1. Find some way to rush the passer. UCLA has one, key weakness: The offensive line. Two weeks ago, the Bruins gave up a staggering 10 sacks, and though they allowed only two last week, that was more of a testament to quarterback Brett Hundley’s escapability as anything else.
So far, California has proven itself woefully unable to get any kind of pressure on quarterbacks, and that weakness is magnified as you move back into the linebacking unit and the defensive backfield. The linebackers then have to blitz more, leaving the underneath and screen passes open, as we’ve seen against Colorado and Washington. The cornerbacks, if there is no pressure on the quarterback, have to cover longer, and the longer that this injury-depleted group has to cover, the worse they look.
Speaking of injuries: The Bears lost two more defensive backs for the season this past week, in Joel Willis (reportedly an ACL) and Griffin Piatt, who head coach Sonny Dykes called one of the team’s MVPs thus far.
Piatt going down is magnified by the utter lack of safety depth, with Avery Sebastian still ramping up his production to pre-injury levels, the day-to-day status of veteran Stefan McClure and Darius Allensworth -- who was recruited as a safety – playing corner and nickel. Could Maximo Espitia be moved to safety like he was last year? It’s possible, but for now, we’ll be seeing a lot of Patrick Worstell, who is undergoing the same transition Piatt underwent – receiver to defensive back – and having to do it in half the time.
Here’s where the pass rush problem gets even more complicated: Brennan Scarlett. His sprained knee against Washington State kept him out against Washington, and forced Tony Mekari -- all 6-foot-1, 275 pounds of him – to play defensive end at the start of last week’s game. Mekari has made great strides … as a defensive tackle. He’s stout and wide, but not long. The failure thus far of Jonathan Johnson to develop may necessitate Noah Westerfield seeing a lot more time. That’s a lot of inexperience up front, and with Mekari moving outside, that saps depth from the inside, where the Bruins are sure to be stronger, thanks to the emergence of Kenny Lacy at left guard.
Lacy is very much a student of the game, and is very bright. His performance last week in his second game at the position was a revelation for UCLA, and one can only surmise that the learning curve for the one-time tackle will be steep, indeed, and he’ll be even better by this Saturday.
Here’s the bottom line: Utah’s pass rush was much better than Oregon’s, and Cal’s, without Scarlett, will prove to be much worse in comparison.
2. The zone-read option. Hundley doesn’t appear to be making his decision on whether to give the ball or pull it back. Last week, there were several inside-zone option runs where, if Hundley had actually read the defense and pulled the ball, he would have had plenty of room to run against the Ducks.
If the Bears’ linebackers can be disciplined enough to hold the edge and stay assignment-sound, as they have for the most part this year, they could find a way to contain Hundley, at least in theory. There’s only so much they can do against the 6-foot-3, 226-pound battering ram once he gets going. The good news is that this group has proven to be much more sound than previous incarnations of the Cal defense in open-field tackling.
As a sub-topic to this, consider Hundley’s ability to make plays on the run. If the linebackers do blitz – and the film shows that Hundley hasn’t readily picked up front-side outside linebacker blitzes against Oregon – Hundley has shown a remarkable ability to create on the run. That’s his best attribute. Cal can’t blitz, or else Hundley will start to improvise, and with a piecemeal defensive backfield, the chances of stopping him are slim – just like the inexperienced corners playing now. Beyond that, the longer Hundley can extend a play, the longer that inexperienced corners and safeties have to cover, which means more opportunities for coverage to either break down or just evaporate, with young DBs either starting to freelance or just not knowing what to do in those situations because they haven’t seen them – or an athlete like Hundley – before.
Speaking of running, this will be the Bears’ first true test as far as run defense is concerned. If Hundley does hand it off instead of pulling the ball, he’s got plenty of support from his running backs.
Paul Perkins has been adept at picking up pass rushers and protecting Hundley, but beyond that, he had a career-high 191 yards on 22 carries ( an average of 8.6 yards per carry) last week, the best day by a Bruins tailback since 2012.
Nathan Starks had a signature run against Oregon, trucking Ifo Ekpre Olomu for a 19-yard gain as part of a four-carry, 29-yard day.
UCLA ran the ball 54 times on Saturday against Oregon. If you think they’ll run the ball that much again, though, you’re kidding yourselves, particularly with the Cal secondary in the state it’s in.
That said, the ground game is a huge part of the Bruins’ offense. UCLA is fifth in the conference in rushing offense (194.5 ypg), just ahead of the Huskies (191.5). Even without Scarlett, the Bears were able to hold Washington to well under its season average coming in, as the Huskies gained 144 yards, and just 2.9 yards per carry.
This is more of a chicken-or-egg argument, though. Did Washington run less because the passing game was so lucrative, or did the run defense necessitate more passes? I suspect we’ll gain more clarity once we see what UCLA does on Saturday. One more stat to note: The Bruins gained 328 yards on the ground against the Ducks last week.
3. How will Jared Goff bounce back? Goff had his worst game since his abortive performance against Oregon last season, with four fumbles – including one on the goal line that fell into the hands of Shaq Thompson for a 100-yard touchdown return.
The last time Goff was coming off a loss – the last-second Hail Mary against Arizona – he went 24-for-42 for 458 yards and seven touchdowns against Colorado. The Bruins are decidedly not the Buffaloes, though their passing defense is actually worse than Colorado (sixth in the conference to the Buffs’ fourth). There is arguably more talent in the UCLA secondary, though, headed by junior corner Ishmael Adams -- who’s also a top-notch returner, leading the league in kickoff return average – and safeties Randall Goforth (junior) and Anthony Jefferson (redshirt senior).
The Bruins’ secondary is also very deep, with true freshman Jaleel Wadood -- a former four-star Cal pledge – and sophomore safety Tahaan Goodman.
Goff will also face plenty of pressure up front, with game-changing end Owamagbe Odighizuwa (12th in the Pac-12 with 5.5 TFLs) and two of the conference’s best linebackers in Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks (104 tackles between the two).