When the UCLA Bruins kick off the 2017 college football season in prime time Sunday against Texas A&M, they’ll have to prepare for elements both uniquely familiar and completely unknown.
The Aggies visit the Rose Bowl in the second half of a home-and-home series with UCLA, the first of which was played last September in College Station, Texas. Texas A&M held off a fourth-quarter Bruins rally to win in overtime, 31-24.
That contest marked the debut of Noel Mazzone as A&M offensive coordinator, coming off four seasons in the same post at UCLA. Under Mazzone’s direction, the Bruins averaged 34.4, 37.5, 33.5 and 32.2 points per game from 2012 through 2015.
In his first season with the Aggies, Mazzone’s offense averaged 34.8 points per game — a cool 10 more on average than UCLA produced in Kennedy Polamalu’s lone season with play-calling duties.
Bruins head coach Jim Mora understands that Mazzone-coordinated offenses can put up points. He knows Mazzone will make enough adjustments to deviate (enough) from what UCLA saw in his time at Westwood.
“Noel knows us, just like we know him,” Mora said. “He knows our tendencies just like we know his. So it’s kind of that game of cat and mouse. Noel’s a smart guy, and he’s going to have some wrinkles that we’re going to have to adjust to.”
Familiarity with Nazzone’s play-calling might benefit UCLA more on a typical game week, especially with the benefit of game film.
But as Mora notes, the many months leading up to Sunday’s game offer even more time for the coordinator once deemed UCLA’s mad scientist to spend in his lab.
“It’s kind of like a bowl game,” Mora said of the time preparing for Week 1. “During the normal week, you have three practices to prepare. During a bowl [season], you have 15. For that first game, you’ve got a full offseason, so you never really know what kind of wrinkles you’re going to see.”
Introducing unexpected wrinkles was a hallmark of Mazzone’s offenses at UCLA. Inserting Myles Jack at running back against Arizona produced one of the most surprising breakout performances of the 2013 season.
Mazzone also introduced short-yardage and goal-line sets that made use of defensive linemen Cassius Marsh and Eddie Vanderdoes as lead blockers, ballcarriers, and — on very rare occasions — pass-catchers.
UCLA can expect the unexpected from Texas A&M’s offense Sunday, starting with quarterback play. Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin has never been one to rush his decision on the position.
In 2012, he named redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel the Week 1 starter less than a week before kickoff. This year, the three-man race among senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and true freshman Kellen Mond appears headed down to the wire.
It’s possible — likely, even — that UCLA won’t know which it will face until game day. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is planning accordingly.
“All those guys bring a little something different to the table: different skill sets, different levels of experience,” Mora said. “We have to be prepared for any of the three; we’ll have a plan in place.”
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