One of college football's most difficult schedules rounds out the non-conference portion Saturday, when UCLA returns to the Rose Bowl for a home tilt against one of the surprise teams of the 2017 season, Fresno State.
After a 1-11 finish in 2016, Fresno State turned to longtime Pac-12 football figure Jeff Tedford, whose coaching tenure includes a turn as offensive coordinator at Oregon, head coach at Cal for more than a decade, and as an assistant to Chris Petersen at Washington.
In one season, Tedford and his staff engineered a remarkable worst-to-first turnaround that culminated in an end-of-regular-season Top 25 ranking and berth in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game. With a bevy of starters returning, MWC media chose Fresno State to repeat as divisional champions.
The forecast for Chip Kelly's first season with the Bruins gets no clearer. Saturday is another tough matchup for this rebuilding program.
Fresno State at UCLA
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Fresno State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Scoring lulls
In each of UCLA's two season-opening losses, the Bruins jumped to early leads of 7-0 last week at Oklahoma, and 10-0 Week 1 vs. Cincinnati. In both contests, UCLA went ice cold after the first quarter and fell behind in short order.
The Cincinnati contest comes with the disclaimer that Wilton Speight's second-quarter injury threw true freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson into the lineup unexpectedly. Thompson-Robinson looked more comfortable in Week 2 against the more talented Oklahoma defense; the mismatch in terms of personnel contributed to UCLA going scoreless for the better part of three quarters more so than the Bruins being out of sync.
Still, Fresno State on paper looks like a better version of the Cincinnati team that shut out UCLA in the Rose Bowl for most of the final three quarters. The Bruins cannot endure another offensively anemic stretch akin to the first two weeks.
2. Line play
There's no way to sugarcoat it: UCLA's offensive line play through two weeks has been bad. The Bruins have allowed 11 sacks, more than all but two other FBS programs — one of which has played one game more than UCLA. Likewise, UCLA's 22 tackles for a loss allowed are more than all but four teams, two of which played on Week 0.
Porous offensive line play has been at the heart of UCLA's woeful rushing outputs in the previous seasons, continuing into the first year of the Chip Kelly era. A salty Fresno State defense offers no relief. The Bulldogs ranked No. 11 in the nation against the run a season ago, and in their first two games of 2018, held opponents Idaho and Minnesota to a combined three yards per carry.
Fresno State's defensive line features playmakers in Jasad Haynes, Kevin Atkins and Mykal Walker, capable of both getting into the backfield and stuffing rushing lanes.
3. One fourth-quarter play
Fresno State's Week 2 loss at Minnesota bares some similarity to UCLA's Week 1 defeat against Cincinnati. Like the Bruins, the Bulldogs played a solid defensive game, particularly in the middle quarters when they held the Golden Gophers scoreless.
But after a fourth-quarter Marcus McMaryion touchdown pass that put Fresno State ahead by a point, Minnesota broke through with a 74-yard scoring drive and two-point conversion. The ensuing interception to close the game denied Fresno State the opportunity for a tying drive.
Similarly, a fumble for safety and a grinding Cincinnati touchdown drive doomed UCLA in Week 1. The Bruins never quite got that one explosive play necessary to reward a strong defensive effort. While a paper-thin rotation due to injury has forced new players to step up for the Bruins, like linebacker Tyree Thompson in place of Josh Woods, UCLA has shown significant strides on that side of the ball.
Saturday's matchup may come down to a single offensive play — on either end. McMaryion's experience juxtaposes interestingly with Thompson-Robinson's athleticism.
Despite the lopsided final score, UCLA showed positive signs at Oklahoma. The run game needs work, without question — and while Soso Jamabo's return to the lineup provides support, the woes on the offensive line limit the Bruins' big-play potential.
Improvements on defense are clear, however. The status of talented defensive lineman Jaelan Phillips is a big question mark, as generating pressure is crucial Saturday. Creating turnover possibilities for a talented secondary is a must if the Bruins pull off what is technically considered an upset.
UCLA's defense has the talent to get just enough stops to avoid an 0-for non-conference start.