The Foster Farms Bowl, also known by some as the “Chicken Bowl”, features an intriguing matchup between two traditional powers as the 8-4 UCLA Bruins are scheduled to take on the 5-7 Nebraska Cornhuskers Saturday night in San Francisco. This game is a contest between two squads that had much higher hopes entering the season. For UCLA, injuries and some bizarre play calling ruined a strong start. The Bruins rose as high as #7 in the country before sputtering to an 8-4 record and being crushed in the season finale by arch rival USC. For Nebraska it’s been a season of heartbreak, with the Huskers losing all seven of their games by a combined 31 points and losing on the final play of the game three times.
Josh Rosen was supposed to be good when he signed with the Bruins as a five star recruit, and the Bellflower, California native hasn’t disappointed. Rosen has thrown for 3,351 yards and 20 touchdowns while throwing just nine interceptions. Most of Rosen’s season was a spectacular success, but the freshman is coming off a rough performance against USC in which he tossed two interceptions and also fumbled in the Bruins 40-21 loss.
Being a Husker fan and watching Tommy Armstrong’s play in 2015 can only be described as riding a high speed roller coaster with no seat belt on. For every incredible high, such as his tremendous fourth quarter performances against Michigan State and Miami, there were terrible lows, such as his four interception game against Iowa or his horrendous pick six against Northwestern. Despite all the peaks and valleys, Armstrong has thrown for 2,856 yards and 21 touchdowns, but his love for throwing up #yolobombs has led to him also throwing 16 interceptions, second most in the nation behind Virginia’s Matt Johns.
Armstrong has the edge in experience, but Rosen has been far more consistent this season, so the Bruins get the edge.
Nebraska struggled all season to figure out their running back rotation, as Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, and Devine Ozigbo were all given opportunities as the number one back. Newby has the highest rushing total with 743 rushing yards but has been used sparingly since suffering an ankle injury against Purdue. Senior Imani Cross replaced Newby and was solid in Nebraska’s final three games, rushing for 243 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan State, Rutgers, and Iowa.
While Nebraska still searches for their answer at running back, there is no question who the main man in the Bruins backfield is. Junior Paul Perkins followed up his breakout 2014 season with a 2015 season in which he rushed for 1,275 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns despite being hobbled by a knee injury for the second half of the season. Backing up Perkins is the highly touted freshman Soso Jamabo, who averaged 6 yards per carry in limited touches this season.
Big Edge: UCLA
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Senior Jordan Payton continued to quietly be one of the best wide receivers in the country in 2015, improving on his 2014 season by catching 75 passes for 1,069 yards and four touchdowns. Thomas Duarte took major strides in his junior year, catching 49 passes for 820 yards and 10 touchdowns while serving as a flexed out tight end in UCLA’s spread scheme. Darren Andrews and Devin Fuller round out the rest of the wide receiver rotation. Fuller is the speed demon out of the slot, while Andrews is Mr. Reliable underneath.
Nebraska’s receivers were a pleasant surprise in 2015. The passing game excelled in Lincoln despite star sophomore Demornay Pierson-El missing most of the season with foot and knee injuries. Junior Jordan Westerkamp leads the way with 63 catches for 874 yards and seven touchdowns. Joining Westerkamp is fellow junior Brandon Reilly, who shook off the nagging injuries that plagued him in the past to catch 37 passes for 716 yards and four touchdowns. Alonzo Moore rounds out the trio of talented junior receivers. The Louisiana native caught six touchdowns in a bounce back season from his rough 2014. Junior tight end Cethan Carter finally began capitalizing on his massive potential late in the season, finishing the season with 22 receptions for 297 yards and two touchdowns.
Senior Center Jake Brendel leads the way for the Bruins offensive line, as the second team all Pac-12 pick anchors an offensive line that cleared the way for a rushing attack that averaged 187 yards per game. Sophomores Conor McDermott and Kenny Lacy have also been pleasant surprises and have played well in 2015.
