Going into the 2015 season, there were two questions facing UCLA football: who would replace Brett Hundley at quarterback and would Sean "P. Diddy" Combs be charged for swinging a kettlebell at members of the UCLA strength and conditioning staff in June? The answers came soon: Josh Rosen and no.
And with Rosen at quarterback, the Bruins started the season 4-0 and made it to #7 in the polls after defeating then-ranked BYU and Arizona. But back to back blowout losses to Arizona State and Stanford bounced them from the polls. A three game winning streak against Cal (40-24), Colorado (35-31) and Oregon State (41-0) put them back into the AP Top 20 until a 31-27 home loss to Washington State sent them back to the unranked. A season-ending 40-21 loss to cross-town rival Southern Cal eliminated the Bruins from the Pac-12 championship game (also at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara) and sent UCLA to the Foster Farms Bowl.
True freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, who wasn't even eleven months old when Nebraska last won a national championship, started every game this season, earning freshman all-American and freshman Pac-12 offensive player of the year honors. He completed 59% of his passes for 3,349 yards and 20 touchdowns, with nine interceptions. Rosen is not much of a threat to run the ball; he only netted 27 yards rushing after subtracting sacks, but his 37 yard touchdown run late against Washington State gave the Bruins a glimmer of hope late in a losing effort. Senior backup Jerry Neuheisel (son of former Colorado, Washington and UCLA coach Ricky) only played in a mopup role, completing just five of 18 passes for 61 yards and two interceptions.
Junior Paul Perkins' rushing numbers were down this season from 1,575 to 1,275 yards, though touchdowns were up from nine to 13. He's also a threat to catch the ball, as he's the fourth leading receiver this season with 27 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown. Perkins suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss much of the Cal game, though he returned the next week against Colorado. Sophomore backup Nate Starks missed two games with a concussion; he rushed for 314 yards and five touchdowns in ten games. Freshman Soso Jamabo filled the void when both Perkins and Starks were out, rushing for 404 yards and four touchdowns.
Senior Devin Fuller has been limited to just 10 games and seven starts in 2015, causing his receptions to drop from 59 last season to just 24 catches this season for 259 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Jordan Payton became UCLA's first 1,000 yard receiver since 2011 this season, catching 75 passes for 1,068 yards and four touchdowns. Junior Thomas Duarte is a hybrid tight end and receiver; smaller than most tight ends but bigger than most receivers, which makes him a deadly combination for smaller defensive backs or larger linebackers. He's caught 49 passes for 820 yards and ten touchdowns this season.
UCLA's offensive line has been in a bit of turmoil recently, as junior right guard Alex Redmond left the team earlier this month. A three-year starter, he's expected to declare for the NFL draft. Junior right tackle Caleb Benenoch likely will slide over to fill Redmond's spot, with redshirt freshman Kolton Miller taking over at right tackle. Freshman Fred Ulu-Perry left the team at Thanksgiving to return home, transferring to Hawai'i. Starting left guard Kenny Lacy has been hobbled by an ankle injury suffered against Southern Cal. How short-handed are the Bruins on the offensive line? If Lacy can't play, freshman walk-on Cristian Garcia will get the start. Left tackle Conor McDermott injured his knee against Utah, but returned to play against Southern Cal; he's also expected to declare for the NFL draft after the bowl game.
Injuries knocked out three of the expected stars of UCLA's defense this season. In the season opener, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes tore his ACL while lifting fellow defensive tackle Kenny Clark after Clark caught a touchdown pass while both were playing in a goal-line set on offense. Junior linebacker/running back Myles Jack tore his ACL in practice in September; he subsequently withdrew from school to rehab his knee and prepare for the NFL draft. Cornerback Fabian Moreau suffered a season-ending foot injury at about the same time, while inside linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea missed a month a leg injury.
Linebacker Jayon Brown emerged to fill the void at linebacker to lead UCLA with 88 tackles on the season. Senior linebacker Aaron Wallace has been a role player throughout his career until the injury bug gave him his shot this season. Despite only starting seven games this season, he leads UCLA with seven sacks (good for third in the Pac-12 this season) and 12 tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark is second on the Bruins roster with 64 tackes, nine for a loss.
UCLA's defensive weakness this season has been stopping the run, as the Bruins rank 88th in the nation in stopping the run. SBN's Bill Connelly reports that UCLA's secondary has been particularly effective in defending passes on passing downs, while BruinsNation worries that Mike Riley will try to exploit UCLA's issues stopping the run. When UCLA has the ball, the Bruins' uncertainty on the offensive line could mean that the Bruins may try to rely more on their passing attack, though that may be tough to predict. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was hospitalized last week and his role for Saturday is still uncertain; he may not even be at the game.
Bowl games typically are won by the team with the most motivation, but it's unclear which team that would be for the Foster Farms Bowl. On paper, Nebraska looks like the healthier team, but UCLA's record makes them the favorite in the game. The uncertainty about NFL departures and who's going to fill what role on Saturday night could be a distraction or a rallying point for UCLA, while Nebraska's offensive tendencies seem to be a less than stellar approach to face UCLA's defense. So the question may boil down to: how much does Nebraska want to end 2015 on a positive note?