Preview: UCLA's O v. Cal's D

UCLA's high-powered offense goes against Cal's beleaguered defense Saturday. The Bruins can pass and run, and Cal is missing eight players that were projected to start at one point...


For the Cal defense it truly is one of those desperate, can't-catch-a-break, horrible situations that beset a team or a unit every once in a while.

Going into the season, Cal's defense wasn't projected to be an exceptionally good one. They had switched to a 4-3, to try to take advantage of some of their talent up front, and they were definitely in a transition period, with average talent under a new head coach.

Now, five games into the season, add to it that the defense has lost eight projected starters due to injury or other issues, and the Bear D is at Defcon 1.

This is desperation time. Cal's Sonny Dykes admitted that he has been trying to get star wide receivers Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs some time at defensive back and that they might play both ways this week. A Cal website facetiously put an ad in Craig's List for anyone who can play defensive back (perhaps not that facetiously).

The biggest blow came last week against Washington State when perhaps Cal's best defensive player, cornerback Stefan McClure, their leader and captain, went down with an injury to his knee, the same one that had knocked him out for over a year due to ACL and MCL tears (He'll undergo surgery this week). Sophomore Joel Willis (5-11, 195) also went down with a head/neck injury, which left the Bears with only three healthy corners. Dykes has said he won't burn the redshirt of some true freshman cornerbacks (mostly because they're recovering from injuries, too), so he's trying to make do with what he has available and healthy. Junior Kameron Jackson (5-9, 175) was making his return to the field against Washington State, but after a few snaps realized his injured ankle wasn't ready. The tentative word out of Berkeley is that Willis and Jackson will play Saturday, but we'd have to put at least Willis as questionable. That leaves the three – juniors Isaac Lapite (5-9, 190) and Adrian Lee (5-11, 200), and redshirt freshman Cedric Dozier (5-11, 175). Only one of the three was in the Cal two-deep heading into fall, and that was Lapite, and he has really struggled filling in recently. The former walk-on was repeatedly targeted by Washington State, with the Cougars isolating their bigger receivers against him, and he was flagged for PI a couple of times. Jackson and Lee are slated to start, but we expect to see many of these names on the field Saturday.

The safety positions aren't much better off. The Bears lost safety starter Avery Sebastian in the season opener, and sometime-starter Alex Logan announced Sunday he was retiring due to medical reasons. They've moved sophomore h-back Maximo Espitia (6-2, 210) to safety for depth. Redshirt freshman Damariay Drew (6-0, 205) has been starting at free safety, but he's been spotty, so this week Cal is opting for true freshman Cameron Walker (5-11, 180). Junior Michael Lowe (5-11, 215) is now the other starter, and he was the focus of some attention last week against WSU. He intercepted a pass and returned it for seemingly

Defensive lineman Deandre Coleman.
a 78-yard pick-six. His knee, though, had been ruled down, so the ball was brought back, and he was also called for an unsportsman-like conduct penalty when he flipped into the endzone. So not only didn't Cal get the TD, it was assessed a 15-yard penalty for a touchdown that didn't happen. When things go wrong, they go wrong.

The linebackers group is thin, too, and Dykes said that some running backs could get a chance to work as linebackers this week. Starting sophomore SAM Linebacker Jalen Jefferson (6-2, 230) suffered what looked like a pretty serious head injury against WSU. He hasn't practiced yet this week, but Dykes said he expects to him to play. Junior Lucas King (6-3, 230) stepped in last week and played decently. Middle linebacker Nick Forbes is the team's active leader in career tackles but hasn't been able to play more than spot minutes this season due to a long-time back injury. Redshirt freshman Hardy Nickerson (6-1, 230), the son of the former NFL player of the same name, has been at middle linebacker, and has had moments but is still getting his feet wet. Junior WILL linebacker and Penn State transfer Khairi Fortt (6-2, 240), the one guy who hasn't been seriously injured, has been the anchor, leading the team in tackles (36).

Up front, Cal has also dealt with some impactful injuries, missing three starters – defensive ends Brennan Scarlett and Chris McCain, and defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil. They really miss all of them; without Scarett and McCain, the Bears are really struggling to get pressure on the quarterback and, without Jalil, who was starting to come into his own, the rushing defense has big holes. Replacing Scarlett is senior Dan Camoreale (6-3, 250), who is just a serviceable veteran, while filling in for McCain at the rush end spot is junior Kyle Kragen (6-3, 255), who has gotten some penetration but not consistently. Junior Viliami Moala (6-2, 315) was the big-time recruit that hasn't lived up to the hype just yet. The standout on the line is fifth-year mammoth senior defensive tackle Deandre Coleman (6-5, 315), who has been trying to make up for it all and doing a pretty good job of it, leading the team with 4.5 tackles for loss. He's big and strong, has a good first step and can get leverage on slower interior linemen.

