Game Week: Full Oregon Preview

OCT. 9 -- Oregon brings a dangerous team into the Rose Bowl, but the Ducks, for the first time in years, appear to have some very real flaws...

Facts and Factors

UCLA will host the Oregon Ducks Saturday, Oct. 11, at 12:30 p.m. (PST) at the Rose Bowl. The game will be televised by FOX with Gus Johnson, Charles Davis, and Molly McGrath on the call.  

• The Bruins are ranked #18/#17, and Oregon is #12/#11.  

• UCLA is 4-1, and 1-1 in the Pac-12 after the heartbreaking defeat against Utah last Saturday, 30-28.  

• Oregon is 4-1 and 1-1 after its own heartbreaking 31-24 defeat against Arizona.  

• UCLA leads the all-time series, 39-27, but Oregon has won the last five meetings.  The last UCLA win in the series came in 2007, when UCLA beat the Ducks 16-0 at home in the Rose Bowl.   The Ducks were ranked #9th in the country, but were without their quarterback, Dennis Dixon, so UCLA’s defense limited the Ducks to just 148 total yards.  UCLA’s quarterbacks, Osaar Rashaan and Ben Olson, completed just four passes for 64 yards in that game.  

• The Bruins own a 27-13 edge in games played in Los Angeles, but are 6-7 against the Ducks in the Rose Bowl.   

• In the last three games against the Ducks (2013, 2011 for the Pac-12 Championship Game, and 2010), UCLA has lost by a total of 151-58.  

• Since 2000, UCLA is 2-9 against Oregon.  Before the 21st century, however, UCLA dominated the Ducks.  In the 1990s, UCLA went 6-2.  In the 1980s: 5-2.  In the 1970s: 8-1.  In the 1960s and 1950s: 8-1.   

• This year is only the sixth time in history UCLA and Oregon have played each other when they were ranked, and Oregon holds a 3-2 lead in those games.   UCLA is 2-1, however, in games when both teams were ranked played in Los Angeles.   

• In an interesting quirk, with the loss to Utah, the Bruins have now lost the game immediately preceding Oregon in each of the last five seasons the two teams have met. In games immediately preceding Oregon over those five seasons, UCLA has been outscored 163 to 61.

• The Ducks have not lost back-to-back games in a single season since 2007, when Oregon lost three straight after Dennis Dixon got hurt.

• Oregon last played UCLA in the Rose Bowl in 2009, when the Ducks won 24-10, but Oregon has played in the Rose Bowl twice since then, losing to Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl and then beating Wisconsin in the 2012 Rose Bowl.

• UCLA has actually appeared in more Pac-12 Championship games than Oregon, with the Ducks being shut out of the game by Stanford the last two years.

Mark Helfrich, the Oregon head coach, is in his second year at the helm in Eugene. Helfrich is an Oregon native, having grown up just two hours away from Eugene. He was actually offered the opportunity to walk on at Oregon out of high school, but elected instead to play at Southern Oregon. Helfrich (40) served as the offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly from 2009 to 2012 before being promoted after Kelly departed for the Philadelphia Eagles in January 2013. Helfrich has a 15-3 record as the head coach, and has tried to continue Kelly’s traditions of up-tempo offense and a run-heavy scheme. He has earned a reputation as a good developer of quarterbacks, taking unheralded talents like Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas, and, yes, Marcus Mariota and molding them into excellent spread quarterbacks (though he admittedly had quite a talent to work with in Mariota). He did draw some criticism for his 11-2 record last year, though, from a fanbase that has grown entitled to a great deal of success in Eugene.

• So far this year, Oregon has been a more dominant passing team than a rushing team, for perhaps the first time since Chip Kelly arrived in Eugene. Through five games this year, the Ducks have managed 17 touchdowns passing against 12 rushing. If the ratio continues that way, it will be the first time since 2005 that Oregon has more touchdowns passing than rushing.

• In the last two weeks, against Arizona and Washington State, the Ducks have zero rushing touchdowns.

• The Ducks are favored by three points.

• For the third straight week, UCLA will play in the heat. Game time temperature is expected to be in the low 90s.

Oregon’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense

Over the last five years, Oregon’s offense has been the stuff of legend, with playmakers galore and a scheme designed to push defenses to their limits with up-tempo play and an explosive rushing attack. It’s been remarkably successful, with Chip Kelly putting together some excellent offensive attacks, especially through his last three years, before handing over the reins to his offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich.

