• UCLA travels to Eugene to take on Oregon Saturday at 4:00. It will be televised by ESPN, with Brent Musberger, Kirk Herbstreit and Heather Cox on the call.
• Oregon is 7-0, and 4-0 in the Pac-12, and ranked #2 in both polls and #3 in the BCS poll.
• UCLA is 5-1 (2-1 in Pac-12), and ranked #12 in the AP, 11th in the USA Today poll, and #12 in the BCS.
• ESPN's College Game Day, which airs live from 6-9 a.m., will be televised from Eugene.
• It's the first time UCLA has been featured on Game Day since 2005, and its seventh time overall. UCLA is 2-4 in Game Day games, and 1-4 on the road.
• It marks Oregon's 17th time it has been featured on the program, and the eighth time it's been broadcast from Eugene. The last time was eight whole days ago, before Oregon's game against Washington.
• It will be the third time a UCLA/Oregon game has been featured. In fact, the very first time ESPN's College Game Day featured a Pac-10 match-up was between UCLA and Oregon in 1998 at the Rose Bowl. #2-ranked UCLA won that game over #11-ranked Oregon, in overtime, 41-38. UCLA then played Oregon for Game Day in 2000 when the Bruins were ranked #6 and Oregon was unranked, and UCLA lost, 29-10.
• In the all-time series, UCLA leads, 39-26, but the Bruins haven't won since 2007, in that injury-riddled game at the Rose Bowl, 16-0. The last time UCLA won in Eugene was 2004. Oregon has won four straight and nine of the last 11.
• Of course, the last time the programs met was in the 2011 Pac-12 Championship Game, a 49-31 Duck win in Eugene.
• It's the first conference game between UCLA and Oregon since 2010.
• Oregon is led by first-year head coach Mark Helfrich. He served as UO's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2009 to 2012, was the OC at Colorado before that, and quarterbacks coach at Arizona State and Boise State previous to that. Helfrich is, obviously, considered a quarterbacks/passing game guru. He took over the UO head job when former head coach Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles in January. Helfrich, 39, is the first native Oregonian to have the position of Duck head coach since 1942.
• Kelly left under inauspicious circumstances. First, Kelly had received a good amount of NFL interest and then initially turned down both the Eagles and the Browns until, a week later, accepting the position with the Eagles. It was ahead of NCAA sanctions levied at Oregon last June, in which the Ducks were handed down three years of probation, a reduction of scholarships but no bowl ban, and Kelly received an 18-month show-cause penalty, but he left for the NFL.
• The Ducks are 16-6 against AP top-25 teams since Helfrich's first year on staff as OC. At home, UO is 10-2 vs. the Top 25.
• Oregon Quarterback Marcus Mariota is considered by many to be a Heisman Trophy candidate, and is on four award watch lists. Nationally he ranks 5th in passing efficiency (181.72), second in points responsible for (168), second in yards per carry (10.06) and fifth in total offense (363.3 ypg). He has yet to throw an interception this year and has thrown a touchdown pass in all 20 games of his college career.
• Of Oregon's 53 drives resulting in touchdowns this season, 40 (75%) have lasted two minutes or less.
• Oregon's Autzen Stadium is considered one of the toughest road games in the nation, with the noise from the fans feeling like it rains down on you. The stadium holds 54,000, even though it goes over that at times (the highest attendance was 60,555 for an ASU game in 2011, and it's still the largest crowd for a sporting event ever in the state of Oregon). The Ducks have a current streak of 92 straight sellouts dating back to the 1999 season.
• The UCLA/Oregon game of 2010 stands at the 9th largest game in terms of attendance at Autzen (59,277).
• Against ranked opponents under Jim Mora, UCLA is 4-3. This is only the fourth game for Mora in which his Bruins faced a ranked opponent on the road: in 2012 at Stanford, and in 2013 at Stanford and at Nebraska.
• In the last 10 years, when UCLA has played two ranked teams on the road, its record against those teams is 1-10. The last time it played two ranked teams on the road on successive weekends was 2004, and it lost to both Cal and Arizona State.
