• UCLA travels to Berkeley to face California this Saturday, with the kickoff at 12:30 and the game televised by ABC/ESPN2.
• UCLA is 4-2 overall and 1-2 in the Pac-12, while Cal is 4-2 and 2-2 in conference.
• UCLA fell out of the rankings this week after two straight losses, to Utah and Oregon. It’s the first time in 24 games – stretching back two years to October 27th, 2012 -- that UCLA hasn’t been ranked.
• Cal won its first two games, against Northwestern and Sacramento State, lost at Arizona State, then beat Colorado and Washington State before losing to Washington last week.
• You could make the case that Cal has had one of the most exciting seasons in college football so far, losing to ASU on a last-minute Hail Mary (49-45), beating Colorado in overtime (59-56) and then beating Washington State on a Hail Mary of its own (60-59).
• UCLA leads the all-time series with the Bears, 51-32-1, with the teams having split the last four meetings, and each winning on their home fields. UCLA does own a 22-20 advantage in games played at Cal, but the Bruins haven’t won in Berkeley since 1998. That’s seven straight losses in Berkeley to make up the “Berkeley Curse. “ The last time UCLA won at Cal Brett Hundley was five years old.
• UCLA won 18 straight meetings with the Bears dating from 1972 to 1989. Since then Cal has the advantage 13-10.
• The last meeting in Strawberry Canyon was in 2012, and it was one of the most demoralizing defeats of the Jim Mora era, with UCLA, freshly ranked at #25, getting beaten pretty soundly by the struggling Bears, 43-17.
• Cal’s winning record at the halfway point of this season is its first since 2009.
• Cal is coached by second-year head man Sonny Dykes. Dykes (44) had a nightmare first season in 2012 at Cal, going 1-11 overall and 0-9 in conference. He achieved the dubious distinction of being the first head coach in Cal’s history to fail to beat a D-1 (or FBS) opponent in a season (that lasted at least five games). Dykes came from Louisiana Tech, where he had success over three seasons with the Bulldogs, and was an offensive coordinator at Arizona and Texas Tech before that. Mike Leach made the Air Raid offense famous at Texas Tech, and Dykes learned that brand of attack by first being Texas Tech’s receivers coach, and then taking over the Texas Tech OC position. There have been some doubters of whether a coach originally from Texas, with a strongly Texas staff, could be successful at Cal. The Bears have clearly shown improvement in Dykes’ second season, but after last week’s poor performance at home against Washington, the Bear faithful are afraid of a second-half-of-the-season collapse. After playing UCLA this Saturday, the Bears have Oregon in Berkeley, are at Oregon State and at USC, are home against Stanford and then play non-conference opponent BYU in Berkeley.
• UCLA has won its last six games played away from the Rose Bowl, which is the longest streak of its kind for UCLA since 1997-1998 (10).
• UCLA is 10-4 in true road games under Mora.
• Brett Hundley has the potential to set some UCLA records this season. His current completion percentage is .722, which is better than the all-time school record set by the UCLA coach that originally recruited him, Rick Neuheisel of .693 in 1983.
• Hundley is now second on the list of career rushing yards for quarterbacks at UCLA. Hundley has a total of 1,314 rushing yards, second to John Sciarra (1972-75), who is the school’s quarterback career rushing leader with 1,813 yards. Hundley moved past UCLA’s Heisman Trophy winner, Gary Beban, (1,271) during the Oregon game.
• Hundley is currently third on the list of all-time UCLA passing leaders. He has 8,337 career passing yards, just 195 behind second-place Drew Olson (2002-2005). First on the list is Cade McNown (1995-98) with 10,708, which makes Hundley 2,372 yards shy of the mark. If you take away the Texas game, in which he got injured, he’s averaging 295.6 yards per game this season, but at that rate he would fall short of McNown’s record by 303 yards. He’d have to average 338 yards passing per game the rest of the season to break the record.
• UCLA had two consecutive losses last season, with Oregon being the second loss in that sequence also. The Bruins then went on to win 5 of the last 6 games for 2013.