Helfrich has continued the success, but has added some of his own wrinkles. Where Kelly was predominantly focused on the rush, to the tune of a 1.61 rush-to-pass ratio in his time at Oregon as both a coordinator and head coach (culminating in his final year with an astounding 1.83 rush-to-pass ratio), Helfrich has leaned a bit more heavily on the pass, with a 1.38 rush-to-pass ratio. Much of that may be due to the arm talent of redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota (which we’ll get to), but there was talk immediately after Helfrich took over that he would blend a few more of the passing elements of the spread into Oregon’s successful scheme. So far, the results have been good, with Oregon still averaging over 6.0 yards per rush through the 18 games of the Helfrich era and a robust 9.76 yards per pass attempt.

There have been some changes, however, that may have had some mixed results. The heavier reliance on passing has slowed the tempo a bit, with Oregon averaging 2.68 plays per minute this year after averaging over 2.9 through the last three years of the Kelly era. For comparison, UCLA’s decently up-tempo scheme is averaging 2.64 plays per minute, making the two offenses pretty similar in terms of tempo. Even with the slight changes in approach, though, it’s clear that Helfrich is more than capable of continuing the offensive success of Kelly — as long as he has reasonable health at key positions.

Hroniss Grasu
And that’s been the big issue for Oregon this year, particularly on the offensive line. The Ducks’ best offensive lineman, junior left tackle Tyler Johnstone (6'6, 289), suffered a torn ACL before the season began. Then, in game two, redshirt junior right tackle Andre Yruretagoyena (6'5, 290) injured his ankle and has been out since. Finally, in a bizarre mirroring of UCLA’s issues on the offensive line last year, Oregon’s third-best tackle, senior Jake Fisher (6'6, 300), injured his leg the next week against Wyoming, which put the Ducks in the position of starting a true freshman in Tyrell Crosby (6'5, 310) at left tackle and a walk-on with a great last name in redshir junior Matt Pierson (6'6, 285) at right tackle. As you might expect, neither has been very effective blocking on the edge, which helped lead directly to Mariota’s two fumbles last week against Arizona. The interior of the line has been relatively unscathed, with senior center Hroniss Grasu (6'3, 297) an effective cog in the middle. He’s flanked by redshirt senior Hamani Stevens (6'3, 307), the two-year starter at left guard, and Cameron Hunt (6'4, 290), the true sophomore who has been pressed into duty the last two years due to a lack of talented bodies. The interior is the strength of the line, but it's been stretched thin trying to compensate for the issues on the edge.

It isn’t a good offensive line, not by a long stretch, and the ramifications have been felt across the offense, especially in the running game. Oregon has made a name for itself over the last 5 years by averaging 6+ yards per rush, but this year the Ducks are hovering around 5.3 yards per rush, and the numbers are dropping every week. Against Arizona last week, Oregon averaged just 3.5 yards per rush; against Washington State the week before, the Ducks averaged just 4.1. It’s a disconcerting trend for an offense that has spent much of these last six years building a reputation as one of the most devastating rushing attacks in the country.

Of course, Oregon does have an incredibly talented safety net in Mariota (6'4, 219). The quarterback has been one of the best players in college football since he started as a redshirt freshman in 2012, and this year, he has taken his game to new heights to compensate for the inability to run the ball effectively. Against Washington State two weeks ago, despite the many issues Oregon was having up front, Mariota completed 21 of 25 passes for 329 yards and five touchdowns — while being sacked seven times. And then last week against Arizona, despite being sacked an additional five times, Mariota completed 20 of 34 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns (in addition to catching a touchdown), and several of those incompletions were absolute drops by wide open receivers. Before, when Oregon was racking up incredible numbers with the likes of Darron Thomas and Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback, it would have been fair to say that it was the system, and not necessarily the players in the system, that was elite. Now, there’s a very easy argument to make that, for the first time, the success of Oregon’s offense has hinged very much so on one player. Without Mariota, the Ducks would be having a great deal of trouble moving the ball right now. He’s the great equalizer, and with Oregon’s continued success recruiting skill-position players, he makes the offense dangerous whenever he’s given a bit of a window to throw.