• The last time a ranked UCLA team played two ranked teams on the road on successive weekends was 2001, and UCLA lost at Stanford and at Washington State. In that year, overall it played four ranked teams on the road and was 2-2.
• Oregon Defensive Coordinator Nick Aliotti was UCLA's DC under Bob Toledo in 1998. Aliotti coached before that at Oregon and, obviously, after that in Eugene for a total of 22 years.
• The 11 tackles recorded by UCLA defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes last week against Stanford is the most by a UCLA defensive lineman in a single game since Bruce Walker in 1992.
• Oregon is favored by 22.5.
• The weather calls for a high temperature of 65 degrees on Saturday in Eugene, with patchy cloudiness.
UCLA's Offense V. 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.|
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.|
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.
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.
Oregon's Offense V. UCLA's Defense
It is an inadequate description to say that Oregon's offense is simply "prolific". The scheme designed by Chip Kelly and honed by first year head coach Mark Helfrich produces an up tempo dance to which, seemingly, only the 11 players in an off shade of mauve (or whichever color Oregon wears this week) know the steps. It is a flash flood or a lightning strike or something else suitably elemental. It has revolutionized college football by running old-style plays at an adrenalized pace.
And sure, it's also prolific. The stunning thing is that no Oregon offense has been more prolific than the current version, in year one under Helfrich and in year two of redshirt sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota. Seven games into the season, the offense is averaging nearly 58 points per game and nearly 650 yards per game, both numbers good for top two in the country. Mariota, deservedly, is drawing Heisman consideration for his performance thus far this season. He has thrown for nineteen touchdowns, rushed for nine more, and thrown zero interceptions.
It would be silly, though, to assign too much importance to any single part of the offense. Mariota is a very good quarterback, and certainly the best Oregon has had in its run over the last five years, but the difference between a Darron Thomas running the offense and a Mariota driving it is not all that drastic. What sets Oregon's offense apart is not the individual parts, but the scheme itself—or, more accurately, the pace of the scheme. Oregon plays, consistently, at one of the fastest tempos in the country, with 40 of their 53 touchdown drives coming in two minutes or less. The Ducks average about 15 seconds between snaps—something that very few offenses that claim to be up tempo come even close to matching.
It's a running offense, primarily, dictated mostly by a nearly unstoppable zone read game. Mariota is the best that Oregon has had as a running quarterback, with legitimate track speed along with a physical frame. What makes the attack devastating is that there isn't just one great runner to key on: Oregon has Mariota, De'Anthony Thomas, Byron Marshall, and a host of others who are threats to score every time they touch the ball. Missing a tackle against a team like Stanford leads to a 15 yard gain and a punishing hit at the end of it. Missing a tackle against a team like Oregon leads to a touchdown, more often than is completely reasonable. Thomas will likely make his return this week, and while he probably isn't an every down back, he is electric in the open field, and is very difficult to tackle, with an ability to squirt between tacklers in tight spaces. Along with Marshall, who's the starter, freshman Thomas Tyner has also gotten significant carries out of the backfield and, like seemingly everyone on this team, has very good straight ahead speed.
|Tailback De'Anthony Thomas.|
The scheme makes the offensive line look good, to a certain extent, but it's not as if the offensive line is poor. Defenses generally haven't been able to generate a significant pass rush against Mariota, which is a credit to the line, and, although the pace certainly favors the running game, the offensive line does a nice job of blocking the necessary players for the zone read to work. Since starting as a freshman two years ago, junior center Hroniss Grasu has consistently been one of the top interior line performers in the country. He's excellent on his snaps, which is a key in this offense which relies on effective timing between Mariota and his running backs. Redshirt sophomore Tyler Johnstone, who's in his second year starting after earning Freshman All-American acclaim last season, has handled the left tackle position well. Mana Greig is a relatively new starter next to him at left guard, but has started or played in games in each of the last four seasons. Here's a crazy note for UCLA fans: Hamani Stevens, the redshirt junior who starts at right guard for Oregon, was originally committed to UCLA in June before his senior season of high school—in 2007. Steven decommitted from Karl Dorrell's team and then shifted to Oregon. He then redshirted in 2008 after arriving at Oregon and took 2009 and 2010 off for his Mormon mission. Junior Jake Fisher, who started 11 games last year as the right tackle, has reprised his role this season.
