TEAMS: UCLA Bruins (9-4, 6-3 Pacific 12 Conference) vs. Baylor Bears (7-5, 4-5 Big 12 Conference)
TIME: Thursday, Dec. 27, 9:45 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: UCLA -3; Over/Under 821/2 points
Holiday Bowls of years past hosted many of the nation’s most potent offensive teams. After three consecutive seasons of offensively anemic showings — the combined scores were just eight points more than this year’s over/under total — the Holiday Bowl is back to its roots.
UCLA and Baylor can and will score. Two of the best offensive coordinators in college football design the plays that have produced 35 and 44 points per game. At UCLA, Noel Mazzone took the shell of a Pistol formation Rick Neuheisel introduced and modified it to accentuate his players’ skills.
The Bruins flourished with a heavily ground-based offensive philosophy, a deviation from Mazzone’s pass-heavy scheme implemented last season at Arizona State. However, the right blend of pass is added into UCLA’s offense to make the Bruins just dangerous enough in that facet to keep defenses honest.
Baylor assistant Philip Montgomery earned Quarterback Coach of the Year honors in 2011, but it’s easy to laud the leader of a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback. Replacing a transcendant talent like Robert Griffin III is when a coach’s mettle is truly tested, and the seamless transition has allowed Montgomery to demonstrate his acumen.
During a season-ending, three-game win streak over Big 12 Conference foes Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, the Bears scored a combined 145 points.
BU has produced those points in a variety of ways, too. While boasting the nation’s third most potent passing attack, a multifaceted run game has actually prompted 68 more rushing calls than pass plays.
Head coaches Jim Mora and Art Briles have each accomplished a great deal in short order. Briles took over a perpetual basement dweller and has it in its third consecutive bowl game. Mora took on the heavy expectations of turning around a program mired in mediocrity and responded with a divisional championship.
A win in San Diego sends a resounding message for either program. For Baylor, beating UCLA proves this program is so much more than one player. For UCLA, 10 wins is a milestone on the climb back to the top of a conference it once dominated.
A competition between two offenses as explosive as these takes on a basketball look in that it’s a game of runs. The defense that can string together enough stops — and most importantly, stops deep enough to parlay those into great field position — will give its team the win.
UCLA has exhibited some defensive chops, most notably holding Arizona’s explosive offense to just 10 points. But the Bruins have also given up big points. Three of UCLA’s final five opponents registered 35 or more. The loss of second leading tackler Tevin McDonald for violating team rules doesn’t help the cause against a top 10 scoring offense capable of scoring in such diverse ways.
Baylor needs to simply force the tempo on the offensive end. Barring turnovers, a Bear defense that is surrendering more than 38 points per game is hard pressed to make more than a stop or two. That puts a heavy onus on the Bears when they have possession.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Looking at the success Cameron Marshall had in Mazzone’s offense a season ago, it didn’t take any particularly keen insight to project a big 2012 for Johnathan Franklin. But the Bruin senior exceeded the expectations of most, running to All-America status with 1700 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns.
Franklin is also a reliable target for dual threat quarterback Brett Hundley, catching at least one pass in every game this season. The redshirt freshman Hundley is an accurate passer, completing 68 percent of his attempts. That dimension of his game makes his rushing ability especially difficult for defenses to game plan.
Equally difficult to scheme for is Hundley’s top target, Joe Fauria. The big tight end poses match-up problems for opposing secondaries, particularly in the red zone, where he’s been on the receiving end of 11 scoring passes. The next most among UCLA receivers is two. Think Rob Gronkowski.
On the opposite side of the ball, Baylor counters with its breakout star, Lache Seastrunk. The one-time Oregon commit gets to show his stuff on the West Coast since emerging as the Bears’ clear No. 1 rushing option.
Seastrunk has gone for 103, 91, 185, 136 and 178 yards rushing in the Bears’ last five games. He scored three touchdowns against Oklahoma, and torched Kansas State for a career high, including an exclamation mark, 80-yard score.
The true star of this Baylor offense, though, is wide receiver Terrance Williams. The All-American led the nation in receiving yards with 1764, and has hauled in 12 of quarterback Nick Florence‘s 31 touchdown passes.
Key for UCLA is getting to Florence before he can target the big play-generating Williams. Easier said than done, given Florence has rushed for 531 yards. His ability to create opportunities with his feet mirrors what made Griffin so dangerous in the Baylor offense a season ago. The Bruin defense needs a big game out of supremely skilled pass rusher Anthony Barr.
Barr has the speed to both beat blockers off the edge, and contain Florence once in the backfield. Converted to linebacker after playing some at both wide receiver and running back, Barr combines quickness and athleticism with length.