UCLA's victory over Rice this past Thursday was a solid win, but with Nebraska coming to town, there are several areas where the Bruins need to improve to have a shot at a victory.
Rice wasn't able to exploit UCLA's containment issues much on Thursday, largely because the Owls aren't good, but there are still some problems that need to be cleaned up. Both Cassius Marsh and Owamagbe Odighizuwa had trouble forcing runners inside from the right side, and Anthony Barr was forced to make no-win choices on a couple of option runs. Datone Jones didn't look like he had as many issues, but Rice didn't run as much to his side. Nebraska's running game is not strictly between the tackles; in fact, against Southern Mississippi, they ran a wide variety of off tackle, stretch, and pitch runs designs to get outside quickly. With UCLA's tackling issues at cornerback, and heavy use of man coverage on the outside, forcing those runs inside should be a priority.
2. Pass Rush
One of the big issues on defense early in the Rice game was that, by sending so many players on blitzes off the edge, UCLA's cornerbacks were left in man coverage and little was left in the middle of the defense to guard against inside runs, draws, and quarterback scrambles. The second half of the Rice game saw UCLA running mostly an odd dime formation, with three or four linemen rushing, five defensive backs, and a hybrid linebacker/defensive back playing further up in the box. This was sufficient to generate a pass rush against Rice because Rice isn't a good football team.
Against Nebraska, the situation will be different. Largely, Southern Mississippi rushed four or five most of the game against the Huskers, expecting more of a running/option game, and Taylor Martinez, in a shocker, was able to pick apart their defense. The Nebraska offensive line isn't a dominant unit, but they stymied the Golden Eagles' pass rush most of the game. Martinez has refined his technique enough that he is a pretty accurate thrower, even if his arm motion still looks funky. The combination means that the Bruins may have to devise a scheme that looks more like the one in the first half against Rice than in the second half. Which leads to the next point…
3. The Weak Middle
Whether or not UCLA decides to blitz more, the middle of the defense is going to be tested even more than in the Rice game, and the Owls were able to make the middle look like a big weakness. Even though Rex Burkhead may be out for the game, Nebraska has several options at running back, and Martinez himself is a dynamic runner. In the Rice game, Damien Holmes was extremely ineffective inside, against both the run and the pass. Eric Kendricks was blocked out of several plays and was equally ineffective. Assuming there are no major personnel changes between now and the game on Saturday, moving safeties further into the box may be the best option for dealing with the issue. Regardless, Holmes and Kendricks will need to significantly elevate their game this Saturday.
Martinez was good for a couple of arm punts per game last season, but he does look significantly improved over last year. He's still a little awkward with his motion, and, despite the gushing of the ABC announcers, his footwork is still really inconsistent. Regardless, his passing was much more effective this past Saturday than it was last season, and that's scary against a team that already had an extremely effective running game. Assuming UCLA's aggression on defense is similar to what it was in the first half against Rice, with a mixture of run and pass blitzes, then UCLA's corners are going to be in man coverage most of the game. While I don't think the UCLA defensive backs were as bad as some seemed to think Thursday, they weren't great. If they play the same way against Nebraska, especially with Martinez looking improved, the Huskers could be looking at another big point total.
5. Attacking the seams
We focused mostly on Nebraska's offense here, with good reason; watching the Huskers game this past Saturday, their defense really did not seem like a very strong unit. The Golden Eagles were able to run on Nebraska pretty well, and largely the Huskers didn't generate much of a pass rush. One significant area where the Huskers did look OK, however, was covering the flat, which could cause difficulties for UCLA's swing passes. The Huskers corners and safeties played, largely very close to the line of scrimmage, and you can probably expect the same from them until Brett Hundley proves he can take advantage of them. To loosen up the defense, UCLA will probably need to go a little more vertical in the passing game and attack the seams more than in the Rice game.
Things to Work on For Nebraska
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