UCLA's defense has had a surge over the last few games, particularly in the last two. There's a sense that after a year and a half in the scheme, the players are now much more instinctual in what they need to do, and perhaps more importantly, are beginning to trust that their fellow defensive players will be in the right gaps and positions when they need to be. It's allowed the defense to play much faster, particularly in the secondary and throughout the linebacker corps, which has, in turn, led to some exceptional results against decent offenses.
Against California, UCLA allowed just ten points and under 400 yards of offense, and then against Stanford, the defense "allowed" 24 points, seven of which were essentially conceded at the end of the game after a turnover and another seven which came on a short field following another turnover. The Bruins did all of that despite being on the field for 37 minutes against one of the most physical offenses they'll face this year.
The linebackers are the driving force of the defense, with the speed to match up against teams that like to bounce the ball outside and the physicality to provide a solid backing line to the defensive line against power teams. Anthony Barr has continued to impress in his second season as a defensive player. Those his numbers may not yet indicate it, he looks to have actually improved on his very impressive junior season. He's showing a much greater understanding for the position, which is indicated, at times, by the plays he doesn't make as much as the plays he does make. There was an instance against Stanford where he did an excellent job of sniffing out an outside screen, setting the edge, and forcing the run inside for a minimal gain. At times this year, he's been asked to simply be a containment guy, and, to his credit, in a season where many would just be looking to pad stats to improve NFL Draft stock, Barr has done what the coaches have asked of him.
His counterpart, Myles Jack, has probably his first so-so game as a Bruin last week, but that shouldn't discount what he brings to the table. Jack guarded Stanford receivers at times, then would be asked to provide run support on one of their big tailbacks, and then would be asked to rush the passer. Considering that Stanford was almost certainly the most physical team he's ever faced, Jack did a fine job of adjusting throughout the game and looking stronger at the end than he did at the beginning. Eric Kendricks, who went down with a kidney injury during the game against the Cardinal, will return this week against Oregon, and appears to be ready to go. Jordan Zumwalt, who also starts on the inside, should see the field a good deal against the run sets of Oregon, Zumwalt may be UCLA's best linebacker against the run.
What has elevated the defense recently, though, has been the newfound quality of the defensive backs. It's an interesting thing, because we can't necessarily say they've improved from the beginning of the year—they may have been this good all along, but there simply weren't many tests to start the year. Against Cal, UCLA's secondary did an excellent job of blanketing Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, leaving them both well below their season averages for catches and yards. Against Stanford, despite the Stanford receivers making some exceptional catches, the UCLA defensive backs did a very good job in coverage, with very little they could have done differently to prevent the two big downfield completions. Fabian Moreau is quickly making people forget the names Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester.
The defensive line, which was thought to be the strength of the defense prior to the start of the season, has been hit by some injuries and other issues throughout the year, like Ellis McCarthy suffering a head injury, Cassius Marsh being ejected from the Cal game, and, most importantly, Owamagbe Odighizuwa missing the season with a hip injury. The line has been asked to play containment against many of the zone read schemes that UCLA has faced this year, but players like reserve defensive end Keenan Graham have still found a way to make an impact in the backfield, with Graham recording five sacks already this season. True freshman Eddie Vanderdoes has come on strong over the last few games, and has rapidly become one of UCLA's best defensive linemen.
The advantage is Oregon's, certainly, but there are some elements here where UCLA has a chance to limit the Ducks (and yes, limiting the Ducks often means that Oregon is held in the 40's). First, as we heard early on in the Jim Mora era, UCLA went to a 3-4 defense in part to compete against schemes like Oregon's. UCLA's speed in the defense, too, allows it to compete a bit more favorably against Oregon's speed than many other teams are able to.
For UCLA, the game plan has to be focused on limiting the run, particularly the zone read. UCLA has practiced different methods of defending the zone read all year, but primarily what they've done is insert Deon Hollins or Myles Jack as a designated rusher from the edge whose main job is to take the running back out of the equation. Against most teams, that's a fair strategy, particularly when the quarterback isn't quite as fast as the running backs. Against Oregon, though, Mariota is arguably Oregon's best runner, so we could see some wrinkles from UCLA where, instead of scraping with the outside linebacker and crushing the running back, they'll instead key on Mariota. If Oregon has been watching UCLA film this year, that move might come as a shock.
