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UCLA Seeks Sixth Straigh Season-Opening Win, Over Kansas State

FACTS & STATS: Site: Bill Snyder Family Stadium (50,000) — Manhattan, Kansas. Television: ABC. Home Record: UCLA 0-0, Kansas St. 0-0. Away Record: UCLA 0-0, Kansas St. 0-0. Neutral Record: UCLA 0-0, Kansas St. 0-0. Conference Record: UCLA 0-0, Kansas St. 0-0. Series Record: UCLA leads, 1-0.

GAME NOTES: The UCLA Bruins head to Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan to open their 2010 schedule against the Kansas State Wildcats in non-league action.

UCLA has won its last five season openers. The Bruins managed seven wins last year under coach Rick Neuheisel, marking an improvement of three victories from 2008’s 4-8 campaign. UCLA returns only six starters on offense and five on defense, but those players represent a significant portion of the team’s production from a year ago.

As for the Wildcats, they welcome back five offensive and seven defensive starters from last year’s 6-6 squad. K-State was tough to beat at home last year, finishing with a 5-1 mark at Bill Snyder Stadium. Still, two of the team’s six wins last year came against FCS opponents, and the Wildcats were never able to gain much momentum from week to week.

UCLA owns a 1-0 series edge after picking up a 23-9 win over the Wildcats in their inaugural meeting last year at the Rose Bowl.

Bruins’ offensive coordinator Norm Chow has a reputation as being one of the top offensive minds in the game. But in Chow’s two years at UCLA, the Bruins have finished 111th and 94th, respectively, in total offense. Still, there is some reason for optimism this year, and that is largely due to the growth of sophomore signal-caller Kevin Prince, who was inconsistent last year as a freshman, but showed flashes of talent and is poised to take a step forward this season. What should help Prince in his second year is the talent that surrounds him, beginning with junior wideouts Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario. Both receivers are big targets that should help move the chains. Also look for Colorado transfer Josh Smith to play a vital role in the passing attack. Smith, who is also a junior, is not a big target but he has excellent speed to serve as Prince’s deep threat. Sophomore Johnathan Franklin rushed for 556 yards a year ago but faded down the stretch. Highly-touted freshmen Malcolm Jones and Jordan James could figure into the backfield mix.

Roaming the secondary for UCLA is All-American safety Rahim Moore, who led the nation with 10 interceptions in ‘09. He’ll headline a pass defense that ranked 28th in the nation last year and has three starters returning in the defensive backfield. That should help soften the blow of losing top corner Alterraun Verner, as should the emergence of talented sophomore corner Aaron Hester. The Bruins also lose a playmaker at linebacker in Reggie Carter, but coach Neuheisel does return an all-conference player in Akeem Ayers, who finished with 75 tackles and six sacks last year. While losing Verner and Carter hurt, the biggest hole left by a departing player is on the front line where Brian Price handled the opposition. Price was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, so it will be extremely tough to replace him. Hopes are that Datone Jones and sophomore Damien Holmes can give the Bruins some pressure off the ends.

With four starters back along the offensive line, and with 1,000-yard rusher Daniel Thomas healthy and ready to make his senior year a banner one, look for K-State to once again feature the running game. Thomas, who gained 1,265 yards and scored 11 TDs in 2009, is already one of the better backs in the Big 12, but the Wildcats need the passing game to gel in order to alleviate some pressure from his shoulders. For now, senior Carson Coffman is atop the depth chart at quarterback, but he will need to produce in order to fend off sophomore Collin Klein and redshirt junior Sammuel Lamur. The KSU offense accounted for just seven passing TDs all of last season, so getting the ball down the field will be instrumental in keeping opposing defenses from keying on the run game. The receiving corps is unproven, but there is talent in the form of senior Aubrey Quarles and a couple of transfers in Brodrick Smith and Chris Harper.

Last year, the Wildcats were pretty stingy against the run (105.4 ypg), but somewhat lax in defending the pass (234.5 ypg). Maintaining the former while improving the latter will obviously help K-State achieve its goals this season. Only a handful of starters return, but the majority are in the secondary which should help against the pass, although a lack of experience in the front seven could mean a slide down the rankings when it comes to stopping the run. Junior safety Tysyn Hartman impressed with his coverage and leadership throughout camp. Outside of junior DE Brandon Harold, there isn’t much in the way of proven talent up front. Add a rather green collection of linebackers and it’s really anyone’s guess as to how the Wildcats are going to measure up against the better teams they will play this season.

The Bruins have fared well in their past few season openers, however a win at Bill Snyder Stadium is anything but a guarantee. Prince will be tested right off the bat in a hostile environment. Defensively, the Bruins will have their hands full trying to slow down Thomas and the ground attack. Give a slight edge to the Bruins, who have a few more established playmakers and won this matchup last year.