UCLA's offense has to get back on track a bit after it was derailed in the second half of the Utah game. It was rolling, then it lost its starting left tackle (Torian White), its starting tailback (Jordon James) and quarterback Brett Hundley had an eye issue where he couldn't see clearly. It changed the entire tone and momentum of the game. UCLA's offense couldn't move the ball and went mostly to the ground game, where it wasn't greatly successful. Hundley had perhaps the best half of his career in the first half of Utah, and then looked like he was just trying to get through the second half. We have to think he was affected by his eye, whether it was a loss of a contact or he was shaken up a bit and couldn't see very well.

We fully expect Hundley to be back to full form against Cal, looking fine in practice this week.

Of course, UCLA doesn't provide injury updates, but we'd be surprised if James plays Saturday. We would expect him to take the week off to be ready for the showdown against Stanford. UCLA can afford to do that since Paul Perkins has looked very good so far this season, more of the downhill type of runner than the jitterbug type that James is. We expect Perkins to get the bulk of the carries against Cal, along with some reps from Steven Manfro, and possibly a few for returning tailback Damien Thigpen.

True freshman Caleb Benenoch stepped into the right tackle spot, and Simon Goines moved to the left, after White went down Thursday. Benenoch, for the most part, did pretty well for being thrown into a tough situation on the road. The issue now is that UCLA has a right side of its offensive line made up of two true freshmen, Benenoch and Alex Redmond. Redmond has been exceptional so far as a true freshman starter, but having two newbies on one side of your line could make opposing defenses want to try to overload that side, try to confuse them, etc. It will be interesting to see how Redmond and Benenoch respond.

Jordan Payton.

What was perhaps the most encouraging from UCLA's offensive performance against Utah was the semi-emergence of receiver Jordan Payton. He had a number of receptions where, after the catch, he was just too big and too strong for the Utah defenders to bring down.

Advantage: UCLA

This is a no-brainer call. UCLA has the #4 offense in the nation (561 yards per game) and Cal has the #121 total defense (out of 123 teams), allowing 524 yards per game. The Bruins are 5th in scoring offense (48 points per game), and Cal is 121st (45 points). UCLA's rushing offense is 14th in the nation (259 yards/game), while the Bears are 110th (220 yards/game). Cal averages just one sack per game (110th in the nation) and UCLA is allowing just two per game.

Last week against Washington State, the Bear defense allowed the Cougars to gain a total of 570 yards, and WSU's Connor Halliday to throw for 521 yards. Halliday is just a decent quarterback who has some accuracy issues, but he had a huge amount of time to throw, with Cal sacking him just one time. Halliday had all day to look long or short and completed a whopping 41 of 67 passes. And Halliday isn't even a threat to run the ball like Hundley is.

If Cal gets back Jackson and Willis that should improve their chances to slow down UCLA's passing attack, but there are just so many injuries and issues with Cal's defense you just can't see it having that much impact, especially if the two are still not 100%. Like WSU did, expect UCLA to exploit the 5-9 Lapite, and also do what WSU did well (and what is a staple of the UCLA offense): get its running backs and F-backs out into the flat in space.

So, while it doesn't look good for Cal's secondary against UCLA's passing game, there is a completely different dimension here compared to Washington State – and that's UCLA's running game. Cal knew WSU couldn't run the ball well and still couldn't defend the Cougar passing attack, and couldn't even get a pass rush. What happens if Cal tries to dedicate more defenders to stopping UCLA's running game and they leave their beleaguered defensive backs in man coverage? What happens if it decides to go to a nickel for a vast majority of the time, like it did against Washington State, and allow UCLA to run the ball? Perkins has to be loving the opportunity he'll have on Saturday. Oregon, the week before Washington State, ran for 292 yards against the Bears.

We could completely see UCLA opting for a little ball control here, emphasizing its running game while trying to exploit Cal's secondary just enough to keep the defense honest. This way, if UCLA can sustain longer drives with somewhat of a ball-control game, it can keep Cal's potent offense off the field.

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