In a game that has all the makings of a classic trap, the No. 22 UCLA Bruins will try to avoid a letdown when they face the winless Houston Cougars on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. The game starts at 7:30 p.m. and will be televised by the Pac-12 Network.
The Bruins (2-0) are coming off of an upset victory over Nebraska that put them in the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 2008, when they were ranked No. 23 during a bye week and then dropped out before even playing a game.
They face a pass-happy Houston (0-2) that is hungry after losing its first two in the post-Case Keenum era. Keenum, the NCAA all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, used up his eligibility last season, but not before directing a 38-34 victory over UCLA in the season opener last year.
Coach Kevin Sumlin is also gone, having left for Texas A&M, but Houston is still taking to the skies for most of its offense under new coach Tony Levine. Keenum's replacement, David Piland, passed 44 times in a 30-13 loss to Texas State and passed 77 times last week in a 56-49 loss to Louisiana Tech.
"They are pretty explosive on offense," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "They are a pretty dynamic offense. We’re going to have to do a good job on defense."
Presumably, that will include the first half. UCLA's defense has started slow in each of the last two weeks, allowing 24 points in the first half against both Rice and Nebraska only to adjust and shut out Rice in the second half and limit Nebraska to two field goals in the second half.
"I’d like to see us come out and start a little faster on defense, especially against the quarterback runs than we have in the first two weeks," Mora said.
Piland isn't quite the running threat that Nebraska's Taylor Martinez is having only 15 yards rushing in two games, so the onus of stopping Houston will presumably fall on the pass defense. A team that passes 77 times in one game figures to wear out the UCLA secondary, though Mora said he hoped to be able to limit the Cougars by keeping them off the field.
"The hope going in to any game is that they don’t have 77 plays against us," Mora said. "That we get off the field. They certainly showed last week the ability to stay on the field, but our guys are in good shape and they are well trained."
Plus, Mora said, the defensive backs are not the only players responsible for shutting down the passing attack.
"Good pass defense is a function of all 11, not just the four or five or six defensive backs so we approach it that way," he said.
Running back Charles Sims returns to add balance after earning All-Conference USA honors last year with 821 yards and nine touchdowns rushing. He has 142 yards and two touchdowns through two games. But the Cougars are without three players who hurt UCLA the most last year as Keenum, Tyron Carrier, Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall have all exhausted their eligibility.
Houston and UCLA have split games in each of the last two seasons with each team holding serve on its home field. When Houston visited UCLA in 2010, the Cougars were ranked No. 23 in the nation and UCLA was sputtering after an 0-2 start that included a 35-0 loss to Stanford a week earlier.
Running back Johnathan Franklin sees some similarities this year, with the roles reversed, and said it would be a major mistake to take Houston lightly even though the Cougars are winless.
"They are going to come ready to play," Franklin said. "We have to stay grounded and keep our focus. If we come out in practice and we don’t, then we have to get it, we have to develop it and talk about it. If we want to continue what we’ve been doing, if we want to get better, we have to have that focus."