It does appear, though, that Mariota was a bit banged up last week (as you might imagine after he’s been sacked 12 times in two games). He only ran the ball four times (discounting sacks) against Arizona, and didn’t look explosive. When Mariota can’t or won’t run, it takes away one of the most dangerous elements of the Oregon offense, as we saw through the latter half of last season. With the continued issues Oregon is having running the ball from scrimmage, not having Mariota as a real weapon with his legs makes the Ducks offense truly one-dimensional.

Royce Freeman
Again, though, the issues with the offense are mostly offensive line issues. The skill players are still very good, if somewhat inexperienced. True freshman running back Royce Freeman (6'0, 229) has been a very good and productive player for Oregon through the first five games of his career. He’s averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and his combination of size and speed is something that the Ducks haven’t had since probably LaGarrette Blount. It’s been an inspired choice by Helfrich to give the ball to Freeman at such a high rate, because with the issues up front, the Ducks need a big back who can occasionally push the pile. Sophomore Thomas Tyner (5'11, 215) and junior Byron Marshall (5'10, 205) have both done a good job spelling Freeman in the running game, though Marshall has taken a more prominent role in the receiving game this year after starting at running back last season. This week, Marshall is actually listed at receiver for the first time this year in the official depth chart, but we still expect to see him frequently carrying the ball out of the backfield. He’s a dynamic threat with the ball in his hands, and Oregon will look to get it to him in a variety of situations.

At receiver, redshirt freshman Devon Allen (6'0, 185) has emerged as truly explosive threat. He’s averaging almost 20 yards per catch as the second-leading receiver on the team, and his speed makes him a very difficult cover in man-to-man. He’s already scored six touchdowns this year, with many of those coming on long receptions. Redshirt senior Keanon Lowe (5'9, 186) is the other main threat to watch out for in the passing game. He’s not quite the speedster that Allen is, but does have very good speed. He is quick and can make plays in the open field after the catch. Pharaoh Brown (6'6, 250), the junior tight end, provides a big body over the middle and has been an effective red zone target for Mariota this year. Perhaps more important, given Oregon’s issues, he’s been an effective blocker on the edge when called upon, and if pass protection becomes an issue this week, we could see him lining up tight and providing assistance to the tackles. Redshirt sophomore Dwayne Stanford (6'5, 201), the big target, and redshirt freshman Darren Carrington (6'2, 191), another speedy receiver, fill out Mariota’s talented receiver rotation.

UCLA’s defense has been much-maligned for its performance against Utah on Saturday, and for good reason. The Utes rushed for 242 yards against UCLA, but it was the fashion in which Utah was able to gain those yards that was most disconcerting. Utah clearly made an effort to exploit a personnel mismatch in the defensive line, running at 215-pound Deon Hollins at every critical moment, and the Bruins didn’t adjust quickly enough. Hollins, who has shown some ability as a pass rusher this year, wasn’t disciplined enough against the Utes and isn’t big enough to hold up against an offense geared toward running downhill at him.

That said, we were encouraged by the game plan that UCLA had for Travis Wilson. For the first time this year, in fact, UCLA seemed completely and totally prepared for the scheme they were facing. The Bruins opted for plenty of nickel with some new pressure packages that seemed to rattle Wilson early. In fact, the scheme was almost too successful through the first three series, because it made it clear to Kyle Whittingham that he needed to make a drastic change to win the game, inserting Kendal Thompson. That UCLA didn’t adjust quickly (or successfully) is a continuing substantial worry, but the game plan would have been a successful one against Wilson and the attack the Bruins had every reason to believe they’d face, which is a step in the right direction.

UCLA’s defensive line, aside from the issues in containment that Hollins had on the edge, was mostly very good against Utah. Kenneth Clark has been stout all year in the middle, but Eddie Vanderdoes has come on in the last two games and had probably his two best games of the year. He finally looks recovered and in-shape after offseason surgery. Owamagbe Odighizuwa had probably his best day getting into the backfield since returning to the field after sitting out last year. UCLA has had a dropoff, though, when going to the second unit, with Ellis McCarthy, in particular, struggling to play with a low enough pad level to be very effective in stopping the run. Eli Ankou has been serviceable, and the freshmen, Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, have shown some flashes, but there hasn’t been a great deal of consistency. The hope is that junior college transfer Takkarist McKinley can continue to progress and become one of the main cogs in the rotation going forward. He seemed to be getting many of the reps directly behind Odighizuwa during the Utah game.