• UCLA is currently favored by 7 points.
• The weather forecast calls for a partly cloudy day and a high of 71 degrees on Saturday in Berkeley.
California's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense
One of the biggest stories of this wild Pac-12 season so far is the resurgence of California in the second year under Sonny Dykes. Left for dead after a 1-11 season last year (with no wins over FBS opponents), the Bears have become a dangerous team for Dykes in year two, thanks in large part to an excellent offense that has powered the Bears to exciting, high-scoring wins over Colorado and Washington State.
The offense is based on Mike Leach’s Air Raid scheme from his Texas Tech years, with the short passing game and tempo being the orders of the day. California runs the ball pretty well, especially once the offense gets into a rhythm, but it’s unmistakably a pass-first offense. On the year, the offense is averaging 6.4 yards per play, a mark good for 18th in the country.
It is an offense that seemed largely invincible until last weekend, when the Bears managed just 7 points and 384 yards against a stout Washington defense. The game was a weird one, though, with the first score of the game essentially being a 14-point swing where Jared Goff fumbled the ball on the verge of scoring, only to see Shaquille Thompson return the fumble 100 yards for a touchdown. The Huskies actually scored 17 points off of Cal turnovers, making the game’s final score of 31-7 look a little more dominating than the performance actually was.
To a larger extent than any other team this year, Washington was able to shut down Cal’s running game and put pressure on sophomore quarterback Jared Goff (6'4, 210). Goff has been fantastic all year at the helm of the offense, with 22 touchdowns against just three interceptions through six games, but against Washington he was a little less efficient than usual, throwing the ball 51 times for just under six yards per passing attempt and no touchdowns. The Huskies did an excellent job of pressuring Goff consistently with its front four, which allowed Washington to devote enough defenders back to cover California’s talented receivers. That Goff was still able to complete 68% of his passes while being pressured significantly all game is a testament to his talent and ability to play under pressure. In terms of an evaluation, Goff can make all the throws with accuracy and has the ability to fit the ball into very tight windows, as he showed frequently against Arizona. He’s a decent enough scrambler, and can be somewhat effective on the zone read.
Goff is certainly assisted by one of the most talented groups of receivers in the Pac-12. It’s probably the deepest receiving corps in the Pac-12, with five or six legitimate threats in the group. The unit is led by the two talented juniors, Bryce Treggs (5'11, 185) and Chris Harper (5'11, 175), and redshirt sophomore Kenny Lawler (6'3, 195). Treggs has established himself as one of the premier receivers in the Pac-12, with excellent speed and quickness. Both Lawler and Harper have been extremely productive this year, with Harper providing excellent skills in the open field, while Lawler, with his height, can act as a possession receiver with speed. Redshirt juniors Stephen Anderson (6'3, 215) and Darius Powe (6'3, 215) have split time at the Y spot, and both have been productive, with Anderson actually becoming one of Goff’s most consistent targets since filling in for Powe a few weeks ago when Powe hurt his shoulder. Redshirt junior Trevor Davis (6'2, 180) fills out the primary receiver rotation, and he’s proven himself as a legitimate deep threat this year, averaging nearly 19 yards per catch.
The offense’s numbers are especially impressive when you take into account that the offensive line, while certainly better than a year ago, would probably best be described as serviceable. It’s experienced, with the line averaging out at about a redshirt junior, so that certainly helps. As we said above, Goff is very good under pressure, and that has masked some of the issues that Cal has had up front. Additionally, teams have been reluctant to blitz the offensive line too much because of the very talented receivers. Even still, Goff has spent significant amounts of games under pressure this season, and much of that has to be attributed to the line, which just isn’t made up of great pass blockers. Redshirt junior right tackle Jordan Rigsbee (6’4, 300) is the most experienced in the group, with 30 starts under his belt between guard, tackle, and center. Redshirt sophomore left tackle Steven Moore (6'6, 300) started 11 games at right tackle last year before making the switch over to left this year, and he’s been decent, though not spectacular, protecting Goff’s blind side. True sophomore left guard Chris Borrayo (6'3, 300) might be Cal’s best overall lineman, and much of Cal’s improved line play over the last five games of last year could be attributed to him slotting into the lineup. Redshirt senior center Chris Adcock (6'3, 295) and redshirt senior right guard Alejandro Crosthwaite (6'4, 290) are the two old veterans in the group, and Adcock has provided a steadying force inside after sitting out most of the last year with an injury.
