered in just about every game during which they had a chance to make a statement; they were blown out by 25 points or more in just about all of them. Mora came in and brought a new attitude that produced a shiny result last week, but an outcome that still might not have been enough to convince skeptics UCLA is turning a corner. A blowout loss against Nebraska would be a major setback to program hoping for a new direction.
Right now the jury is still out. UCLA's 49-24 victory over Rice last week looked impressive and the numbers don't lie: UCLA put up 646 yards in offense, including 343 rushing, and had all kinds of other gaudy stats. But doubt still lingers over the quality of the opponent. That won't be an issue this week.
"Going against great competition like Nebraska, you are certainly going to learn a little bit more about yourself," Mora said.
The trick is to not make it too big of a deal. Mora said he will again emphasize to his players to stay in their routine on game day. Despite the opponent or that it's UCLA's home opener, he believes treating it like any other game offers the best chance of success.
"You create a routine that carries you through road games, home games, big games, trap games, every kind of game," Mora said. "I think it’s more about your preparation and mind-set than it is the opponent or the elements or the environment."
In Nebraska, the Bruins will face an offense that was equally as impressive as they were last week. The Corhuskers rolled up 632 yards in a 49-20 victory over Southern Miss Golden Eagles and quarterback Taylor Martinez passed for 354 yards and five touchdowns.
That puts big pressure on the UCLA defense, which had some issues against a much weaker Rice offense last week. The Owls gained nearly 300 yards and scored 24 points in the first half before UCLA adjusted for a second-half shutout during which Rice gained only 77 yards.
"Every week is an opportunity to see where you stand," defensive coordinator Lou Spanos said. "We’re looking forward to facing this Nebraska team. They are well coached and they have a really good run game and passing game, so it will tell us a lot."
Getting this kind of a litmus test in Week 2 has its advantages and its disadvantages: The Bruins certainly would like another week or two to mature and get their bearings in their new offensive and defensive schemes before going seeing how they stack up against a nationally ranked team, but they also are eager to find out exactly where they stand as the all-important conference games draw near.
"I think this game comes at a great time us," Su'a-Filo said. "Week 1 was good to see what we have, what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are. So it’s a good time to see if we can still be good at what we did well and if we’ve gotten better in the areas we need to improve."
Inside the locker room, this game is merely a barometer. It's going to show the Bruins what they do well and what they need to improve just like every other game, no matter who the opponent.
"This is not a statement game for us," defensive lineman Datone Jones said. "We're not looking for any statements. All we’re looking to do is to get better. This is a big game and Nebraska is a tough challenge. That's good.
“We look forward to that because it will show us some things, but we have to look at it just like any other game."
Even if those watching are looking at it as more than that.