Deon Hollins
UCLA’s linebackers have not been quite as impactful as expected coming into the year, with some undisciplined play from each of Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack, and Kenny Young at different points throughout the year. Aside from one game, though, Kendricks has been mostly excellent, providing saving tackles on the edge in both of the last two games while cleaning up the run game on the interior. Jack hasn’t been the impactful player that many were expecting after an offseason where he looked stronger and faster than a year ago, and he’s struggled a bit on playing his assignments rather than freelancing. Young has played like a talented freshman — he’s missed a lot of assignments, but has made more plays with each passing week. He has the ability to be a run-stopping force, and it’s just a matter of when the game starts to slow down for him.

The secondary had some issues last week against Utah, which has been the common theme throughout the year. Fabian Moreau had a couple of odd plays against the Utes, inexplicably slowing up on Dres Anderson’s touchdown catch down the sideline when he was running stride-for-stride with him and then interfering with a receiver during the 4th quarter when he probably could have played the ball successfully. He hasn’t been as bad as some have made him out to be (he’s actually been pretty close to batting away several of the balls caught on him, and has had to recover for some mistakes made by the safeties), but compared to how he was playing throughout spring and through San Bernardino, it’s clear something isn’t translating from practice to games.

Ishmael Adams and Anthony Jefferson switched positions over the past two weeks, with Adams going to safety and Jefferson going to corner. Jefferson did a nice job against Utah, but Adams seemed to struggle a little at safety, not providing much in run support and then also playing the Anderson touchdown pass poorly. We wouldn’t be shocked if he goes back to playing more nickel/corner going forward. At the other safety spot, Jaleel Wadood has been mostly good, especially for a freshman. He’s shown ability to play in the box, despite giving up some size, and he’s been a sure tackler. His pass defense leaves a bit to be desired, but to play as well as he’s played as a freshman is impressive.

ADVANTAGE: Oregon

Oregon gets the advantage here, clearly, but it’s not as big of an edge as you might think. The Ducks have shown some real flaws in the last two weeks against Arizona and Washington State, and neither of those two teams has a very good defense. Oregon’s issues on the offensive line are very real, and very similar to the somewhat catastrophic issues UCLA experience on the line last season.

The issue for UCLA is Mariota. He’s an elite passer, and despite the twelve sacks in the last two weeks, he doesn’t get rattled easily. He’s still yet to throw an interception this year, and he’s been excellent fitting the ball into narrow windows all year. If his receivers had shown slightly better hands against the Wildcats last week, Oregon might have won that game, and the entire credit would have fallen on Mariota’s shoulders.

UCLA has yet to show the capability to really pressure a quarterback consistently. To do it effectively against Oregon, you really need to be able to generate pressure with four, or, at most, five, especially with the way the Ducks can throw the ball these days. While there’s some reason to think that Odighizuwa and Hollins can generate some pressure off the edge against Oregon’s under-talented tackles, the question is whether it can be consistent enough to rattle Mariota and force him into uncomfortable situations.

It’s not a good team to blitz, unless those blitzes can arrive very quickly. Mariota has the poise of a professional quarterback, with the ability to complete passes under significant pressure. We’d imagine the Bruins will recognize this and play mostly to contain the running game, with more base defense than they’ve shown this year. This is a game where it would be very good for Myles Jack to come out of his funk a little bit and play great on the edge, because UCLA will need his speed to keep Mariota in the pocket.

The hope for UCLA is that Mariota is hobbled enough that he won’t be able to run the zone read effectively. Against Arizona last week, most of the time Mariota handed off on the zone read, likely because he is a bit dinged up. If he’s gotten substantially healthier in the last week, that could spell real trouble for a UCLA defense that showed an inability to play the zone read (or edge containment) effectively last week against Utah.

As we said, though, we were encouraged last week by the game plan UCLA had ready for Wilson, and it makes us a bit more confident that the Bruins will develop an effective game plan for the Ducks this week.

Oregon’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense

Oregon has been known for its staff continuity over the last 15 years or so, with promotions from within often being the rule when selecting coordinators. So it was no surprise when Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti decided to retire in the offseason that longtime linebackers coach Don Pellum was selected to replace him. Oregon emphasizes the systems they run on both sides of the ball, and it makes sense from that standpoint to promote someone who has familiarity in the system.

