CU opponent preview: UCLA to be Buffs first road test in Pac-12 play

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    UCLA's Jacob Tuloti-Mariner closes in on Sefo Liufau of CU during last November's game in Boulder.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Isaiah Oliver returns a punt for a touchdown during CU's 20-10 victory over visiting UCLA last November. The Buffs travel to Los Angeles to play the Bruins in their first Pac-12 road game this season on Sept. 30.



Following his worst season as the head football coach at UCLA, Jim Mora isn’t ready to proclaim that his Bruins will make a significant surge to the top of the Pac-12.

Coming off a disappointing 4-8 season, which included a 1-6 stretch to end the campaign, Mora and the Bruins walked away from spring ball in April feeling better.

Mora wants to see actual results first, however.

“I just want to save any big-time statements about improvement until we get on the field against Texas A&M (in the Sept. 3 season opener) and after that game maybe we can all feel good,” Mora told the media after the Bruins’ spring game. “Right now I’m cautiously optimistic, but I am optimistic.”

Colorado will make its first road trip of the season to UCLA on Sept. 30 in the second game of Pac-12 play. This month, is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment focusing on the Bruins, who are hoping to erase the memory of last year.

After a 3-2 start, the wheels began to fall off when the Bruins visited Arizona State on Oct. 8. UCLA lost that game, 23-20, but also lost quarterback Josh Rosen. He didn’t play the last six games because of a shoulder injury.

The Bruins’ solid defense kept them in most games (five of the losses came by nine points or less), but the offense sputtered. Even with Rosen, the offense wasn’t very good at times.

The offensive line had a tough time protecting Rosen and backup Mike Fafaul, while the run game was one of the worst in the country. Out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, only Texas State – CU’s opponent in Week 2 this season – had fewer rushing yards per game (84.25) and per carry (2.93) than UCLA.

Plenty of experience returns to the offensive line (86 career starts) and three new offensive coaches were hired in the offseason – including coordinator Jedd Fisch – but the key to the offense will be Rosen.

The junior, who started from Day 1 in his true freshman year of 2015, could be one of the top picks in next year’s NFL Draft, but needs a healthy, bounce-back season if UCLA is going to make a run at the South division title.

Defensively, the Bruins should be solid once again. Although they lost a lot of talent to the NFL, they return seniors Kenny Young (linebacker), Jaleel Wadood (safety) and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (defensive tackle), who are all among the best in the Pac-12 at their positions.

UCLA’s conference schedule is no cake walk, with road trips to Stanford, Washington, Utah and USC. That makes the Bruins’ game against Colorado an important one in a pivotal season.

CU opponent preview: UCLA Bruins

Date with CU: Sept. 30, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., time TBA

Head coach: Jim Mora, 6th season (41-24)

Series: UCLA leads 9-3

Bruins in 2016: 4-8, 2-7 in the Pac-12

Returning starters: 13 – 7 on offense, 6 on defense

Offensive players to watch: WR Darren Andrews, Sr. (55 catches, 709 yards, 4 TD); RB Soso Jamabo, Jr. (82 att., 321 yards, 3 TD; 16 catches, 197 yards); G Kenny Lacy, Sr. (21 career starts); WR Jordan Lasley, Jr. (41 catches, 620 yards, 5 TD); WR Eldridge Massington, Sr. (20 catches, 285 yards); C Scott Quessenberry, Sr. (31 career starts; 1st-team All-Pac-12); QB Josh Rosen, Jr. (137 of 231, 1,915 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT); RB Nate Starks, Sr. (85 att., 281 yards, 1 TD).

Defensive players to watch: DT Matt Dickerson, Sr. (37 tackles, 1.5 TFL); CB Nate Meadors, Jr. (35 tackles, 6 PBU); DE Jaelan Phillips, Fr. (Considered one of top five players in the country in 2017 recruiting class); DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Sr. (46 tackles, 5 TFL, 3 sacks); FS Jaleel Wadood, Sr. (76 tackles, 4 PBU); LB Josh Woods, Jr. (26 tackles); LB Kenny Young, Sr. (90 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 INT).

Notable: CU won last year’s match up 20-10 in Boulder, snapping a five-game losing streak to the Bruins … UCLA missed out on a bowl game last year for the first time since 2010. It was the Bruins’ first losing season under Mora. … While the Bruins return 13 starters (players with at least six starts last year), they had five others who started at least four games. … Six linemen who started at least three games last year return. … UCLA is 11-8 in Rosen’s 19 career starts, including 6-6 in Pac-12 games. … In his career, Rosen has thrown for 5,583 yards, 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He’s thrown at least one touchdown in 18 of his 19 starts. … The Bruins’ defense could have two true freshmen in the starting lineup, as Phillips and cornerback Darnay Holmes were both five-star recruits rated among the top 25 players in the 2017 class.

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.