Injuries and other issues plagued UCLA en route to a 4-8 finish in 2016. With quarterback Josh Rosen back in the fold, however, 2017 opened with a lot of promise — promise the Bruins can still reach in the second half of their schedule.
UCLA sits at 3-3, 1-2 in Pac-12 play, following a roller-coaster few years. The Bruins' season-opening win over Texas A&M served as a fitting metaphor for the entire first portion of the season, with UCLA playing poorly enough to fall behind by 34 points; and well enough for roll off 35 straight and rally.
Rosen led the FBS in passing yards and touchdowns for much of the first half of the season, and UCLA's rushing offense came along down the stretch. If both can sync up, and the defense tighten up, the Bruins are dangerous in the latter portion of 2017.
Offensive MVP: QB Josh Rosen
Rosen's highly anticipated return from a shoulder injury that sidelined him much of 2016 lived up to expectations. Before a middling showing Oct. 14 at Arizona, Rosen (above, right) led the nation in passing yards. He's excelled at distributing the ball among a wide variety of receivers, which has in turn elevated a rushing offense that just a season ago ranked worst among Power 5 conference programs.
Defensive MVP: S Jaleel Wadood
UCLA's defense features a mix of established veterans like Wadood, Kenny Young and Adarius Pickett with newcomers like Darnay Holmes. The Bruins have faced their share of growing pains, but Wadood's done his part to help. He's the Bruins' leading tackler on the season, and he has three pass breakups.
Best Moment of the First Half: Comeback vs. Texas A&M
The tone for an unpredictable 2017 season was set Sept. 3 in the Rose Bowl, as Texas A&M stormed to a 38-10 halftime lead over UCLA. That gap swelled to 41-10, before Rosen and the UCLA offense capitalized on opportunities set up by a suddenly inspired Bruins defense.
UCLA stormed back with 35 unanswered points, the 34-point rally coming just one shy of tying the all-time FBS record. The Bruins set a new program record with the comeback, easily surpassing the previous record of 22 points.
Best Newcomer: DB Darnay Holmes
UCLA has had a recent string of standout defensive backs, and Holmes looks ready to carry on the legacy. Holmes has 17 tackles, a couple of pass breakups, and an interception returned for a touchdown. He's also shown potential on special teams as a returner.
Biggest Surprise: The pass catchers
One of the big question marks facing UCLA ahead of the season was how receiving opportunities might be divvied up. That was answered quickly and resoundingly, as one of the most diverse combinations of pass catchers in college football stepped up to power one of the nation's most prolific passing offenses.
From touchdown-scoring machine Darren Andrews, to the dependable Jordan Lasley, and Theo Howard's periodic standout performances, the UCLA corps of pass catchers runs the full gamut. Tight end Caleb Wilson figured prominently in the mix before a season-ending injury. In his stead, Austin Roberts stepped up nicely with a 28-yard reception at Arizona.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Play away from home
UCLA's .500 first-half record achieved perfect symmetry. The Bruins are perfect at home at 3-0, and winless away from the Rose Bowl at 0-3. Following that trend would not keep UCLA out of the postseason, as it's a perfectly even split of home and road games to close out the season. What's more, the three home games look to be the most winnable of UCLA's remaining slate.
Still, if the Bruins want to accomplish more than simply making a bowl at the bare minimum of 6-6, they'll need to rise up on the road — and do so against quality opponents.
2. Solving the run defense
Only one team in the FBS has been worse against the run through the 2017 season's first half than UCLA: That's Tulsa, but the margin is narrow. After Arizona rolled up 457 rushing yards on the Bruins Oct. 14, the run-stopping woes facing UCLA since the season-opening win over Texas A&M reached a boiling point.
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley must find an answer to slow opponents in the second half of the season, or UCLA could be faced with another sub-.500 finish.
3. What's next for Josh Rosen?
For much of the first half of 2017, Rosen looked the part of early first-round NFL draft pick. He saw the field like few quarterbacks can, delivered passes precisely regardless where on the field his target was located, and an improved scrambling ability demonstrated all the tools for which he was praised coming into college.
Rosen's also struggled somewhat with ball control. He's thrown eight interceptions, most of them coming in the latter portion of the season's first half. Rosen is writing his UCLA legacy with each week, so his performance in the next six weeks will go a long way in determining his place in Bruins history — assuming he's done after this season. That's no guarantee.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 28 at Washington
UCLA is the first opponent to see Washington after its confounding loss at Arizona State, as the Huskies have a bye week Oct. 21. That could be good; UCLA will have time to study what the Sun Devils did to hold the defending Pac-12 champion to just seven points. Conversely, the Huskies will be stewing for an additional week and return ready to tee off on the next team they see.
2. Nov. 18 at USC
Mora's teams owned the crosstown rivalry until recently, winning the 2012-14 installments, all by double digits. USC returned the favor in 2015 and '16, punching its ticket to the Pac-12 Championship Game in '15 and taking one step closer to the Rose Bowl Game a season ago. As with any rivalry, UCLA's with USC is about pride, but also important for planting a flag in the talent-rich, local recruiting pool.
3. Nov. 3 (Friday) at Utah
The visiting team has won each matchup in this series dating back to 2013. UCLA's win at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2015 denied the Utes a shot at the Pac-12 South division title. In contrast, Utah's win at the Rose Bowl in last season's shootout exposed the run defense issues still plaguing the Bruins, as running back Joe Williams went for almost 300 yards. This one comes on just six days rest for UCLA, after an assuredly physical matchup with Washington.
4. Nov. 11 Arizona State
Arizona State has won three of the last four in the series, including the past two. Last season's matchup in Tempe marked the point in which UCLA's season went off the rails. Josh Rosen injured his shoulder that night, and the Sun Devils took advantage. Hosting Arizona State in the middle of a brutal stretch, with three road games against teams picked to finish at or near the top of the Pac-12's two divisions, this one is close to must-win for UCLA's postseason forecast.
5. Nov. 24 (Friday) Cal
Cal's resurgence under first-year head coach Justin Wilcox has been remarkable, though the Golden Bears are anything but a finished project. In the three weeks before upsetting a top 10-ranked and previously undefeated Washington State, Cal lost a trio of games by double digits. Cal is still a young team putting it together week-by-week. UCLA should be able to capitalize in the finale at home and lock up bowl position for December.
6. Oct. 21 Oregon
A Jim Mora-coached UCLA team has never beaten Oregon, though the programs last faced in 2014 — the same season the Ducks played for a national championship. Oregon is rebuilding under first-year head coach Willie Taggart, and the Ducks come to UCLA in a stretch with quarterback Justin Herbert sidelined by a collarbone injury. His absence gives UCLA a prime opportunity to score its first win over Oregon in a decade, and get back to the right side of .500 ahead of the rest of its schedule.