UCLA's linebackers would have to play error free to slow down Oregon's running game, and the front three would have to likely play their best game of the year. If they can limit the rushing attack for Oregon, though, and force Mariota into being a pocket passer, then there's a chance that the defense can hold the Ducks under their season averages, and maybe hold the game close long enough to see what UCLA's offense can pull out. So, we're saying there's a chance.
Here's how prolific (there's the word again) the Oregon offense is: the Ducks have only attempted five field goals this year. They've made four, with senior Alejandro Maldonado (5'10, 187) the starter. Maldonado is 3 for 4 this year, missing one attempt from 37 yards against Tennessee. Oregon rarely, if ever, attempts field goals from beyond 40 yards or under 25—what most analysts will tell you is mathematically correct decision making on 4th down. In the punting game, Oregon is averaging about 3 punts a game, which is more than you'd expect from a team like Oregon, but you have to keep in mind that the Ducks are blowing teams out in such a way that they're virtually always in "don't embarrass the other team" mode by midway through the third quarter. Maldonado also handles the punts, and he averages a not spectacular 39.9 yards per punt.
The return game is what sets Oregon's special teams apart. Addison is the primary punt returner, and he's been exceptional all year. He averages an astounding 22.3 yards per return and has returned two punts for touchdowns this year out of 10 returns, with a long of 75 yards. Addison is electric in the open field. At kick returner, Oregon has used a variety of players with Thomas out, including Huff and Lowe, both of whom have been excellent, with Huff having a long return of 57 yards. Thomas, if he's fully healthy, figures to work back into the rotation there.
UCLA's special teams have been good, mostly, all year. Sean Covington was actually a bit of a weapon against Stanford, booming punts when they needed to be boomed and nailing punts inside the ten when UCLA would make a terrible mathematical decision on 4th down. He's shown a propensity to shank a punt every now and then, but for a freshman, he's been very good this year. Ka'imi Fairbairn hasn't missed a field goal since the Nebraska game, and each of his three misses this year have come from 46+ yards. He's been pretty effective from 45 and in, which you could say is his range at this point.
The return game for UCLA has been solid, if unspectacular. Shaquelle Evans had a poor game returning punts against Stanford thanks to the quality of the Cardinal's coverage units, but overall has been solid catching the ball and returning for positive gains. Steven Manfro has been better as a kick returner, looking much more solid than he did last year.
This is UCLA's toughest matchup of the season for a variety of reasons. First, Oregon is the best team the Bruins will face, by far. Second, the Bruins have been hurt by a spate of injuries on the offensive line, which has rendered the offense inert. Third, it's the second straight game on the road for UCLA against a top ten opponent, a game directly after the most physical contest they'll have all year.
At this point, you have to figure that if UCLA is going to have a chance against the Ducks, the defense is going to need to hold Oregon well under its season average. Given how difficult it was for UCLA to move the ball against Stanford, we have to figure that unless the defense holds the Ducks to somewhere around 30, there's very little chance for the Bruins to keep pace. That's a tall, tall order for a unit that is still young at spots, but this would be a great time for the Bruins to prove they have an elite level defense. In many ways, this is probably the fastest defense that Oregon has faced this year, and it may be the best, overall.
Here's what needs to happen for UCLA to win: the defense needs to play better than it did even in the last two games, Brett Hundley will need to play like he did in the 3rd quarter of the Nebraska game for all four quarters, the offensive line, with three true freshmen, will have to protect better than it has all year, and UCLA will need to find some type of running game, whether it's Hundley running for 100+ yards or some combination of Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Damien Thigpen, and Steven Manfro.
We can guess a few of those will happen, since this is one of those classic games where the Bruins have very little to lose, but we simply can't project that all of them will happen. The Bruins could hold the game fairly close in the first half, maybe keeping the Ducks within a score or two heading into halftime, but it's going to be very difficult for UCLA to generate enough offense to keep pace with the Ducks heading into the last two quarters.