MANHATTAN, Kan. ““ When Morrell Presley dropped passes on the game’s first two plays, maybe it was just early jitters. After Nelson Rosario couldn’t grab a crucial third-down pass in the second quarter, maybe you could chalk it up to bad luck. But by the time Taylor Embree failed to hang on to what would have been a touchdown in the third quarter, everyone was beginning to, well, catch on ““ it was a rough day for the UCLA receiving corps.
“That wasn’t one of the concerns we had going in,” coach Rick Neuheisel said. “We thought we’d catch the ball well. We did not answer the call with respect to that, and that’s one facet of the game that we’ll have to really look at.”
Ball-catching was thought to be one of the few surefire strengths for this UCLA team, which features a pair of big, possession-type receivers in juniors Rosario and Embree, as well as young playmakers such as Presley, Josh Smith, Anthony Barr and Ricky Marvray.
For whatever reason, though, on this September Saturday in Kansas, the bunch had more drops (eight) than receptions (six).
“It was kind of a surprise issue,” Embree said. “I think a lot of it too was it being the first game of the season. That goes in under the mistakes category. A lot of the drops were uncharacteristic of us.”
Barr, who saw extended time at F-back in his first collegiate game, also cited “first-game jitters” as a possible explanation for the struggles, and some possible attention lapses.
“Droppped passes are usually just a lack of focus,” said Barr, before adding: “It’s something that’s fixable. We’ll go back and look at the film and see what we can do differently.”
One of the corollary effects of the receivers’ struggles was that quarterback Kevin Prince’s numbers quickly deteriorated. The sophomore finished the game just nine-of-26 for 120 yards. Despite that, Prince was quick to defend his targets.
“It happens, and I’m not exactly putting the ball on them on every play,” he said of the dropped passes. “You’ve just got to keep plugging along. I tried not to let that effect me and just kept on going, kept on reassuring the receivers.
“That’s something that won’t happen the rest of the season, I can guarantee you that.”
Although the drops limited the passing game to a significant extent, the newly-installed pistol offense did generate some positive things on the ground. UCLA rushed for 193 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Johnathan Franklin carried the ball 13 times for 60 yards ““ both team highs ““ while receiver Josh Smith turned in a 43-yard dash on an end-around.
The Bruins’ first touchdown came on a quarterback keeper that saw Prince go into the endzone untouched.
“You saw when (Prince) ran his touchdown what (the Pistol) is capable of doing,” Embree said. “First time running it against an opponent other than ourselves, I thought it went pretty smooth. We’ll tweak some things, but I think it’ll do wonders for us this season.”
Not surprisingly, UCLA got strong performances from its stellar kicking duo of senior kicker Kai Forbath and sophomore punter Jeff Locke. Forbath, who was questionable for the game because of an injured groin, was perfect on his attempts, from 44, 42 and 35 yards. He has now converted 40 consecutive field goals from within 50 yards, and his 13 career three-field goal games ties an NCAA record.
Locke buried three of his six punts inside the Kansas State 20-yard line, including two inside the five.