Bruins look to bounce back at home against Aztecs
Saturday's contest between the San Diego State Aztecs and UCLA Bruins is the football equivalent of a hangover. While experiencing different outcomes last week — Aztecs a sloppy win, Bruins a sloppy loss — both teams accomplished about the same on offense. SDSU managed to beat FCS opponent Weber State but could only muster two field goals, while the Bruins gave up more passing yards (242) to the Bearcats then they generated in total (218). With last week in the rearview mirror, both teams are itching to prove that they are capable of more.
In many ways, UCLA is suffering from the same issues the team went through last season. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson looks completely lost, almost like he may not quite be a fit for what head coach Chip Kelly wants to do on offense. Running back Joshua Kelley's knee injury certainly didn't help matters, as he was greatly missed against Cincinnati. Thompson-Robinson tried to pick up some of the slack, but he was ineffective (finished with -20 rushing yards) and also had two costly fumbles in the 24-14 loss to the Bearcats. When Kelly-coached teams don't run the ball well, they usually do not win.
While the Kelly-UCLA marriage continues to experience its share of growing pains, everyone knows that winning cures many ills and a victory at home on Saturday would be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, San Diego State figures to provide the Bruins with a solid defensive test.
The Aztecs are coming off of a 7-6 campaign that snapped a three-year run of 10-win seasons. Rocky Long's team has never shied away from taking on the big boys, as SDSU has gone 4-5 vs. Power 5 teams since 2014. All of those victories have come against Pac-12 foes — Arizona State (twice), Cal, and Stanford.
San Diego State at UCLA
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 4:15 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: UCLA -7.5
When San Diego State Has the Ball
Last week's offensive showing against FCS opponent Weber State was nothing to write home about for the Aztecs. Quarterback Ryan Agnew completed 16 passes for 108 yards. That's it. That's his entire line from last week. He will have to do better than that if SDSU wants to knock off the Bruins. The Aztecs also will need much more from a usually-productive running game that generated 130 yards on 43 carries (3.0 ypc) in the opener.
San Diego State routinely churns out high-level running backs built for contact and pro-style offenses. Juwan Washington and Jordan Byrd are no exceptions to this trend. Washington came just shy of 1,000 yards last season and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry in his career. Byrd, a sophomore, hasn't gotten as many opportunities but that could change on Saturday. Washington has been dealing with a lingering ankle injury that has prevented him from practicing this week. Head coach Rocky Long said on Wednesday that Washington is questionable heading into this game. Whether it's Washington or Byrd (who picked up 50 yards on just five carries last week), the Aztecs would like to establish the run early against a UCLA defense that gave up 175 rushing yards to Cincinnati. That should make things easier for Agnew to find some open receivers.
Finally, San Diego State is trying to beat one other thing when it comes to facing UCLA — history. The Aztecs have literally never beaten the Bruins. They are 0-21-1 against them in a series that goes back to 1922. SDSU has been outscored 695-241 in these games. But considering the most recent meeting took place in 2009, it's safe to say that the past has no bearing on the present. If there was ever a time for the Aztecs to break through against the Bruins, it would be now.
When UCLA Has the Ball
The Bruins need to find success running the ball or the Aztecs are going to bring pressure all day and force Dorian Thompson-Robinson to beat them, something he hasn't shown he can do against teams with great consistency yet. Joshua Kelley missed last week's opener because of a knee injury and his status for Saturday is very much up in the air. Even if he does play, chances are he won't be healthy enough for a full workload, meaning Demetric Felton (team-high 71 rushing yards vs. Cincinnati), Thompson-Robinson and perhaps someone else will get carries.
UCLA's offensive line will definitely have to come ready to play. San Diego State shut out Weber State last week, holding the Wildcats to 154 total yards. The Aztecs recorded a pair of sacks, six tackles for a loss, and seven hurries in the 6-0 victory.
Thompson-Robinson also must do his part against SDSU's pressure, as ball security was an issue last week. Not only did the sophomore struggle with his accuracy (going just 8-for-26 passing), he threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball away twice. Both fumbles came in the red zone.
The Aztecs defense under head coach Rocky Long is known for being physical, maintaining gap integrity, and being tough to run the ball against. The Bruins will need to stay committed to the run while Thompson-Robinson has to be patient and take what the defense gives him, rather than force the issue as he did on several occasions last week.
This is a heck of a matchup for Week 2 and has a worthy subplot. UCLA fans and supporters are still hoping Chip Kelly can prove he's the right man for the job even if it will take a little more time for him to install his offense and put his stamp on the program. San Diego State is a defensive-oriented team that is more than capable of adding to the Bruins' growing pains on offense, especially if running back Joshua Kelley is unable to play.
The winner of this game is going to be the team that has the most success in the trenches. If UCLA can open up running lanes against the Aztecs, then it will put them in a tough spot as SDSU really doesn't have the offensive firepower to come from behind and compete in a shootout. The Aztecs are a team built to play close, defensive struggles and control the clock by running the football.
UCLA has the talent advantage, at least on paper, but given the Bruins' struggles and San Diego State's success against Pac-12 teams how this one plays out is basically a coin flip.
Prediction: San Diego State 27, UCLA 23
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.