Things didn't quite work out for Mel Tucker and Colorado last week against USC, but the Buffaloes are hoping for better luck against Los Angeles' other Pac-12 school, UCLA, on Saturday night. While the Buffs (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) had the Trojans right where they wanted them — at one point they led 31-21 heading into the fourth quarter — USC was able to mount a successful comeback and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat last Friday night in Boulder. While the loss was definitely a tough pill to swallow for Colorado, there were some positives to take away.
Even though Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis put up more than 400 passing yards, he also was harassed (four hurries) and hit (two sacks) throughout the game by a motivated Buffaloes defense. Colorado also limited USC to 4.3 yards per carry and a single rushing touchdown. But the Buffs gave up too many big pass plays as Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns combined for 15 catches, 260 yards, and three touchdowns.
The Bruins are looking to bounce back from a rough start to the season and have won their last two games, beating Stanford and Arizona State by a total of 28 points. UCLA (3-5, 3-2) has just three victories on the season but because those three have come in conference play, Chip Kelly's team is still very much alive in the Pac-12 South race. With games against Utah, USC, and Cal remaining, the Bruins have the opportunity to put together a very strong finish, which would be a welcome sight in Chip Kelly's second season.
This contest is critical for both teams with each needing three more wins to get to a bowl game. Both still have tough tests remaining (Colorado has Stanford, Washington, and Utah), so this can be considered a must-win as it relates to any postseason aspirations, not to mention how the Pac-12 South ends up shaking out.
Colorado at UCLA
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 2 at 9 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: UCLA -6.5
When Colorado Has the Ball
The Buffaloes need to find a way to get the ball into the hands of their best playmaker, wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. The do-everything dynamo absolutely ripped the USC defense to shreds last week, catching nine balls for a staggering 172 yards and a touchdown. If Shenault has another day like that against UCLA, Colorado should have a good chance of picking up the road win. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Bruins are ranked 127th in the nation against the pass (306.8 ypg), meaning just three other teams give up more yards through the air.
But Shenault can't do it alone, so the Buffs need to get their run game going as well. Alex Fontenot has been a solid No. 1 option for this offense, as his 625 rushing yards rank eighth in the Pac-12, with Jaren Mangham (319 yards) also chipping in. Quarterback Steven Montez can make things happen with his legs when called upon too. Colorado averaged a healthy 5.8 yards per carry last week against USC and will need more of the same against a UCLA rush defense that ranks fourth in the conference (143.4 ypg).
The Bruins have won two in a row but they also have given up an average of 450 yards and 34 points per game. This means there will be opportunities for the Buffaloes to put some points on the board. It's just a matter of taking advantage of those.
When UCLA Has the Ball
For the Bruins, it seems pretty straightforward — this game could come down to how well quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson plays. In UCLA's three wins he has posted a 9:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In the other games, it's 6:5, although he didn't play in the Oct. 5 loss to Oregon State. He's coming off of a solid game (16-for-23, 176 yards, 2 TDs) against Arizona State and needs to take advantage of Colorado's generous pass defense. The Buffaloes are second to last in the nation against the pass, giving up 327.3 yards per game.
Chip Kelly also has the Pac-12's leading rusher to turn to in Joshua Kelley. He and Utah's Zack Moss are the only two in the conference averaging more than 100 yards per game on the ground and Kelley has put up 340 in the last two games alone. The combination of DTR and Kelley will be a handful for Colorado's defense to try and contain.
To add to the degree of difficulty for the Buffs is that the Bruins spread it around in their passing game as five different players have 13 or more catches this season. So while Colorado has a dominant target like Shenault that defenses can focus on, that's not the case for UCLA as the three leading receivers are a running back (Demetric Felton), wide receiver (Kyle Philips), and a tight end (Devin Asiasi). None of these three have put up huge numbers individually, but collectively they are responsible for 65 percent of the Bruins' receptions (104 of 158), 58 percent of the yards (1,104 of 1,895), and 63 percent of the touchdown catches (10 of 16).
This game is tricky to predict. I went back and forth several times and think rationally that Colorado should win. That's what the head says. The heart says that Chip Kelly is finally getting through to his team and is looking to put together a strong finish to possibly get into a bowl game, but also build off of heading into the offseason and for recruiting. The Bruins did just beat an Arizona State team that was 5-1 and ranked 17th in the polls before suffering back-to-back losses (other coming against Utah). UCLA appears to have all of the momentum entering this game with the Buffaloes in the midst of a four-game losing skid.
This should be a back-and-forth affair with plenty of scoring considering both defenses are ranked at the bottom in the FBS when it comes to stopping the pass. Laviska Shenault Jr. should have a big game for Colorado, likewise Joshua Kelley for UCLA. But the key is going to be quarterback play and I give Dorian Thompson-Robinson the edge here over Steven Montez. The Bruins' talent advantage on offense will allow them the opportunity to use the run to set up the fun, and win this game.
Prediction: UCLA 34, Colorado 28
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.