Coach Jim Mora isn’t concerned that UCLA football’s first road game of the season will kick off at 9 a.m. PST – during the school year, he said the players frequently lift weights at 6 a.m. and start practice by 7 a.m.
He’s also not worried about the offense, which has scored touchdowns on 13 of its last 15 drives. But on defense, the status of nearly half of the Bruins’ starters is unknown. Sophomore defensive lineman Boss Tagaloa, senior linebacker Kenny Young, redshirt junior safety Adarius Pickett and senior safety Jaleel Wadood are all questionable this weekend after suffering injuries either against Hawai’i or in the preceding week of practice.
“They’re all working hard to get back and I don’t put a timeline on when they’re going to come back or when they’re not,” said Mora, who has a policy of not discussing specific injuries.
Considering how many injuries No. 25 UCLA (2-0) will have to deal with against unranked Memphis (1-0) on Saturday, both teams will likely light up the scoreboard with their dynamic offenses. The Bruins are ranked 15th in yards per play and are tied for the 10th highest scoring offense in the country, while the Tigers rank 26th in yards per play and return all but two starters from last season’s 15th-ranked scoring offense.
Junior quarterback Josh Rosen was near-perfect against Hawai’i, as he threw for 329 yards and five touchdowns with only three incompletions. The offense’s efficiency, said offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, starts with Rosen.
“Josh has been very accurate, he studies really hard to know where to go with the ball,” Fisch said. “Maybe in the spring he only knew where his first read was. Now he knows where three or four reads are… You can move through your progressions faster, so you’re not holding the ball, and then you can find the open guy.”
Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson is no slouch, either.
In his first year as a Tiger, he set a program single-season record with 32 touchdown passes and ranked second in school history in single-season 300-yard games and passing yards.
Behind Ferguson, the Memphis running attack has many options – four players averaged more than 5 yards per carry in 2016. Against Louisiana-Monroe, running backs Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. both recorded 100-yard games.
“They go fast on offense – coach (Mike) Norvell is an excellent play caller, we’ve dealt with him before, and he’s someone that’s tough to defend,” Mora said. “They do some things that are similar to Hawai’i schematically.”
But as multifaceted as the Tigers are on offense, their defense is arguably as shorthanded as the Bruins’.
Memphis lost its starting hybrid defensive end/linebacker Jackson Dillon, nose tackle Jared Gentry and key backup linebacker Darian Porter to season-ending injuries in its first game of the season. The following week of practice, reserve cornerback Tim Gordon also suffered a season-ending injury.
Both teams are additionally dealing with suspensions because of the NCAA’s targeting penalty. Tiger defensive lineman Jonathan Wilson was a recipient of the flag on a roughing the passer call against Louisiana-Monroe. The Bruins’ junior strong-side linebacker Josh Woods will also miss the first half after getting ejected in the fourth quarter against Hawai’i for for making forcible contact near the head of a defenseless receiver.
Bruins banking on Barnes
Sophomore linebacker Krys Barnes filled in at weak side linebacker for the Bruins after Young went down with his head injury, and finished the game as UCLA’s leading tackler. If Young can’t play Saturday, Barnes will make his first collegiate start. He typically sees action on special teams, and he said that experience helped him adjust to a higher workload.
“I felt really relaxed and prepared,” Barnes said. “Watching film, I can be way more physical and attack the ball more … (but) it was good being out there on the field, running down on kickoffs, getting the game speed and trying to make tackles.”