As we said above, it’s a pass-first offense, but Cal will run the ball to keep defenses honest. Redshirt junior running back Daniel Lasco (6'0, 210) is the primary tailback. Lasco has a good burst, is pretty quick, and runs with some toughness despite his lack of bulk. He doesn’t have elite top end speed, but he can pretty consistently get yards through the middle when Cal has a numbers advantage. Sophomore Khalfani Muhammad (5'7, 170) is the primary backup, and he provides a bit more deep speed than Lasco. Probably the next most significant element in the running game is freshman backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer (6'0, 185). Cal will use him in essentially Wildcat situations, with Rubenzer obviously having the ability to pass as well. He’s a good enough runner, and he’ll often come in on short yardage situations.
UCLA’s defense has been underwhelming for virtually the entire year, and last week was no different. The Bruins were unable to stop Oregon’s offense for most of the relevant portions of the game, and looked especially porous against the run. The Bruins were unable to defend Marcus Mariota on the zone read, and despite looking perhaps a bit hobbled, Mariota was able to exploit UCLA with his legs frequently.
It’s hard to diagnose any specific issue with the personnel. Certainly, UCLA is missing Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, and Cassius Marsh, who provided slightly more versatile threats with their combined skillsets as pass-rushers, run-stoppers, and edge-setters, but it does seem as if UCLA is playing a bit more passively than it was a year ago. Much of that may be due to the changes in the scheme that UCLA made, with some players looking decidedly more tentative than a year ago, and other players having to get out of position to compensate. Whatever the case, the defense hasn’t been effective this year, and it’s getting toward crunch time when it’ll need to be.
The defensive line hasn’t generated a significant amount of pressure on quarterbacks, though some of that may be simply a product of the run-heavy, pass-quickly offenses UCLA has faced this year. Generally, though, UCLA hasn’t generated a significant amount of negative plays, which has to fall on the defensive line to some extent. The interior guys, Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes, have been generally good all year, but they’re mostly block-eating types of players, though they’re both good for the occasional rip into the backfield. The real issues have been on the edge. Owamagbe Odighizuwa hasn’t done a consistent job of getting off of his blocks this year, and Deon Hollins, on the other side, is too undersized to be effective as an every down player, especially against the run-heavy schemes UCLA has faced.
At linebacker, the brunt of the duties have fallen on Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks, and you can see some of the strain. In this scheme, where it is especially critical that everyone play their assignments perfectly because there is little pressure up front to force quarterback mistakes, Kendricks has often had to play the role of cleanup crew, getting himself out of position to make tackles or having to guess where a run is going to go. Jack hasn’t had a great year to this point, but he played very well at times against Oregon, so the hope is that he’s starting to come alive a bit.
This is going to be an interesting challenge for UCLA’s defense. The Bruins have been tripped up in the last two games by run-heavy schemes from both Utah and Oregon, but Cal presents a different challenge altogether. There’s every reason to think that the Bears could throw the ball 50+ times against the Bruins on Saturday, and that’s not a situation UCLA has been in this year.
Unlike with Oregon last week, where blitzing would have only made the situation worse against Mariota, Cal is a team that can and should be blitzed, since they do have some weaknesses in pass protection and Goff is not quite as mobile as Mariota. UCLA will have to be smart with it, though, because Cal’s receivers are talented enough that a small seam in the defense at any point could mean a touchdown.
