No. 25 UCLA searching for identity ahead of clash with Memphis (Sep 16, 2017)
At this early juncture in the college football season, plenty of teams are fleshing out their identities. Such is the case for Week 3 opponents the Memphis Tigers and the No. 25-ranked UCLA Bruins.
The Bruins (2-0) had two distinct looks over eight quarters of play: There was the team that surrendered multiple long rushing plays in the first half to Texas A&M and dug a 34-point hole while enduring six straight possessions without a first down. In the six quarters since, UCLA has showcased one of the most potent passing attacks in college football, with quarterback Josh Rosen scoring all nine of his nation-leading touchdowns since halftime of Week 1.
Memphis has played only one game in 2017, the result of a postponement with American Athletic Conference counterpart UCF brought on by Hurricane Irma. The Tigers won their opener against Louisiana-Monroe, albeit unconvincingly, 37-29.
The Tigers' Week 1 performance was the opposite of UCLA's, with Memphis building a big lead over the first three quarters, then enduring a furious comeback in the game's final minutes.
"We're still trying to get a sense of who we are, what we are," Memphis head coach Mike Norvell said. "There are a good amount of positives we can take from the first opportunity he had. But to be able to go out there and see exactly where we are with this football team is something I'm looking forward to."
With nine starters returning from an eight-win team on offense, and another six back from 2016 on defense, the general sense of where Memphis was at heading into the season earned the Tigers top billing in the AAC West division, per conference media.
But things can change from season-to-season, week-to-week, or even half-to-half, as UCLA learned.
For example, Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson was No. 16 in the nation for passing yards per game in 2016 at 284.5. He passed for just 97 against UL-Monroe, with the offensive load instead falling on the running back tandem of Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. Henderson rushed for 169 yards and two touchdowns, Taylor for 131 and one.
The emergence of a multifaceted rushing threat complicates game-planning against the Tigers, particularly with a proven passer in Ferguson still running the offense. But UCLA does not anticipate being caught completely off-guard, despite the dearth of 2017 game film.
"We looked back at last year to get a feel for their personnel, and how they're using them," Bruins head coach Jim Mora said. "We also have some experience playing against this style of offense, because of the Arizona State ties."
Norvell previously worked as offensive coordinator at Arizona State from 2012 through 2015, and the Sun Devils operated with a high-tempo scheme that used both a multidimensional rushing approach and vertical passing attack.
With Norvell as offensive coordinator, Arizona State split four games against Mora-coached UCLA teams and averaged 36.5 points per game.
Those Sun Devil offenses spread carries among different running backs, with a home-run threat at wide receiver powering the passing attack. Memphis has that in Anthony Miller.
"Anthony is really a good player," Mora said. "He's a guy we certainly have to focus on."
With one game more under its belt, UCLA might have found its identity somewhat more than Memphis. At the core for UCLA is Rosen.
His eye-popping statistical output through two games includes 820 yards to go with his nine touchdowns, and he has yet to throw an interception. Rosen's performance is perhaps all the more impressive juxtaposed with his start against Texas A&M, which included a number of hits from the Aggies defense.
"The most impressive thing about Josh has been, even though he's been hit, he's maintained his composure," Norvell said.
UCLA's visit to Memphis on Saturday also has implications for the perception of their respective conferences -- perhaps more so for the Tigers, drawing a rare home opportunity against a Power Five opponent.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco declared his league's intention to establish itself as the sixth power conference in 2015. The seasons since have featured high-profile wins for the AAC, including a Memphis home win over the SEC's Ole Miss Rebels in 2015.
"That's something people look at: 'How are you competing against ... the Power Five, if you're a non-Power Five?'" Norvell said. "(A game against a Power Five opponent) continues to put focus on the quality of young men and teams we have in our conference."