LA Bowl: First Look At The UCLA Bruins
Fresh off of winning the Mountain West, Boise State will face a Bruins team in transition to close out the 2023 season.
Which Bruins team will show up at SoFi?
After clinching the program’s fourth outright Mountain West football championship, the Boise State Broncos will conclude their year in southern California against the UCLA Bruins in the Starco Brands LA Bowl.
Where the Broncos rallied and have positioned themselves to end 2023 on a high note, the Bruins will defend what is essentially their home turf while mired in uncertainty. With an imminent move to the Big Ten, a head coach under fire, a highly-touted quarterback lost to the transfer portal, and a coordinator to replace, the drama surrounding UCLA at the moment might be as Hollywood as it gets in college football.
Here’s what Boise State fans need to know about their bowl game opponent.
2023 UCLA Bruins — Team Profile
2023 Record: 7-5 (4-5 Pac-12)
SP+ ranking: 38th
FEI ranking: 39th
Sagarin rating: 28th
Head coach: Chip Kelly (6th year at UCLA, 10th year overall; 34-34 with Bruins, 80-41 overall)
2023 in a nutshell: Following 2022, the program’s most successful year in almost a decade, Kelly’s Bruins found it harder to create a sufficient encore than expected this fall. UCLA started the year 4-1, only dropping a one-score decision on the road to Utah, but the highly-regarded offense never found consistency and scored more than 24 points just three times in its last seven games.
Though the Bruins did manage to take down cross-town rival USC in November, UCLA finished the regular season by losing three of its last four games, including home defeats to Arizona State and Cal. While the LA Bowl represents the program’s first appearance in back-to-back bowls since a five-year streak from 2011 to 2015, Kelly’s seeming job security hasn’t come without consternation.
Best wins: at USC (7-5), vs. Coastal Carolina (7-5), vs. Washington State (5-7)
Laiatu Latu, LB
If you’re compiling a short list of the best players in college football, you have to include Latu after the year he’s had. Not only does he own the top overall Pro Football Focus grade of any defender in the country, 95.5, PFF also credits him with 36 quarterback hurries (tied for sixth) to go along with the 13 sacks (tied for fourth) and 21.5 tackles for loss (first) he’s accrued in 12 games. Put simply, there are numerous reasons why he was recently named a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award and Lott IMPACT Trophy and has already won the Lombardi Trophy, so get familiar with #15 if you aren’t already.
When #UCLA EDGE Laiatu Latu takes the field in Mobile, he’ll be the best player there.
— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) November 29, 2023
Darius Muasau, LB
The former Hawaii transfer has done little but thrive in southern California since joining the Bruins in early 2022. He earned a spot on the second-team all-Pac 12 defense this year by making a team-high 64 tackles, including four sacks and eight tackles for loss, and breaking up six passes, so it’s likely that he’ll be a central figure in UCLA’s plans for stopping the dynamic Broncos offense.
Duke Clemens, C
One of the longest-tenured Bruins on this year’s roster, the 6-foot-4, 300-pound redshirt senior has started 44 games over the last five seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, Clemens has played a team-high 843 snaps and allowed two sacks and 12 quarterback hurries, earning a spot on the second-team all-conference offense recently for his work.
Carson Steele, RB
Widely considered one of last off-season’s biggest transfer portal prizes after finishing tenth among FBS running backs in rushing yards, Steele’s first year with UCLA turned out to be a productive one. Though he split time with others in the offensive backfield, he led the Bruins with 847 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns, adding 17 catches for 169 yards as a receiver.
Truck stick activated.
— CBS Sports College Football 🏈 (@CBSSportsCFB) September 10, 2023
Gabriel Murphy, LB
Given the attention lavished on Latu in particular this year, you might be tempted to overlook Murphy, a redshirt junior from Dallas in his second full year as a starter for the Bruins. Opposing quarterbacks and running backs could tell you that’s a mistake, though, since Murphy finished second among UCLA defenders with seven sacks, 15 tackles for loss, and (per PFF) 37 quarterback hurries. On many other defenses, he’d stand alone, but Boise State will have their hands full tracking him among others.
UCLA finished below the national average with 1.92 points per drive (82nd in FBS) and right near it in earning 47.6% of available yards per drive (60th). Considering this unit ranked in the top ten by both counts in both 2021 and 2022, the result seems vaguely disappointing, especially with a five-star quarterback, a pair of quality running backs, and a starting five on the offensive line that didn’t miss a single start this fall.
That blue-chipper under center, Dante Moore, had a fast start to the year but became erratic as the year progressed, perhaps unsurprisingly for a true freshman, and eventually elected to hit the transfer portal in late November. Ethan Garbers stepped up to replace Moore in mid-October, starting six games altogether, and provided some stability in completing 66.4% of his throws for 9894 yards, nine touchdowns, and a 2.2% interception rate.
At running back, Steele combined with T.J. Harden to provide a reasonably potent duo. Together, they averaged 5.18 yards on a combined 303 carries and accounted for 15 scores. Along the offensive line, Clemens and Purdue transfer Spencer Holstege provided a pair of experienced athletes with over 40 career starts each, but the Bruins struggled at times with pass protection this year. Among Pac-12 teams, only Colorado allowed more than the 42 sacks that UCLA did.
Another obstacle with which the Bruins had to contend is that the passing game wasn’t particularly explosive, either: UCLA had just 37 pass plays of 20 or more yards, also the second-fewest in the Pac-12. Kelly’s offense does have some players who can do some damage, however, most notably wide receivers Logan Loya (58 catches, 650 yards, five touchdowns) and J. Michael Sturdivant (32-455-3).
If UCLA’s offense was inconsistent, its defense under coordinator D’Anton Lynn was close to dominant, allowing on 36.4% of available yards per drive on average (12th in FBS) and 1.40 points per drive (8th). Unfortunately for the Bruins, USC hired him away to replace Alex Grinch, while it’s an open question as to how much of this unit’s star power will actually play in the bowl game. To this point, redshirt freshman safety Kamari Ramsey is the only defender of note to have announced a departure.
Should the front seven remain intact, it could pose the stiffest challenge that Boise State’s potent ground game has seen all year. Beyond Latu, Muasau, and the Murphy twins (Gabriel and Grayson Murphy, who had 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks this year), the mountainous duo of Jay Toia and Gary Smith III handle the defensive interior while senior Kain Medrano (52 tackles, six TFLs) has started every game at strongside linebacker. In all, this group led the charge in holding opponents to just 2.33 yards per carry, the third-lowest average in the country.
In the secondary, Ramsey’s absence could be a major factor in a unit that pulled in 14 interceptions in 12 games. Senior cornerbacks Alex Johnson and John Humphrey combined to hold opponents to a 57.1% completion rate and 10.9 yards per reception on 98 total targets, but Kenny Churchwell III and Jordan Anderson are the only remaining safeties who received notable playing time throughout the season.