The results, though, have been mixed, and are trending downward. Since putting together an excellent second half against Michigan State in the second game of the season, limiting the Spartans to three points, the Oregon defense has been mostly on its heels. The Ducks gave up a shocking 5.9 yards per play to the lowly Wyoming Cowboys in the third game of the year, and then were rocked for 6.2 yards per play against Washington State and 5.8 yards per play against Arizona. Those numbers would put Oregon somewhere in the range of 85th in the country if projected over the entire season.

As the season has gone on, and Oregon has played against more and more spread teams, the Ducks have opted for more of a coverage-based scheme. It’s drawn a great deal of criticism from Oregon fans, who’d like to see a return to more of the pressure that Oregon used under Aliotti. So far, Helfrich and Pellum have mostly blamed a lack of execution for the defense’s struggles, but it has been a fairly passive scheme, especially over the last two weeks, with frequent three-man rushes.

Oregon’s defense is primarily the same 3-4 that Aliotti ran, which has the ability to go to a four-down front depending on where redshirt senior outside linebacker Tony Washington (6'3, 250) lines up. Significantly, last week against Arizona, junior defensive end Arik Armstead (6'8, 290), arguably Oregon’s best defensive lineman, suffered a leg injury early and missed the remainder of the game. His status is still unknown for this weekend, but reports indicated he was in a boot as recently as Monday, so it would seem unlikely that he’ll play, or play with 100% effectiveness. Junior nose guard Alex Balducci (6'4, 310) is the new starter in the group, and he’s been serviceable as an eater of blocks, but hasn’t been a significant playmaker. Junior DeForest Buckner (6'7, 290), the talented defensive end, has shaded more inside this year, seemingly to assist Balducci on the interior. If Armstead isn’t ready to go, redshirt sophomore T.J. Daniel (6'6, 270) would likely get the start in his place. Daniel played significantly in relief of Armstead last week. He converted from tight end last year and redshirted, so he’s a good athlete but a bit raw in terms of technique. Junior Tui Talia (6'5, 285) would likely also see some time.

As we said, Washington is a bit of a hybrid, with the ability to rush the passer from the end spot or drop into coverage as a linebacker. Last year, he led the team in sacks with 7.5, and is tied for the lead again this year with two. If Oregon opts to bring some pressure against UCLA this weekend, Washington will likely be a significant part of it. Starting on the inside for Oregon will be redshirt junior Rodney Hardrick (6'1, 247), the second-year starter, and redshirt senior Derrick Malone (6'2, 220), the honorable mention all-conference player from a year ago. Malone is probably Oregon’s best coverage linebacker, but the Ducks will rotate in junior Joe Walker (6'2, 240) pretty significantly in his spot depending on the matchup, with Walker providing a little more bulk against running teams. Redshirt junior Tyson Coleman (6'1, 235) starts on the outside opposite Washington, and he’s been shaky this year. Both he and Malone had real struggles bringing down Arizona ball-carriers last week, and Coleman’s containment on the edge has been an issue this season.

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
The secondary is probably the strength of this Oregon defense, with good talent through the four starting spots, but it hasn’t been put in a position to succeed over the last few games especially, with Pellum’s lack of pressure up front giving opposing quarterbacks plenty of time to find open receivers. Senior Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (5'10, 195) is an excellent cover corner, but even he has been picked on this year due to how much time quarterbacks have been able to get in the last couple of weeks. Redshirt senior Troy Hill (5'11, 175) starts at the other cornerback spot. He’s not quite the talent that Ekpre-Olomu is, but is more than serviceable. Redshirt senior Erick Dargan (5'11, 210), who has been at Oregon since Nixon’s presidency, starts at safety, and has been opportunistic this year, recording three interceptions already. He’s a steadying force in the back of the defense. Redshirt sophomore Reggie Daniels (6'1, 205), his fellow safety, has been used pretty significantly in run support this year, and he currently leads the team in tackles with 35.

UCLA’s offense had a miserable time for much of the game against Utah last week. Whether you blame Brett Hundley for holding the ball too long, the offensive line for not blocking a soul on the edge, or the offensive play-calling for not opting for a game plan emphasizing quicker plays, it doesn’t change the fact that UCLA’s offense was an absolute failure in terms of protecting the quarterback. Hundley was sacked 10 times, including three consecutive times during a critical stretch in the 4th quarter when the Bruins desperately needed to build some momentum. It was an especially disconcerting performance because for four straight games the Bruins had reduced their sacks (from 5 to 4 to 3 to 1 in the previous four games). As Noel Mazzone said this week, UCLA had no reason to expect, going into that game, that its tackles would struggle the way they did against Utah’s defensive ends.

