Thursday, December 1, 2011
What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 14
By Ted Miller
Issues to consider heading into the Pac-12 title game:
The first quarter: Does UCLA show up hungry and inspired? One plausible scenario is a flat UCLA team, demoralized by a 50-0 loss to USC and the firing of its head coach, Rick Neuheisel, doesn't show up focused and motivated. Mails it in, so to speak. And a flat effort would get the Bruins squashed by the high-powered Ducks, who are smelling roses in front of their home crowd. This one could get ugly quickly and get progressively worse. Or is the reverse true: Do the Bruins come out fiery and inspired and get to halftime with things tight? The first question to ask is how do the Bruins come out of the gate.
Bruins' running game vs. Oregon run defense: UCLA is 11th in the Pac-12 in passing offense. Quarterback Kevin Prince has passed for over 200 yards just three times this year, and just once in a win. The Bruins aren't going to win in Autzen Stadium throwing the ball for 300 yards. They must run well against an Oregon defense that is strong against the run (135.6 yards per game). Expect the Ducks to gang up on the run -- even normally, coordinator Nick Aliotti is obsessed with stopping the run first -- and dare Prince to throw. The Bruins will need to throw to keep the Ducks honest, but they are going to need to somehow win at the point of attack and establish consistency running right at Oregon. The key is early-down production, so Prince doesn't constantly face third and long, which would force him to throw against a strong Ducks pass rush.
A weak UCLA run defense could help LaMichael James make a last, definitive statement to Heisman voters.
Turnovers? Big upsets happen when the favorite decisively loses the turnover battle. But Oregon doesn't turn the ball over much. The Ducks are third in the Pac-12 in turnover margin -- plus-7 -- in large part because of just 16 giveaways, which is second fewest to Stanford's 15. UCLA is minus-2 in turnovers, and has forced just 18 this year, eighth most in the conference. It seems inconceivable that the Bruins can pull the upset -- heck, stay close -- if they don't win the turnover battle. And they likely need to be plus-2 or -3.
LaMike's last dance? Oregon running back LaMichael James has fallen off the Heisman Trophy radar, despite leading the nation in rushing and averaging a yard and a quarter more per carry than Alabama running back Trent Richardson. Go figure. While James is a junior, this is likely his last game in Autzen Stadium before he's off to the NFL. He's been dinged up, having hurt the elbows of both arms. But he's a tough guy who surely wants to go out with a bang. The Ducks' forte is running the ball and no back has done it better for Oregon than James. Is he headed for a big evening against a weak Bruins run defense?
Special teams rule: Oregon is also good on special teams, though a missed field goal cost them at the end against USC. But UCLA will need to be better on special teams to pull the upset, too. That means no missed field goals and no long kickoff or punt returns. That means punter Jeff Locke pinning the Ducks far away from the Bruins' goal line. That means a big return -- or two -- for the Bruins, giving them points or a short field. Maybe a blocked kick or punt? UCLA needs to win field position and needs to find creative ways to get -- and prevent -- points. Special teams help with all of that.