The last time UCLA and Houston played a significant game, the sport was basketball and Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes were in the lineups. Saturday's football game may lack that national impact, but it carries weight for both teams. Houston can get a victory over a team from a Bowl Championship Series conference. UCLA is trying to avoid an 0-3 start — with a game at No. 6 Texas looming next week. Staff writer Chris Foster looks at the key issues and matchups:
Just about the hottest news story in Houston since "Houston, we have a problem" crackled over speakers at Mission Control has been quarterback Case Keenum's health.
Keenum left last week's game against Texas El Paso because of what was believed to be a concussion. He might as well have gone into the witness protection program. He was not seen or heard from this week, and Coach Kevin Sumlin proclaimed the subject off limits.
Apparently, Houston does not have a major problem because Keenum reportedly was medically cleared to play on Friday.
Whether that puts the Heisman Trophy candidate — who is fifth in yards passing in NCAA history — on the field as a starter remains to be seen. If not, the Cougars remain formidable. Backup quarterback Cotton Turner completed nine of 10 passes after Keenum's injury.
Can the Bruins pressure the quarterback? They have six sacks this season — three attributed to coverage and/or quarterback indecision, another when Kansas State quarterback Carson Coffman collided with an unsuspecting UCLA player.
In a spiral
So far, it seems to be a typical season for UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince. He has battled injuries (shoulder, back) and has been screamed at by Coach Rick Neuheisel after coming of the field.
What Prince is looking for is anything resembling the run he had during two-plus games last season: He threw for 323 yards against Oregon State, 212 yards in one half against Washington and 314 yards against Washington State.
Prince says he is healthy for the first time since the second day of training camp in August. Whether he will get the chance to roll up big numbers is questionable.
The Bruins have had the ball for 47 minutes 13 seconds in two games. Their opponents have had possession for 72 minutes 47 seconds. This even though the Bruins have run the ball reasonably well.
On the defensive
All the media and fan-based frothing at the mouth about the offense made for an entertaining week, but UCLA's flickering hopes remain with the defense.
Houston's air show is formidable, but the Cougars also demonstrated they can run the ball with 305 yards rushing against Texas El Paso, 195 by Bryce Bell. The working theory would be that UCLA's run defense is better than UTEP's — except the Bruins rank 116th nationally and the Miners 95th against the run.
Look for heaps of mixing and matching along the UCLA defensive front, as was the case in a 35-0 loss to Stanford last week. UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers is billed as a playmaker. The Bruins need some plays.
Third (down) degree
UCLA was one for nine on third-down conversions against Stanford and three for 13 against Kansas State.
Much of that rests on Prince's shoulders, though dropped passes, penalties and other mistakes have also contributed. Prince, on third-down plays, is three for 10 for nine yards and has had one pass intercepted. He has also been sacked twice on third down and scrambled for two yards another time. The total yardage for Prince in 13 third-down pass plays: three yards.
Meanwhile, UCLA opponents are 17 for 32 on third-down conversions.
The big picture
The 23rd-ranked Cougars need a win to keep poll and Heisman Trophy voters interested. It would be better if UCLA had actually won a game this season, but a victory over a BCS conference team, even a poor one, helps the Houston image.
The Bruins need this victory because, well, otherwise they probably won't have one for a while. UCLA has a Texas two-step ahead. A loss to Houston and 0-4 is a real possibility for the Bruins.
UCLA has lost six consecutive games to ranked teams under Neuheisel. The Bruins have not started a season 0-3 since going 0-4 to start the 1971 season.