The big worry for UCLA is that the Utes were able to put a great deal of pressure on Hundley without blitzing too much. There were some overloads and zone blitzes that brought some of the pressure, but primarily Utah was able to get into the backfield with just its front four. Left tackle Malcolm Bunche, after playing probably his best game as a Bruin against Arizona State, played easily his worst against Utah, looking completely lost trying to block Utah’s elite defensive end/outside linebacker Nate Orchard. On the opposite side, Caleb Benenoch wasn’t much better. Benenoch’s mobility hasn’t been great this year, and against the Utes, he just wasn’t able to move his feet quickly enough to keep Utah’s other defensive end, Hunter Dimick, from putting some pressure on Hundley’s other side. On the bright side, UCLA’s interior played one of its better games of the year, as Hundley didn’t have to deal with all that much pressure up the middle.

UCLA was able to respond in the 4th quarter with a couple of touchdown drives, as well as a nearly game-winning field goal drive. It’s a credit to Hundley that, despite being sacked 10 times, he was able to put together a touchdown drive to put the Bruins ahead, and then nearly pull off the improbable victory by leading the Bruins to a legitimate field goal chance in the waning moments of the game.

Paul Perkins got unfortunately ill in the middle of the game last week, but prior to succumbing to his illness, looked powerful and balanced against the Utah front. He almost single-handedly put UCLA’s first score on the board, with a drive led entirely by his running. He should be fine this week and ready to go against Oregon’s front. Jordon James got some time in relief, and looked good.

At receiver, Devin Lucien got his first real action of the year and made the most of it, making a couple of big catches that helped extend drives. Rebuilding his confidence would be big for UCLA, which could always use another playmaker. Jordan Payton has been Mr. Consistency this year, and last Saturday was no different.
Devin Lucien
He is starting to garner more attention from defensive backs, though, which will force Hundley to look for other receivers. Luckily, Thomas Duarte and Eldridge Massington have both shown signs of being able to shoulder the load if need be. Duarte didn’t have a catch last week, but he was open a few times over the middle. Massington caught the go-ahead touchdown, giving him two touchdowns in as many weeks for the Bruins.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

While the sacks were a big concern last week, the sheer number of them was most likely an aberration rather than the rule. Utah had an excellent mismatch with Orchard against Bunche, and it’s unlikely that any defensive end this year will have as much success as he had in pure one-on-one matchups. UCLA’s offensive line isn’t an excellent unit in terms of pass protection, but it isn’t as bad as it showed.

Oregon also likely won’t have the weapons up front that Utah had to exploit UCLA’s issues. Buckner is talented, and could put some pressure on Bunche, but he’s not the same kind of hybrid player that Orchard is, and plays a bit more into Bunche’s strengths. What’s more, Oregon has shown more of a propensity for shading him inside this year to assist with run support, so it’s unclear how much of a factor he’ll be in the pass rush. Tony Washington is probably the big threat, and he’ll provide a challenge for Benenoch (or Bunche, if the Ducks get creative in their placement of Washington) if Oregon opts to bring four pass rushers frequently. That said, Oregon has shown no propensity for bringing more than three rushers over the last two weeks, opting instead to drop eight into coverage significantly against the two spread teams they’ve faced.

To generate a significant pass rush against UCLA, Oregon would likely have to break its tendencies a bit and bring the blitz more often. This week, Oregon has talked about blitzing more frequently, but there have also been the same cautious statements that you’ve heard from UCLA’s coaches on blitzing Mariota; essentially, “yes, we’d like to, but the main goal against Hundley is to contain him to the pocket.” If we had to guess, the Ducks will opt for mostly three- and four-man pressure and work to contain Hundley’s legs.

From what we’ve seen of Hundley this year, though, he has improved as a passer, and as long as he has time to throw (a few plays against Utah notwithstanding), we’re pretty confident in his ability to get the ball to open receivers. And then, if Oregon does opt to blitz more than they’ve shown this year, we think the Bruins will be much more likely to opt for a game plan focused on short passing than they were last week, especially having seen the issues they had in pass protection last week.

