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The Bruins travel to Scott Stadium this Saturday to take on the Virginia Cavaliers. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Opponent: UCLA at Virginia Preview

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The UCLA Bruins football team will open the season in different fashion than Jim Mora has opened his 1st two campaigns in Westwood.  In 2012, the Bruins flew to Houston and manhandled the Rice Owls 49-24. In case you forgot that game, Brett Hundley took his first snap for a 72 yard TD run through the Rice 4-2-5 defense, a scheme that’s a competitive necessity for the girth challenged Owls.

UCLA opened 2013 in similar style by sticking its finger down the barrel of the Nevada Wolfpack‘s oft-imitated, but rarely duplicated pistol formation spread offense. UCLA almost doubled Nevada in total offense (647 to 353), and overwhelmed the WAC school in all phases of the game for a 58-20 season opening victory at the Rose Bowl.

Instead of a “safe” opener against a non power-conference opponent, UCLA opens its 2014 campaign on the road against a traditional team from the ACC. Virginia is not an out-manned team forced to resort to gimmicks to manufacture a competitive edge; the Cavaliers run a pro-style offense (with a sprinkling of the spread formation and stretch run) and an aggressive 4-3 based defense. The returning Virginia players that take the field this

Mike London. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Mike London. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday in historic Scott Stadium have measured themselves against the likes of Oregon, Clemson, Virginia Tech and reigning National Champion Florida State in in the past 12 months. Unlike the Wolfpack and Owls of years past, these Cavaliers will not be psyched out before kick-off by the #7 pre-season ranked Bruins. . .

That’s the bad news …

The less threatening reality is that the Virginia Cavaliers enter the 2014 season with a coach on the hot seat. After a 4 year record of 18-31, Mike London has publicly acknowledged the pressure  to show improvement in the 2014 season.  That doesn’t mean the Cavaliers have to take the ACC crown from the Seminoles this year, but Coach London’s team likely needs to go bowling in order for him to keep his job. University of Virginia Officials have given London the dreaded “we’ll see how the season goes and evaluate the results” vote of confidence this preseason after the team went 2-10 and win-less in the ACC in 2010.

The Cavaliers are also attempting to reboot a stagnant offense that ranked 89 in total offense, 109 scoring offense, and 119 nationally in pass efficiency* by handing the QB reigns over to Sophomore Greyson Lambert. More in the mold of a pocket passer, Lambert beat out the more mobile David Watford in the spring it seems partially on merit and partially due to an unspecified off-season transgression. However Lambert earned the starting nod, he will be joined by a veteran group of skill players. Senior tailback Kevin Parks was a 1,000 yard rusher in 2013, and both he and backup Khalek Shepherd had multiple 40+ yard scampers last year. The Virginia starting receivers (WR Darius Jennings, WR Miles Gooch and TE Zachary Swanson) did not have the most productive 2013, but they are all returning seniors with a more pass friendly QB behind center.

At the very least, if Lambert struggles early, he will have a ton of senior leadership to lean on.  However, the key for Virginia (as it is for every team) will be the youngish offensive line (So, So, Jr, Sr, So from left to right) that Coach London describes as “the five healthiest starters we have at this point.” How well the Virginia Offensive Line is able to deal with the physicality and speed of the UCLA front seven will likely determine if the Cavaliers offense can change its fortunes to start 2014.

The Cavaliers had more success on defense last year, but the dearth of offense led to defensive hemorrhages against Virginia’s tougher opponents (sound familiar Bruin fans? Think of the Dorrellian/Neuheiselithic decade and you’re on the right track). Senior All American Safety Anthony Harris led the NCAA in interceptions (8) last year and 8 of the 11 starters on the Cavaliers defense are juniors or seniors. Also keep an eye out for two nationally acclaimed freshman that will make their debut against the Bruins. Five-star prospect Quin Blanding will start at free safety and Gatorade National Player of the Year Andrew Brown will see time at defensive tackle (wearing the number 9, inexplicably; maybe Coach London agreed to let him return punts too).

All-American Anthony Harris led the NCAA in interceptions last season. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The bottom line is that UCLA is looking to step up in class in Jim Mora’s 3rd year, and the 2014 schedule provides plenty of opportunities to keep the spotlights that were turned onto the program in the preseason shining on the Bruins all year long. Unlike previous years under Mora, the UCLA at Virginia game will test the mettle of the Bruins in ways that Nevada and Rice could not (the Bruins get to take their breather in week 2 against Memphis). Mike London’s team respects the Bruins, but the Cavaliers won’t be intimidated when they see the Bruins get off the bus because they are used to this type of competition.

That being said, If the Bruins practice what they have been preaching all through the preseason by keeping their focus on the the Cavaliers without peeking ahead to the Jerry-Dome showdown on September 13 against Texas, UCLA should be able to make a nice season opening statement against a power conference team in much the same way that Oregon did against Virginia last year.

*According to NCAA.org official statistics

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