San Diego State at UCLA: Non-Conference Game Preview
The Aztecs are 4-1 against Pac-12 opponents in the past three years.
Date: Saturday, September 7th
Game Time: 1:15pm PST 4:15 pm EST
Venue: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA Network: PAC-12 Network Radio:101.5 KGB | XTRA 1360 | FOX Sports IE 1350
SDSU (TBD) vs. UCLA (TBD) Game Preview
After a season opener at Cincinnati, the UCLA Bruins return to Pasadena for their home opener against the San Diego State Aztecs. Despite a late-season meltdown in 2018, SDSU has the ability to compete and win against formidable PAC-12 programs.
Chip Kelly’s first year at the helm at UCLA went off script. The team went 0 for 3 in their 2018 non-conference games to start the season, and then lost their first two conference games. The Bruins’ 0-5 start was the worst since 1943. After victories against California and Arizona, UCLA lost another three games in a row. The Bruins did not qualify for a bowl game, and their 3-9 record was their very worst since 1971.
SDSU’s own Rocky Long is a great coach, and he knows how to get the best out of his players. Last year, however, things fell apart late in the season. The offense was average, and the defense (which is their specialty) became worse. This resulted in losing five of their last six games. This was uncharacteristic for the Aztecs, who had managed three 10+ win seasons in a row prior to 2018.
Do not expect the Aztecs to stumble in 2019. The Aztecs return a lot of talent from last season, which will keep them a contender for the Mountain West Championship. The match against UCLA will be a precursor for the Aztecs’ entire season.
It is highly notable that Long has re-enlisted Brady Hoke as defensive coach. As the former head coach of San Diego State and then University of Michigan, he’s far beyond a run-of-the-mill coaching addition.
The Bruins return some strong talent. Their X factor will be QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson (SO). “Don’t be a fan later” is his mantra. While teammates mocked his mantra, he has since won them over. Thompson-Robinson was credited for putting the Bruins on an upward trajectory last year leading wins against California and Arizona before hurting his shoulder against the Wildcats. He is back in full force this year, and he is a double threat due to his ability to run for the chains. If he stays healthy and doesn’t get injured again he could be a real impact player.
RB Joshua Kelley (SR) returns. He is a key component of UCLA’s offense, and rushed for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Kelley ranked top-five in the conference in rushing, and only Eno Benjamin rushed for more touchdowns. Kelley is on the 2019 Maxwell Award Watch List.
DB Darnay Holmes (JR) was a defensive power player last season for the Bruins, and started all 12 games. Holmes led the team with two forced fumbles and three interceptions. He recorded 48 tackles. On the road against ASU in 2018, Holmes pick-sixed Manny Wilkins. Holmes also returns kickoffs and in UCLA’s last game of the season versus Stanford, he went coast-to-coast on a kickoff return for 93 yards and the touchdown.
The Bruins lose TE Caleb Wilson made a serious impact during his junior year with UCLA. He ranked first on the team in reception yards (965), and he tied with Theo Howard for most most reception TDs (4). His average of 16.1 yards per grab was second-best among UCLA receivers. A First-Team All-Pac-12 selection in 2018, his presence will be missed when the Bruins have to air it out in key situations.
The Bruins also lose DB Adarius Pickett, who is now with the Chargers. Pickett led the team with 123 tackles (77 solo) in 2018. He was also the first Bruin defensive back in over a decade to record 100+ tackles in a single season, the last being Dennis Keyes in 2007. UCLA’s defense was not strong last year, and even with several players returning, not having Pickett at his position is a blow to a defense that gave up 34.1 PPG in 2018.
The Aztecs return a lot of players from last season, which will keep them in the running for the Mountain West Championship. Long is also changing up his offense, ditching the under center approach and integrating utilizing a spread formation. Long says they will stay with their run-first philosophy, but they will look a little different.
The tip of the offensive spear for the Aztecs will be senior running back Juwan Washington who ran for 999 yards last season. Washington carries the Running Back University torch previously held by Aztec greats Rashaad Penny and Donnel Pumphrey.
Last season Ryan Agnew took over as quarterback. He plays a different game than his predecessor, even-keeled Christian Chapman, and isn’t afraid to run for the chains whatsoever. Agnew has shown flickers of greatness in passing, although the Aztecs have not historically relied on throwing the ball extensively. This year he will be one of the team’s leaders
Though the Aztecs intend to stay run-centric, they still need to utilize their receivers to help open up the ground game. San Diego State loses their two top receivers, but should get some good production out of Tim Wilson, Ethan Dedeaux, Parker Houston and others. If they dial in with the new spread offense, they can unleash an air assault.
San Diego State will have just one game in the new formation under their belts by the time they meet UCLA. The Bruins weren’t great against the run last year. If the Aztecs can dominate the ground (which is entirely possible) and have a decent passing game, they should be able to play with command, granted defense does its job.
Many analysts are projecting this win to go to the Bruins- but they are doing so based on high optimism about what Chip Kelly could do- versus what he has actually done for the Bruins thus far. The Aztecs can beat the Bruins, however they are considered the underdogs.
Don’t miss this game- it will reveal much about the 2019 season.