In the end, we think Oregon’s defense over the last two weeks hasn’t been an aberration; they don’t have elite talent up front, and they run a passive scheme that accentuates those issues. If they opt to bring pressure, it should open up enough in the short passing game that UCLA should have enough success offensively to carry this matchup.

Special Teams

Oregon isn’t exactly known for its excellent field goal kickers, and their current kicker, sophomore Matt Wogan (6'2, 210), is unspectacular. He’s missed from 32 yards this year, and has a long of 34 yards. Generally, if Oregon has a reasonable opportunity to go for it anywhere from the 50 yard line to the opposing team’s goal line, they’ll go for it. They’re about as close as any Pac-12 team to making correct decisions on 4th down.

Oregon’s new punter, redshirt freshman Ian Wheeler (6'0, 200), has 18 punts on the year for a 41 yard average. He’s only knocked one into the end zone this year, but that’s more of a product of where Oregon punts than anything. He shanks a punt on occasion, but mostly he’s been solid enough. Oregon, unlike UCLA, will generally only use its punter in obvious, kick-the-ball-as-hard-and-far-as-you-can situations.

The return game, which has long been a strength of Oregon, has been just OK this year. Erick Dargan is the primary kickoff return an Ekpre-Olomu is the primary punt returner (although Charles Nelson will also get time as a punt returner). All three have the speed to break big runs, but only Nelson has a truly big return this year, taking one punt 50 yards for a touchdown.

UCLA’s special teams became a bit maligned last week when Ka’imi Fairbairn missed two opportunities to win the game from 55 yards and then 50 yards. It’s unfortunate, because the 50-yard kick actually looked like it only missed right by a few feet, and it would have been a nice moment for Fairbairn, who actually looked improved over the last few games.

UCLA’s punting game was better last week against Utah than it’s been this year. Both Matt Mengel and Adam Searl did a nice job of playing the field position game with Utah, and really only had one poor punt in a punt-heavy game (Mengel punted a short line drive out of UCLA’s end zone which set Utah up for a field goal).

Where UCLA makes its money on special teams is with its kick coverage and kick returns. Ishmael Adams has shown himself to be an elite returner, with excellent vision and balance. He had another long return negated by a penalty last week, and seems like he’s always close to breaking a touchdown. UCLA’s kick coverage has been uniformly excellent all year, and did a more than credible job neutralizing elite Utah returner Kaelin Clay last week.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

Prediction

If both UCLA and Oregon had taken care of business last week, this could have been a matchup between top five teams, with pole position in the Pac-12 at stake. Instead, the game becomes one where both teams are battling to remain alive in the playoff hunt; two losses would give either team a nearly insurmountable mountain to climb to get back onto the radar for the playoffs. So, in a sense, the game has higher stakes as presently constructed.

Given that, we expect that both teams will be especially motivated, but each team has serious questions to answer. The Ducks have to figure out how to generate a good running game with mediocre offensive line play and will have to find better answers to defending spread teams with an onslaught of good offenses coming up on the schedule. The Bruins, meanwhile, have to improve immediately on the offensive line (or risk falling into the offensive mediocrity that marked the middle of the last season) and will need to show the ability that they can play and coach a complete game on defense.

In the end, we think the Ducks’ issues are more significant. Oregon hasn’t been excellent offensively in weeks, and it’ll be hard for that to change without drastically improved health on the offensive line. Without an excellent offense, the Ducks’ defensive issues get magnified, and Pellum has not shown through five games that he has the wherewithal to make significant changes to his passive scheme.

The Bruins, on the other hand, are still just two weeks removed from an excellent offensive performance against the Sun Devils, and we have to think that the offense will perform better than it did last week against a good Utah defense. While we could see Oregon gashing UCLA’s defense at times, particularly if the linebackers show the same issues with over-pursuit that they showed over the last few games, we think UCLA has better personnel on defense for containing Mariota than Oregon has for containing Hundley.

The two teams have similar issues, with passive defenses and offensive line difficulties, but we’ve seen more consistent and well-rounded offensive play from UCLA in the last two weeks than we’ve seen from Oregon. It will likely be a fun, stressful game for UCLA fans, but, ultimately, we see UCLA emerging with its first victory over the Ducks since 2007.

UCLA 41
Oregon 34

Bruin Report Online Top Stories