You only get one chance at a second impression. That’s how the saying goes, right? I ask because its time for Luke Fickell’s second impression as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats, who are visiting the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. this Saturday for their season opener.
Speaking of impressions, Saturday will provide the first for UCLA’s new head coach Chip Kelly. Famous for his work with the Oregon Ducks and infamous for his time with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, Kelly is replacing Jim Mora Jr. as head coach at UCLA, a program that was destined for greatness for years, but never lived up to the hype. With Kelly in the mix, the hype is still there, but now the Bruins are going to try to find the success to go with it.
Meanwhile, the Bearcats have been laying the foundation for a return to competence after back-to-back 4-8 seasons. A lot has been made of Fickell and his staff and their success on the recruiting trail. (No. 1 2018 recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference, what’s up.) After going 4-8 in year one and then putting together such a class, its time to start the climb up the mountain. Saturday seems as good a time as any to get going.
Cincinnati was not a good offensive team last year. It wasn’t even close. Ranked last in the AAC in yards per game (351.8), the Bearcats were finished at an even No. 100 nationally in offensive S&P+. Entering this season, their second go-around with Mike Denbrock as offensive coordinator, the Bearcats should be better, especially if they lean on the right players.
With Gerrid Doaks, Michael Warren II and Kahlil Lewis, there is a nice nucleus of skill position players to build around. Warren II is listed as the No. 1 running back on the depth chart this week, so there may be some holdover from the injury Doaks has been dealing with this offseason, but the two are going to share the bulk of the rushing duties most of the time. That is an exciting prospect considering the duo combined for more than 800 yards as the understudies to Mike Boone last year, with each averaging roughly six yards per carry.
The Bearcats would be smart to run the ball a lot this week since UCLA was last in the Pac-12 in rushing defense last year (287.4 yards allowed per game). Of course, the fact that the offensive line has been mostly retooled might make that more difficult, but it still seems like the smart play.
But let’s not forget about Lewis. Now a senior, Lewis has been nothing but excellent despite average (at best) quarterback work the last few years. He led the team in receptions (61), receiving yards (676) and touchdowns (7) in 2017 and will team with Thomas Geddis to be the primary targets for Hayden Moore, who is going to start at quarterback again.
How well Moore plays this weekend and the year as a whole will go a long way in deciding how far the Bearcats rise. He had 20 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions last season and set a personal-best with 2,562 passing yards, all while adding some mobility to his game. However, his struggles with throwing deep have been detailed extensively, so there is a whole city’s worth of improvement to be made. This week will be a tough way to begin the year for Moore, what with UCLA’s talented defensive backfield featuring Adarius Pickett, Darnay Holmes and Nate Meadors.
It’s difficult to really know what to expect from the Bruins on offense. They are replacing Josh Rosen at quarterback, sure, but the biggest change is the guy calling the shots. Kelly is known for his high-octane offensive schemes and that will drastically change what the Bruins do on offense. We can’t really use last year’s strengths and weaknesses to determine what UC needs to do to slow this team down.
The Bearcats will just have to do their best at improving and improve they should. There is a lot of talent on this unit, especially with guys like Perry Young, Marquise Copeland and Malik Clements. Of the three phases, UC was best on defense in 2017, ranking 86th in defensive S&P+. Taking the next step will be all about being better at creating pressure, especially on Saturday when they will need to slow down UCLA at any chance they get. A quarterback sack or a tackle for loss does a lot more to muck up the tempo of a no-huddle offense than letting up even a yard or two.
Three Numbers That Matter
81 - The Bearcats are really, really young. There are 81 underclassmen on this team and it is these players who will ultimately lift the program back up.
26:35:83 - UC ranked second to last in the AAC in time of possession last year. They need to do a better job in that regard every week, but especially against a Chip Kelly-led offense that is going to move and move quickly. When they won the TOP battle, the Bearcats went 2-0 a year ago.
0 - UC and UCLA have never played each other before this weekend.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Michael Warren II, RB
If Doaks isn’t at full strength, then Warren is going to lead the rushing attack, which should be a big part of the offensive plan for the Bearcats, especially if they hope to keep up with Kelly’s Bruins.
UCLA - Wilton Speight, QB
Kelly waited a while to name a starter, but Speight is replacing Josh Rosen, who was named to the All-Pac-12 second-team last year, throwing for 3,756 yards and 26 touchdowns. Kelly’s offenses usually rely a lot on the run game, but that doesn’t mean the quarterback will be forgotten. The Bearcats actually played Speight last year when he was still with Michigan. Speight went 17-for-29 with 221 yards and two touchdowns.
UCLA is a bit of a mystery this year. As much as we know about Kelly offenses, there’s still that element of surprise that will benefit the Bruins. There isn’t a ton of film to pour over, so the UC defense will be challenged heavily. Making adjustments and making tackles quickly and efficiently will go a long way in helping to neutralize the attack. On the other side, the Bearcats have to find success in the run game and try to control the pace, lest it run them over.
Even though a win in the opener would immediately prove that Fickell has UC on the right path, UCLA still has superior talent and a not insignificant home-field advantage. It will be nice to see Bearcat football again but not for all 60 minutes. UCLA 37 Cincinnati 23.