Oregon has had a “Stanford problem” for the last two years, but in 2014, it could become a UCLA problem.
To win a conference championship and contend for a national one, the Ducks will probably have to beat the Bruins twice.
Jim Mora is 19-8 after two seasons, 10-3 last year with a win over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl, and winner of two straight over USC. He has Bruin fans thinking big with the conference’s best quarterback not named Marcus Mariota, a deep defensive line, athletic linebackers Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack. The Blue and Gold haven’t won the Rose Bowl since 1985, haven’t played in a BCS bowl since 1998, and have never won 9 or more games in three straight seasons, but fans can’t be blamed for thinking this could be the year: sports book Bovada.com has their team at 14-1 to win the national title, the fifth-best odds in the country.
Before Mora came, UCLA had gone through five coaches in 13 years, including disastrous runs by Rick Neuheisel and Karl Dorrell. They had five straight losing seasons and lost to USC 12 out of 13 times.
Mora, who wasn’t the first choice when Athletic Director Dan Guerrero hired him, has transformed the program with NFL toughness, tapping into the Southern California talent base and improving discipline.
The coach is not satisfied with the turnaround, however. At PAC-12 Media Days he told reporters, “Our success right now in my opinion is still very limited. We haven’t won the Pac-12 Championship. We’re 0-3 against Stanford. I don’t want our players to feel like we’re extra special and we’ve accomplished the goals we’ve set out to accomplish or that, but we’re on the right track.”
The 2014 team is built around senior quarterback Hundley, a poised dual threat athlete who’s actually more accurate than Mariota, completing 67.5% of his passes last season. In 2013 he threw for 3071 yards and 30 touchdowns while also leading the team in rushing with 747 yards and 11 more scores, including an 86-yard scamper in the Sun Bowl victory.
Before the showdown with the Ducks on October 11th, the Bruins play three road games in September, at Virginia, at rebuilding and house-cleaning Texas (new coach Charlie Strong has dismissed six of Mack Brown’s former players for disciplinary reasons, including running back Joe Bergeron and safety Josh Turner) at Arizona State on September 25th. The home opener is September 6th against Memphis. It’s a manageable schedule that will give Mora time to break in three new starters on the offensive line, including two highly-touted freshmen. The clash with ASU in Tempe is the most serious threat to a 4-0 start and Top Ten ranking when they host UO.
On defense the Bruins are led by Jack and Kendricks, two of the most athletic linebackers in the conference. Jack gets the headlines. As a true freshman he had a cameo role as a runnerbacker, lining up at tailback in wins over Washington and Arizona. He ran for 120 yards on 6 carries against the Wildcats, sealing the win with a 66-yard touchdown dash in the fourth quarter. In all he had 38 carries for 267 yards and 7 tds, making him the team’s third-leading rusher. The attention has Jack high on award lists and preseason All-America squads, but Kendricks is actually the most accomplished player. A 6-0, 230-lb. senior, he led the conference in tackles in 2012, playing through an ankle injury last season that cost him two games, but the captain still led the team in tackles with 8.8 a game. He sat out spring football after surgery on the injured ankle.
Jack contributed 49 tackles as a freshman, plus one sack, two interceptions and one forced fumble. The Bruins will miss premier pass rushers Cassius Marsh and Anthony Barr, and sucker punching linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, but they return 3 former 5-star players on the defensive line in Eddie Vanderdoes (SO, 6-5, 330), Owamagbe Odighizuwa (RS SR, 6-3, 270) and Ellis McCarthy (JR, 6-4, 310), all of whom were coveted by the Ducks as recruits. Nose tackle Kenny Clark (6-3, 315) anchors the middle of the Bruins 3-4 defense.
Two starters return on the offensive line, All-American Xavier Su’a-Filo and center Jake Brendel, a freshman All-American named this year to the Rimington Watch List.