A late season shuffle that put senior Zach Sterup in the lineup at guard paid off big time for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, as the offensive line’s run blocking improved tremendously in the final three games of the season. The best of the bunch is probably redshirt freshman Nick Gates, who was a contender for freshman all-American honors until a high ankle sprain forced him to miss three games midway through the season. Senior left tackle Alex Lewis has also played well after a rough start to the season both on and off the field.
Slight Edge: UCLA
Two of the best defensive tackles in the country will likely be playing their final games Saturday, as UCLA’s Kenny Clark and Nebraska’s Maliek Collins are both expected to be high draft picks in the NFL Draft.
Clark (63 tackles, 5 sacks) has been an absolute beast in 2015 as UCLA’s nose guard, making several plays despite constantly being double teamed. Clark is joined in the middle by Eli Ankou (42 tackles), while Junior Takkarist McKinley (4.5 sacks) brings pressure from the edge.
Collins (29 tackles, 2.5 sacks), doesn’t have gaudy statistics like UCLA’s Clark, but the junior from Kansas City helped keep a Nebraska defense together despite countless injuries on the defensive line and put in dominant performances against Illinois and Wisconsin. Collins is joined by junior Vincent Valentine on the inside, while former walk-ons Jack Gangwish and Ross Dzuris man the defensive end spots. The best pass rusher of the bunch is reserve defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun, who had 4.5 sacks through five games before a knee injury sidelined him.
Slight Edge: UCLA
With star linebacker and freak athlete Myles Jack sidelined with a knee injury, Senior Aaron Wallace became the leader of the Bruins linebackers, as the San Diego native tallied 57 tackles and 7 sacks from his OLB/DE hybrid position. Joining Wallace is junior Jayon Brown, who has been on a tear in the final five games, averaged over 11 tackles per game. Rounding out the linebacker group is sophomore Kenny Young, who has tallied 64 tackles this season.
Injuries forced Nebraska to constantly shuffle their linebackers early in the season, but they settled on a talented trio of Josh Banderas, Dedrick Young, and Marcus Newby during Big 10 play. Banderas (57 tackles) is the leader of the group, but true freshman Dedrick Young leads the Husker linebackers with 58 tackles on the season. Marcus Newby rounds out the group after playing very well after replacing injured starter Michael Rose-Ivey.
UCLA has a top 40 pass defense, Nebraska’s pass defense is one of the 10 worst pass defenses in the country. I don’t think anything else really needs to be said.
UCLA Senior Ka’imi Fairbairn was on a tear for most of his senior season, at one point making 17 straight field goals, but he has hit a bit of a wall in the past two games, missing two of his last three field goals. Senior punter Matt Mengel has been decent, but not great for the Bruins this season, averaging 39.9 yards per punt on 50 attempts. Devin Fuller handles return duties for UCLA. He averages 24 yards per kick return and 11 yards per punt return.
Drew Brown had a rough start to his sophomore season, missing four field goals in non conference play. Brown rebounded with a solid performance in conference play and finished the year 20 for 26 on field goals. Junior Sam Foltz earned first team all Big 10 for his punting this season, averaging 44.4 yards per punt on 53 attempts. The injury to Demornay Pierson-El robbed Nebraska of a dynamic return man, but Stanley Morgan and Jordan Westerkamp have done an admirable job of replacing him.
This game comes down to UCLA’s mindset. UCLA was a win away from playing for the Rose Bowl, but are now playing a lower tier bowl against a 5-7 opponent. Coming out flat is a major concern for them. Nebraska’s isn’t a very good team this season but has shown that they can play very well on occasion, namely in their upset over Michigan State and when they went 12 rounds with Iowa in a physical 28-20 loss. I think UCLA comes out motivated due to the embarrassing loss they suffered against USC and Josh Rosen uses this game against Nebraska’s bad secondary to kick start his 2016 Heisman campaign.