When: Sat. December 26, 9:15 PM ET
Where: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
All-Time Series: Tied 6-6
Last Meeting: UCLA 41-21, in 2013
Line: UCLA -6.5
1 Burning Question: Will either team be motivated to be in this bowl game, and will it actually matter?
Both the Bruins and the Cornhuskers had sights set on a much better bowl game heading into the season, but at some point the path hooked to a different destination. UCLA legitimately had enough talent to win the PAC-12 this season and yet finished with a mediocre 8-4 record. That’s a far cry from the playoff which was on the table back in early October for this squad. Meanwhile, Nebraska is only in this bowl game at 5-7 thanks to the strong academics of that school and athletic department. So whether either team is motivated to show up big and win is a tough call, although it may not matter considering the seeming disparity in overall team talent favoring the team from LA.
2 Reasons to Actually Watch:
– It’s the nightcap of a great day of bowl games, including the first two B1G bowl games: The second Saturday of bowl season brings six games to watch, including the appearance of Indiana and Nebraska to represent the Big Ten. If all goes well earlier in the day in New York for the Hoosiers, the Cornhuskers could really put the conference off to a great start with a 2-0 day. Plus, worst-case scenario, Nebraska is blown out by halftime like Maryland was in this bowl game last year, in which case you hit the sack early to get ready to enjoy the holiday traditions of family time and pro football the next day.
– To see a great duel between gunslinger quarterbacks: Freshman QB Josh Rosen put together a great first season in Westwood, racking up 3351 passing yards to go with 20 touchdowns. Rosen did not prove to be a huge rushing threat, but he did make some limited plays with his feet in PAC-12 play. Meanwhile, Tommy Armstrong gashed defenses in his junior season much like he has for the past two: with potent running threat complemented by a solid passing game (2856 passing yards, 21 touchdowns). Rosen could be a Heisman candidate of the future, but it will be fun to see both these guys take advantage of potential weaknesses in the opposing defenses.
3 Key Players:
Ka’imi Fairburn, UCLA Kicker – This first-team All American has steadily improved over his college career, now becoming a standout by hitting 87% of his field goal attempts as a senior. Although he missed a couple of 40-49 yard attempts in the final two games of the season, Fairburn is a rock of consistency that Jim Mora has been able to rely on in a world where even elite teams cannot seem to find good kickers. UCLA also did not miss a single extra point attempt, which shouldn’t be notable but that’s the world of college kickers in 2015.
Paul Perkins, UCLA RB – Part of what helps a freshman quarterback be effective is a solid running threat, and that’s precisely what Josh Rosen has as a backfield mate in Perkins. Although Perkins rushed for nearly 1600 yards a season ago and only has 1275 this season, he contributed 13 touchdowns (a career high so far). If Nebraska spends too much time back in pass coverage to stop the various weapons Rosen can throw to, then look for Perkins to have a huge game. It’s a rock and a hard place for the Blackshirts defense.
Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska QB – As noted above, Armstrong became a much bigger focal point for the offense this season with a struggle to find another consistent top running back to follow Ameer Abdullah. Mike Reilly may not run an offense that typically exploits Armstrong’s innate talents, but these two have learned to work together to make for a highly effective offense. That being said, Armstrong makes this list because when he has melted down like he did in the finale against Iowa, he melts down very badly. That could ruin any chance Nebraska has of an upset if it happens in California Saturday night.
4 Crazy Stats:
– 472.6 (UCLA) and 442.5 (NU), which are the total offense averages for both teams. If you like offense, then a battle of two Top-35 offenses should be a must-watch bowl game. Especially with the lapses to which both of these teams’ defenses can be subject, this should be a fast track for a high number of big impact plays. Keep your fingers crossed for the fireworks that look imminent on paper.
– 113.4, which is the rushing yards allowed average for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have a fairly strong defensive front, although the rushing yards allowed may be a function of how porous the back line of that defense can be at times. The Bruins typically have a balanced offensive attack but if the Blackshirts can take away Paul Perkins and one portion of the offense, then that could open up opportunities for the turnovers that could shift this game into the Cornhuskers’ favor.
– 90.7% (UCLA) and 89.6% (NU), which are the red zone scoring percentages for both teams. When the Bruins and Cornhuskers reach the red zone, both teams have excelled at punching the ball in and/or putting points on the board. As mentioned above, UCLA has a great weapon at kicker, but both teams have over 30 touchdowns as well. Watch for the first team to make a mistake in the opponent red zone as a key factor in predicting which team will win this bowl game.
– Over 32 minutes per game, which is Nebraska’s time of possession average. One way which Nebraska can hang around in this game is to slowly grind down the UCLA defense with long possessions. After all, the way that Nebraska has lost a few games is by having defensive lapses after too many possessions and opportunities by the opposition. Thus, I expect Mike Reilly’s game plan to be more rush-heavy than it looks on paper, trying to establish a time of possession advantage while also trying to build up better running backs for next season.
5 Staff Predictions:
Andy: UCLA 41-24 (88-25 overall; 56-55 ATS)
Dave: UCLA 38-28 (92-21 overall; 61-49 ATS)
Greg: Nebraska 31-28 (86-27 overall; 67-43 ATS)
Matt: UCLA 34-30 (91-22 overall; 65-45 ATS)
Phil: UCLA 37-28 (42-17 overall; 23-33 ATS) *joined in Week 5
6 Pack Suggestion (Because Beer and Bowl Games Are Your Best Friend): The Hoppiest Local IPA you can find in your jurisdiction, which for the Cincinnati area (of which I am an expert), that would be the Moerlein Northern Liberties IPA.
Nothing says distasteful like 5-7 bowl eligibility, and yet here we are. Despite the hop craze in craft beer, most IPAs have simply become disgusting with the bitter taste, so drink up and enjoy the uncomfortable taste of such a beer and such a likely Big Ten mismatch/blowout.