SQ Foster Farms Bowl Preview
In what will be their third matchup in four seasons, UCLA and Nebraska will do battle at the Foster Farms bowl in Santa Clara, California on Saturday night. Neither team is where they thought they would be at the beginning of the season, as both have suffered unforeseen setbacks. UCLA (8-4, Pac-12) enters the game off a disappointing loss to rival USC that knocked it out of the conference championship, while Nebraska (5-7, Big Ten) is one of only a few bowl teams that have more losses than wins.
UCLA's Attrition: After a hot start to the season that saw the Bruins go 4-0 and ranked as high as No. 7 in the country, UCLA's injuries finally caught up to the team. The losses of superstar linebacker Myles Jack and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes were the most notable injuries as the Bruins struggled the final two-thirds of the season, going 4-4 down the stretch. For the first time in his UCLA coaching career, Jim Mora lost to rival USC and despite strong play from true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, the Bruins never felt like a CFB Playoff contender.
Nebraska's Bad Luck: Under new coach Mike Riley, Nebraska has been painfully close in coming away with a win in five of its seven losses. By now, everyone knows about the team's opening game loss to BYU on the "Hail Joseph Smith," but Nebraska has also suffered losses by three points, one point, and twice by two points. That being said, the team did win in mostly improbable fashion against undefeated Michigan State, so maybe things even out in the long run.
16: While Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong has thrown 21 touchdowns this season for the Cornhuskers, he has also tossed 16 interceptions. Sixteen is an alarming number for any quarterback in 12 games played, but what makes it even worse is the fact that Armstrong is a veteran in his third season as a starter. UCLA's Rosen, on the other hand, has thrown only nine interceptions in 2015 and he is a true freshman. If Nebraska has any shot at pulling off the upset, the team will need to limit its turnovers against a Bruins team that has picked off 12 balls this season.
2-0: Since the 2012 season, UCLA is 2-0 against Nebraska. In two non-conference games, the Bruins won 36-30 in Pasadena in 2012 and 41-21 in Lincoln in 2013. UCLA out-gained Nebraska in total yards in those games by a combined 1157 to 770, but a key player is missing from those two Bruin victories: quarterback Brett Hundley. Hundley is now backing up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, which is wonderful news for Cornhusker fans, considering he threw seven touchdowns in those two matchups.
31: That is the combined number of points Nebraska has lost by in its seven defeats this season. Plenty of fans will likely criticize Mike Riley for the team's disappointing overall record, but the truth is Nebraska has been just a play or two away from a very special season. Nebraska really seemed to figure some things out late in the season with its victory over Michigan State and close loss to an undefeated Iowa team. Riley was highly successful at Oregon State and if he is given enough time, the same should happen in Lincoln.
Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA: After three stellar seasons in Los Angeles, UCLA's Paul Perkins will have to decide if he is ready for the NFL or wants to come back for his senior season. In 2015, Perkins has run for 1,275 yards and 13 touchdowns to go along with his 27 catches and 234 receiving yards. In a conference that is full of outstanding running backs, Perkins is always near the top of the list and he will need to play well again for UCLA to come away victorious. Nebraska has been excellent against the run this year, ranking eighth in the country in rush yards allowed, so look for them to put the pressure on Rosen to make plays down the field.
Jordan Westerkamp, WR, Nebraska: Only four players for Nebraska made the first or second team All-Big Ten Football and three of the four were a kicker, punter, and defensive tackle. Jordan Westerkamp was the sole offensive player to make the postseason list and it was certainly deserved, considering the Cornhuskers have struggled at the quarterback position this season. Westerkamp has 63 catches, 874 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns including the game-winner against Michigan State. UCLA has some future NFL players in its defensive backfield and ranks 41st in the country in passing defensive, so it is up to Westerkamp to help stretch the field for Nebraska's inconsistent passing game.
Why UCLA Wins
Since Jim Mora took over as head coach in 2012, UCLA has become a different program. No longer is UCLA the school that lives in USC's shadow or just a sleeping giant that always underachieves; rather, UCLA is one of the country's best programs right now. At 8-4, the Bruins did not end the season the way they wanted to, but considering the injuries that piled up on the defensive side of the ball and the growing pains of a true freshman quarterback, UCLA is not in such a bad spot. UCLA will be one of the best teams in the country next year and winning a bowl game in convincing fashion against a Big Ten team could help set the tone for 2016.
Why Nebraska Wins
The odds makers in Vegas are pretty smart guys, so when you see that a 5-7 team is less than a touchdown underdog to a team that was in the top-25 for most of the season, you become a little suspicious. Looking at the stats, Nebraska is not far behind UCLA in things like total offense, total defense, and points per game. As pointed out earlier, the Cornhuskers have been a pretty unfortunate team for most of the year, so if they put together a solid, mostly mistake-free game, and force the true freshman quarterback into makin g a few mistakes; they have a shot at pulling off the upset.
This is the kind of bowl that could go either way because the fact of the matter is, neither team is probably all that motivated to play in it. The Foster Farms Bowl is not exactly a New Year's Six Bowl and both teams could be playing in a game that is worth a little more nationally. Nebraska might be playing for pride because of its poor record, but UCLA will certainly want to end 2015 on a good note after USC ended its season for all intents and purposes.
Right now, UCLA just looks like the more put together team both offensively and defensively. Despite how good they are against the run, the Cornhuskers are 69th in the country in total defense, so expect the Bruins to move the ball fairly well throughout the game, especially through the air. Rosen is not really a true freshman at this point anymore and Nebraska will have to make a lot of plays offensively to try and keep up. I don't see that happening.
UCLA 34, Nebraska 24