Oregon Preview: UCLA's O vs. Oregon's D

UCLA's offense, with the line issues and Brett Hundley's struggles, could have real trouble against Oregon's attacking, opportunistic defense...

UCLA's Offense vs. Oregon's Defense

Oregon's offense may get all of the national attention, but there's an argument to be made that the Ducks' defense is not only possibly the best in the conference, but arguably one of the best in the country. Oregon allows 17.3 points per game and an average of 370.1 yards per game. Those numbers, while pretty good in their own right, don't jump out to you as anything truly spectacular until you factor in this: thanks to the quick-strike nature of Oregon's offense, on average, Oregon's defense is on the field for over 33 minutes per game and an average of 83 plays. To put up those numbers for that amount of time every game speaks to a very high level of talent and conditioning.

The Ducks' defense isn't just limiting in terms of yardage and points, it's also extremely opportunistic. So far this season, Oregon has already forced 20 turnovers in seven games, a mark good for second in the country. Much of that is due to the speed of the defense, with defensive backs who can close passing lanes quickly and an entire defense full of playmakers who can hit with force.

Leading the way for the opportunistic Ducks are junior cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (5'10, 185) and Terrance Mitchell (6'0, 189). The two might constitute the best cornerback tandem in the Pac-12. Ekpre-Olomu is on the watch list for every defensive back award. While only 5'10, Ekpre-Olomu is a great athlete with tremendous closing speed, and has two interceptions this season. Mitchell, who's a bit bigger, has good speed as well, and has actually been the recipient of four interceptions. Teams have tried to exploit Mitchell a bit more than Ekpre-Olomu in the passing game, but generally haven't had much success. At strong safety, senior Brian Jackson (5'10, 197) will start, after starting all of last season. He's a bit undersized for the traditional strong safety role, but in Oregon's defense, which is built, like its offense, on speed, he's a good fit. Senior Avery Patterson (5'10, 189), a converted cornerback, starts at free safety for the Ducks, but junior Erick Dargan (5'11, 212), his backup, will play a considerable amount as well. Dargan will also come in as the fifth defensive back when Oregon drops into nickel. As a whole, it's a very experienced, very fast secondary.

Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
At linebacker, Oregon lost two starters from a year ago, but the newcomers have filled in with little difference. In fact, junior Derrick Malone (6'2, 212), the new starter at middle linebacker, is leading the team in tackles in his first year on the job by a wide margin—with 59 tackles, Malone is 18 ahead of the next closest player (Ekpre-Olomu at 41). Malone is a speedy linebacker, with the ability to range sideline to sideline with ease, and fits in well with Oregon's fast scheme. Senior Boseko Lokombo (6'3, 229) and redshirt sophomore Rodney Hardrick (6'1, 243) provide the needed bulk for the linebacking group and are stout against the run. That's not to say the linebackers won't blitz, though. Malone, in particular, has shown himself to be an effective blitzer inside. With the blowouts Oregon has participated in this year, the Ducks have been able to rotate six linebackers pretty consistently, with sophomore Joe Walker (6'2, 219) and redshirt sophomore Tyson Coleman (6'1, 223) in particular getting a good amount of work.

Oregon's secondary is good, but you could make the case that the defensive line is right there with the defensive backs. Oregon averages three sacks per game, and the majority of those sacks have come from the defensive linemen. The Ducks' front is led by junior defensive end Tony Washington (6'3, 243), who's become an extremely disruptive player in his first year as the starter. Washington already has nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks through the first seven games of the year, and has shown a very quick first step that's made him capable of beating offensive tackles with ease. Senior Taylor Hart (6'6, 287) will play both inside and out as the situation demands, but provides a nice counterpoint to Washington when he lines up outside, using his bulk to power rush offensive tackles and guards. On the interior, Oregon uses a rotation that includes sophomore Arik Armstead (6'8, 280), senior Wade Keliikipi (6'3, 306), sophomore DeForest Buckner (6'7, 286), and senior Ricky Havili-Heimuli (6'4, 314), all of whom rotate pretty evenly throughout the game.

