UCLA's passing game sputters
UCLA is now running the ball, but the Bruins rank 118th in the nation in passing
And UCLA, too, shall pass.
At least the Bruins hope so.
They're going to have to at some point this season, but through three games the UCLA passing game has been a no-show.
Heading into Saturday's game at No. 7 Texas, UCLA ranks No. 118 out of 120 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams with a meager 100 yards per game passing, and the Bruins' 74.21 passing efficiency is last in the nation.
It's a vexing problem, considering the head coach is a former quarterback, the offensive coordinator is a noted quarterback guru, and the quarterback and two leading receivers from last year are still on the team.
Nobody around the UCLA program seems to be pushing the panic button just yet, pointing out myriad reasons for the failure to launch, but they acknowledge it's an issue that needs to be resolved if the Bruins hope to compete in the deep Pac-10 Conference.
"It's very important that we get the passing game going," said receiver Taylor Embree, who led the team with 45 receptions last year bit has only three so far this season. "Teams will figure out that we can't pass and stack the box and everything and if we can't pass, then we'll be in trouble."
The reasons for the passing woes are numerous. First, coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow have implemented a complex new rushing attack, and in an effort to perfect the intricacies of the Pistol, the team neglected the passing game to some extent in preseason camp.
Second, quarterback Kevin Prince missed most of camp with a strained oblique and was limited by a shoulder injury the first week of the season. He has not been in sync, completing only 15 of 38 passes (39.4 percent) in his first two games. Third, the receiving corps has dropped an inordinate number of passes.
Last week against Houston, the passing problems weren't really a problem. The new Pistol offense, designed to rejuvenate the Bruins' rushing attack, did exactly that. UCLA rushed for 266 yards and the passing game wasn't really needed.
But even though UCLA won the game 31-13, the lack of a passing attack creates a little uneasiness for an ex-quarterback such as Neuheisel, who is pretty sure UCLA will need to pass in order to find consistent success the rest of this season.
"Passing offense is a very rhythmic thing," he said. "Quarterbacks get a feel for the ball and when they get hot, they get hot. It's hard to get hot when you're not throwing as often."
More On UCLA
For the latest news on UCLA, check out ESPN Los Angeles' blog on the Bruins. Blog
That's not to say that the Bruins are dead set on airing it out anytime soon.
"Coverages tell us that," Chow said. "If they're playing coverage, then we need to be able to run it. If they're packing the line of scrimmage, then we better throw the ball. It's not a matter of, 'Well, you should be throwing it.' Throw it against what?"
Still, the numbers don't lie, and Embree said he's not too happy when he sees UCLA near the bottom of the national rankings in passing categories.
"Nobody likes to be the reason things aren't going right," he said.
Nelson Rosario, the team leader with 10 receptions and 100 yards receiving this season, averaged 17.2 yards a catch last season. This year, he has only one reception for that many yards, but he has faith that the passing attack will regain its potency.
"The last couple of years we couldn't really run, so all we could do was pass," he said. "And it's the same people here, so it's not that we can't do it, we just have to get it going. We've proven that we could throw it in the past; it's just that when it comes down to it, we have to make the plays like we know how."
Prince, who passed for 2,050 yards last season despite missing two games and parts of two others because of injury, said the victory over Houston last week boosted the confidence of the offense. Even though he passed for only 99 yards, he said he expected that game to be the catalyst the passing game needs to get off the ground.
"We're a little more confident, for sure," Prince said. "We came out against Houston and moved the ball and now we're looking to build on that. We didn't get to pass as much as we would have liked, but we do it every day in practice and I have no worries that we'll be able to take it to the field."
It remains to be seen how much the Bruins will need the passing attack against Texas. The Longhorns lead the nation in run defense at 44 yards per game, but they have played three opponents who run pass-heavy spread offenses. Those teams are averaging only 62.5 yards rushing.
The UCLA Pistol attack has averaged 203 yards per game so far, and if it gets going, Prince said he'd be more than happy to keep handing the ball to running backs -- even if his receivers aren't.
"We've been taking it personal that the passing game has struggled," Embree said. "We definitely don't want to be seen as the weak link, and this is the week to go out and do it. We're all pretty anxious to show what we can do with the pass game."
Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.