Here are five things to watch during UCLA’s season opener against Bowling Green Saturday at the Rose Bowl:
Bye, September blues?
It’s a new UCLA football season. Slather on the sunscreen, wipe out the cooler and dust off the folding chairs. There’s one usual trapping of September that the Bruins would just as well abandon. That’s the disappointment they have experienced before the first chill of fall overtakes the Rose Bowl.
UCLA has not completed a nonconference schedule unbeaten since 2015 (unless you smart alecks count COVID-19-shortened 2020, when the Bruins played only Pac-12 foes). This could be the year that changes. UCLA is a 24½-point favorite over the Falcons and will also be heavily favored against Alabama State and South Alabama.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly used video clips of Bowling Green’s 14-10 victory over Minnesota from last September to illustrate how the Falcons could beat a Power Five opponent on the road.
Of course, Bowling Green went on to finish the season 4-8, but it ranks No. 1 nationally in 2022 by returning 92% of its production, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. That includes nine starters back on offense and defense — even counting the recent loss of running back Terion Stewart, who will not play this season for unspecified reasons.
Among those returners is linebacker Darren Anders, a first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection last season after leading the conference with 10.3 tackles per game.
Bowling Green senior quarterback Matt McDonald is fulfilling a legacy by playing at the Rose Bowl.
His father, Paul, was a USC quarterback who led the Trojans to back-to-back victories in the Rose Bowl game in 1979 and 1980. His brothers Michael, another USC quarterback, and Andrew, a quarterback at New Mexico State, also played in the iconic stadium.
A native of Newport Beach, Matt grew up a diehard USC fan. At Mater Dei High, he beat out a young counterpart named JT Daniels for the starting job before suffering an injury that cost him the spot. McDonald transferred to Mission Viejo to complete his high school career and spent the next two seasons at Boston College.
“I dreamed of playing in the Cardinal and Gold and beating the Bruins,” McDonald said, “but life’s crazy, just took a little different route but I still get to do it [play at the Rose Bowl], so it’s awesome.”
McDonald has gone 115 passes since his last interception, which came on his first pass of the third quarter against Eastern Michigan last October.
What about Bill?
UCLA’s offense has continually hummed under Kelly, but the Bruins are still seeking a competent defense. That’s why Bill McGovern will be sitting in the press box Saturday.
Outside of one season as a defensive analyst at Nebraska, the Bruins’ new defensive coordinator has not coached at the college level since holding the same post at Boston College in 2012. Kelly said he was intrigued by the NFL defensive pass concepts McGovern could bring to the team after stops with the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Chicago Bears.
The first signs of whether it’s a smart move should be apparent Saturday.
The forecast calls for a high of 104 degrees at the Rose Bowl, some 12 degrees warmer than the projected temperature in Westwood. If the Bruins can’t get that on-campus stadium many have desired, perhaps there’s an alternative.
“We’ll try to get a dome built between now and Saturday,” Kelly quipped.
The best plan beyond hydration and lingering in the mist of the sideline “Cool Zone” may be heavy substitutions. If the Bruins rotate liberally, they can keep everyone (relatively) cool.
“You’ve got to play a lot of guys,” Kelly said, “and I think that’s beneficial to us is that we do have a lot of guys that we can play.”
UCLA will try to help fans beat the heat by providing water refill stations; cooling buses with air-conditioning; tents with misters and fans; and free Liquid I.V. samples.