The Kansas State Wildcats will play the UCLA Bruins in the Cactus Bowl on Dec. 26 at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix.
Here are five things to know about UCLA as both teams begin preparing for the game:
1. Lost in transition
UCLA fired coach Jim Mora a few weeks ago and replaced him with the top free agent on the market this hiring season — Chip Kelly. The future appears bright for the Bruins with the former Oregon/NFL head coach taking over, but he won’t have anything to do with this game. That job falls to interim coach Jedd Fisch, while Kelly sits back and watches from somewhere above the action at Chase Field.
That creates an interesting dynamic for UCLA. Will the Bruins put everything they have into closing out the season with a winning record or will they throw younger players out there and let them audition for their future coach?
“We are playing this game as the 2017 Bruins, not the 2018 Bruins,” Fisch said. “All of our focus will be on what we have done, what we have built, what we have established and what we have done schematically offensively and defensively over the last six years. In terms of that aspect of it, we are fully on board as the staff that is coaching the 2017 team.”
It remains to be seen how motivated the Bruins will be for this game, but they defeated California in the regular-season finale to clinch a bowl berth and quarterback Josh Rosen is choosing to play rather than prepare for the NFL draft. The team could rally behind this coaching staff and try to send it out on a high note.
2. Josh Rosen is a future NFL quarterback
He hasn’t led UCLA to the heights some envisioned when he signed with the Bruins out of high school, but Rosen remains one of the top NFL prospects in all of college football.
The strong-armed, intelligent, out-spoken passer could be one of the first players selected in the 2018 NFL draft.
He has battled injuries throughout his college career, which is part of the reason UCLA went a disappointing 6-6 this season, but the Bruins have always been dangerous with Rosen on the field.
The junior threw for 3,717 yards and 26 touchdowns, despite missing action with injuries this season.
Rosen raised some eyebrows when he expressed a desire to play in UCLA’s bowl game, considering other top prospects have bailed on postseason games the past two years. But he seems committed to fighting through injuries and playing in one more college game.
“We have had two practices so far and Josh has fully participated in both of those practices,” Fisch said. “We are very fortunate in that regard. He has thrown the ball well.”
K-State has faced several sensational quarterbacks this season (Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph, Will Grier, Kenny Hill) but Rosen is the best pure passer of the group. His main weakness: trying to do too much. Like a young Brett Favre, Rosen doesn’t like to throw the ball away. That occasionally leads to big plays for the defense.
3. No lead is safe against UCLA
If K-State takes an early lead against UCLA, it can’t afford to take its foot off the gas.
Seriously, the UCLA Bruins are the Buffalo Bills (remember their 32-point comeback against the Houston Oilers?) of college football.
UCLA began the season with an unbelievable come-from-behind victory over Texas A&M that remains one of the most entertaining games of the season. The Aggies led 44-10 midway through the third quarter, but Rosen (491 yards, four touchdowns) led the Bruins on a furious rally and won the game 45-44.
4. Run the dang ball
That’s what fans of seemingly every UCLA opponent said this season. The Bruins rank 129th nationally (out of 130 teams) in run defense, allowing an average of 282.7 yards per game.
The only team worse: San Jose State, which allowed 285.4.
Not surprisingly, teams have rushed for 31 touchdowns against UCLA.
K-State running backs Alex Barnes, Justin Silmon and Dalvin Warmack have to be licking their chops for this matchup.
5. Keep an eye on Kenny Young
Kenny Young led UCLA with 101 tackles this season and he had 90 tackles last season.
This year, he piled up 7.5 tackles for loss and recovered a fumble.
UCLA is leaky in several areas on defense, but the senior linebacker has been solid. He is their top defender, and the Wildcats will need to be aware of his presence in the Cactus Bowl.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett