by John Vannie
The last time UCLA played Notre Dame in football, John Wooden’s Bruins had just won their first of ten national championships over what would become an historic twelve year period. While UCLA has not approached that type of success on the gridiron, the Bruins carry a proud tradition and high expectations into South Bend this weekend.
Both teams are coached by an alumnus. Karl Dorrell was an excellent receiver for UCLA in the mid-1980’s, and is in his fourth year as head coach. The Bruins have steadily improved under Dorrell and are 4-2 this season following a 10-2 mark in 2005. The losses this year have come on the road against PAC-10 rivals Washington and Oregon by a margin of ten points each.
Those who have watched UCLA in the recent past may expect a potent offense and a porous defense, but this team breaks the mold. The Bruin defenders are a strong, balanced and fast group of athletes, led by ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis and their 12 combined sacks. The other outstanding characteristic of this group is their relative youth. Hickman is the only senior starter, and he is joined by nine juniors. Many of these players saw considerable action as sophomores last season due to injuries to others, and are now battle tested veterans.
The best players besides Hickman and Davis among this group are middle linebacker Christian Taylor, free safety Dennis Keyes and cornerback Rodney Van. There is plenty of depth and injuries are not a factor coming into this contest. Notre Dame will have its hands full in trying to keep Brady Quinn upright against a team that has recorded 18 sacks in six games, and tackles Ryan Harris and Sam Young will certainly be working in the spotlight.
Offensively, UCLA lost its starting quarterback, Ben Olson, two weeks ago against Arizona. Pat Cowan took over and has performed admirably, completing 59% of his passes with two scores and one interception. Cowan suffered a throat injury last week at Oregon but will start against the Irish.
Surprisingly, the Bruin passing game does not have a receiver with 20 catches after six games, but seven different players have caught ten or more. Wideouts Brandon Breazell and Justin Taylor lead the team with 17 and 15 catches, respectively, and one touchdown each.
The running game is very respectable with tailback Chris Markey operating behind a young but capable offensive line. Center Robert Chai is the only senior in this quintet, and the Irish will hope to bring pressure on Cowan. It should be noted that Markey guaranteed a Bruin victory in a recent interview. The Irish players took appropriate notice but were not outwardly impressed.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is coming off a much-needed bye week and expects to regain the services of Travis Thomas and Tom Zbikowski on defense. Cornerback Ambrose Wooden is still questionable, while end Ronald Talley has left the team. Terrail Lambert and Chris Frome will start for the Irish.
Coach Charlie Weis should be able to counter the speed and aggression of UCLA’s defense, but it will be important for the Irish offensive line to build upon its most recent performance against Stanford. Darius Walker will be a key figure in the game – Notre Dame will win if he rushes for 100 yards.
Defensively, the matchup to watch will be the Irish defensive line against the Bruins’ forward wall. Cowan must never be allowed to get comfortable, and Markey is capable of igniting his mates if he has room to run.
UCLA’s Justin Medlock, who is virtually automatic from 50 yards or closer, is the best kicker the Irish have seen to date. The punter is 6’4” Aaron Perez, whose kicks are rarely returned against solid coverage. The Bruin return teams have been unremarkable so far this season.
The Irish should be prepared for yet another capable team to come into town and deliver its best shot. UCLA’s defense will provide a dress rehearsal for the game against that other Los Angeles team later this season, but its offense may have problems scoring enough points to win absent an explosive passing game. The Bruins have started fast in their first five games until stumbling out of the gate at Oregon last week, but Notre Dame must guard against a sluggish start after two weeks off and player visits to home base during the fall break.
The positional matchups are as follows:
Position / Advantage
Quarterback – Notre Dame
Running Back – Even
Wide Receivers – Notre Dame
Tight Ends – Notre Dame
ND OLine vs. UCLA DLine – Even
UCLA OLine vs. ND DLine – Notre Dame
Linebackers – UCLA
Secondary – Even
Punting – Even
Kicking – UCLA
Return Teams – Even
Intangibles – Even
Notre Dame opens the second half of its season against another quality opponent, and the Bruins led by Markey have their full attention. The Irish have too much firepower for the visitors to pull the upset, but the game can be close if Quinn and his mates are not sharp right from the outset.
NOTRE DAME 31 UCLA 20