After its worst performance of the year Saturday, UCLA's offense is still licking its wounds. After losing left tackle Torian White to a season ending injury against Utah a few weeks ago, the Bruins lost its next two replacements (Simon Goines and Conor McDermott) against Stanford, leaving UCLA with its doomsday scenario of moving Xavier Su'a-Filo to left tackle. The patchwork front, which now included Ben Wysocki at left guard, mostly collapsed in the face of Stanford pressure, as one would expect. To make matters worse, Jake Brendel, the otherwise dependable center, has developed a nasty snapping problem over the last several weeks which reared its head once again against the Cardinal. In the hostile environment coming up this week, it's difficult to see how he'll have time to improve. The word is that Simon Goines may be able to suit up on Saturday, and if he's able to, that'd go a long way toward solving UCLA's line issues. If he's not able to play, there's a very real chance that the Bruins could start three true freshmen on Saturday, with one of Scott Quessenberry or Kenny Lacy potentially getting the start.

Brett Hundley and Jake Brendel.
The offensive line's issues no doubt played a role in quarterback Brett Hundley's overall poor play. Hundley struggled to make throws downfield, and didn't appear to see the field well, at one point getting picked off by a safety who was planted in zone coverage. Hundley clearly had issues with the snaps from Brendel, oftentimes looking like he was trying so hard to make sure that he caught the ball that it was limiting his ability to read the defense and make sure he was making the right decision. Stanford marked the second straight subpar game for Hundley, and this week's challenge could prove to be even tougher.

At running back, UCLA has also been hit by injuries a bit, with Jordon James still out nursing an ankle sprain. Behind him, Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro, and Damien Thigpen have all played, to varying degrees of success. While the running back production has dropped off since James has been hurt, we're not sure how much of the dropoff is due to James' injury, or due to the concurrent loss of Torian White and subsequent offensive line injuries. Jones got more time against Stanford than he had gotten previously, and ran well, so it'll be interesting to see if he gets more work going forward. Thigpen also got more time, and it seems as if he's pretty close to 100% healthy after tearing his ACL last year against USC.

The wide receivers have been generally good all season, but were limited against Stanford primarily by Hundley's issues and the offensive line. Jordan Payton has had a few big games now recently, as has Devin Fuller, as both sophomores have become more prominent in the offense. Between those two, Shaquelle Evans, Thomas Duarte, and Devin Lucien, the Bruins have a good rotation of receivers who do a nice job of getting open and generating yards after the catch.

ADVANTAGE: Oregon

There are simply too many factors going against the UCLA offense heading into this game. First, the offensive line is a mess, with the potential for three true freshmen starting for UCLA on Saturday. Second, Brett Hundley is currently in the midst of a funk that seemed to get worse last week against Stanford. Lastly, the issues on the offensive line and with Hundley have seemingly forced the offensive coaching staff into a more conservative mindset when it comes to playcalling, which doesn't fit the personnel or the scheme installed.

Oregon's defense is right there with Stanford's in terms of the best that UCLA's has faced, but Oregon is faster to the edge, which limits the perimeter capabilities of UCLA's offense. Up front, the Bruins really struggled to open up holes with the patchwork line at the end of the Stanford game, and we have to imagine they'll have similar struggles if three true freshmen do end up starting on Saturday.

Last week, Washington State had some success against Oregon throwing 89 times (not a typo), but we don't expect UCLA to do the same, especially not with the trouble Hundley has had seeing receivers downfield. Right now, it's hard to see a really effective game plan UCLA could use, since the offensive line is currently cobbled together with chewing gum and baling wire.

It's a tough matchup, one we would have been much more excited about three left tackles ago. With UCLA's inability to run the ball effectively up the middle or pass protect for longer than a few seconds, it's really difficult to see it going the Bruins' way. That said, UCLA probably can't play anywhere near as badly as it did on offense this past weekend, so the production should be improved against Oregon.

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