When UCLA touches down in Houston today they are bringing with them a new coach, a freshman quarterback and several recent seasons of mediocre football.
On the flip side, they are bringing a superb tradition, a BCS pedigree and maybe even a hint of LA glamour. They are also coming in as a 15 ½ point favorite.
Kickoff is 6:36 p.m. CST at Rice Stadium Thursday. The game is being televised by CBS Sports Network.
As the biggest name opponent to pay Rice a visit this year, the Owls are understandably excited and anxious for 6:36 p.m. Thursday to arrive.
“You try to stay calm throughout the week because you don’t want your emotions to get the best of you, but I got a feeling Thursday night is going to be a pretty good atmosphere,” said Rice senior tight end Luke Willson at a news conference Monday.
Willson said it’s fun to have the opportunity to play big name schools like UCLA.
“With them coming here, it will be special,” he said. “The fact that it’s the opening night of college football and on national TV, you can’t set the stage any bigger.”
UCLA appears to be equally excited about starting the season, though playing Rice probably won’t be as exhilarating as their next opponent – Nebraska.
“I’m excited to watch these guys go out and compete,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora after Tuesday’s Bruins practice. “They worked hard through the spring and had an outstanding fall camp. We’ve got a lot of newcomers that will get a chance to take the field for the first time as UCLA Bruins.”
Mora is also making his first game appearance in UCLA gear. The former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks coach inherits a team that returns more than a dozen starters from last year’s 6-8 squad. The Bruins lost to Oregon in the first Pac 12 Championship game and then lost to Illinois 20-14 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
With new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, the Bruins are expected to spread the field and pass the ball more often. Mora tapped redshirt freshman Brett Hundley as the Bruins starting quarterback. He won the starting job over seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut.
In a season preview article written by Dexter Fishmore, SB Nation Los Angeles contributor, Fishmore stated the offensive emphasis will be on quickness and efficiency.
“The Bruins will go no-huddle more than we’ve ever seen them, and the passing game will feature fast three- and five-step drops,” Fishmore wrote. “Mazzone’s playbook is designed to stretch the defense horizontally, pull defenders out of the box and get skill players in one-on-one situations in space. He likes motioning the running back out wide and he really likes the bubble screen.”
While Rice coaches have an idea of what Mora and Mazzone bring to the table, Owls coach David Bailiff said they are more concerned with their own team.
“You really don’t know what to do with the new coaching staff,” he said. “Instead of worrying about them, it has forced us to worry about us.”
Similar to Mora, Bailiff is happy with his team’s training camp.
“We feel real good about the progress we’ve made offensively and defensively, and with Chris Boswell are special teams will be sound this season,” he said. “We have a lot of enthusiasm and we’re looking forward to Thursday night.”
UCLA leads the series with Rice 4-0, with the last meeting resulting in a 26-16 win in 2006 at the Rose Bowl. That Bruin team started 4-1 but ended up 7-6.
“It’s not like they’ve been a bad football team; they just haven’t been in the top 25,” Bailiff said. “It’s great to get them at home. It’s a Pac 12 opponent, who is one of the historic programs. That makes it a lot of fun for our players, fans and the city of Houston to come out and watch us play.”