From what we saw of Washington’s performance against Cal, we’re not certain UCLA will be able to duplicate it. The Bruins haven’t shown that level of dominance up front this year, and we have some doubts about the front four’s ability to generate enough pressure to force Goff into uncomfortable decisions. The Bruins will probably need to blitz him a bit, and that will likely open up enough opportunities for Goff to make some plays downfield.
This will be the biggest test for UCLA’s secondary this year. Wadood and Goodman really haven’t been challenged at safety in the last few games, and Fabian Moreau has been spotty at cornerback this year. All three will have to play very well to keep the clamps down on Cal’s explosive offense.
In the end, we think UCLA will be able to pressure Goff to some extent, but Cal’s offense is too talented, particularly at receiver, for the Bruins to shut it down in any real way.
California’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
The flip side to Cal’s offense being incredibly high-scoring and efficient is that the defense bears quite the burden. The Bears’ defense has been on the field for an astonishing 93.2 plays per game (in games against FBS opponents), which is the most in the country by a fair margin (the next is Bowling Green at 89.7). To put that in perspective, UCLA’s defense, which had to deal with 100+ plays against Arizona State, is averaging 80.3 plays per game.
We bring that number up, in reference to Cal’s defense, because it’s significant in deciding the relative quality of the Bears defense. To be sure, Cal’s defense isn’t a good one, but it’s perhaps not quite as bad, at least from a personnel and scheme standpoint, as general statistics might suggest. Lest we forget, Arizona’s generally good offense was stifled for much of the game against Cal before its 4th quarter explosion. The Bears have given up about 6 yards per play against FBS opponents, which is good for 94th in the country, and just ahead of Arizona State, which puts the Bears as second-worst in the Pac-12 — which is still a marked improvement over 2013, when the Bears were easily the worst in the Pac-12 at 6.9 yards per play given up. So we’ll say this: Cal has a bad defense, but it doesn’t quite reach historically bad levels.
Cal has ushered in a new defensive coordinator in the offseason after the defense was so abysmal in Sonny Dykes’ first year, bringing in the well-traveled Art Kaufman, who has been the defensive coordinator at North Carolina, Texas Tech, and Cincinnati all in the last three years. Like departed defensive coordinator Andy Buh, Kaufman runs primarily a 4-3 defense, but he likes to bring a bit more pressure than Buh did, and pretty impressively took Texas Tech from one of the worst defenses in the country before his arrival to levels slightly above average.
The secondary is where Cal truly has some issues, and the injuries there are starting to mount. Just this week, it was learned that starting sophomore safety Griffin Piatt (6'3, 200) suffered an ACL injury and will be out for the remainder of the year. Junior reserve cornerback Joel Willis (5'10, 185) also suffered an ACL injury this past week and will be out as well. Defensive backs Stefan McClure (5'11, 195), Michael Lowe (5'11, 205), and Avery Sebastian (5'10, 195) are still returning to full health from a variety of ailments, with McClure and Lowe having sat out last week. The combination of injuries and slow recoveries has left California in the position of potentially starting a walk-on receiver (Patrick Worstell) at one safety spot and the not-fully-healthy Sebastian at the other. While we think it’s likely that one or both of McClure and Lowe play, the secondary’s thinness has presented some serious issues for Cal this year.
The linebacker corps is averagely talented, and isn’t the best tackling unit we’ve seen. The linebackers were also hit by attrition before the season started, losing two potential starters in Junior Nathan Broussard (ACL) and Maximo Espitia to suspension, as well as reserve linebacker Jason Gibson, who retired from football. It’s left an already thin unit much thinner, pushing players who arguably weren’t ready into the starting lineup. Sophomore Hardy Nickerson (6'0, 225), who started much of last year and struggled, is back as the middle linebacker, and he’s improved a bit, though probably not as much as the Cal coaches would hope, and he actually gets subbed out a fair amount. Sophomore Michael Barton (6'0, 225), the starting weakside linebacker, is the leading tackler in the group, while his backup, junior Jalen Jefferson (6'2, 220), plays considerably as well. On the other side, sophomore Jake Kearney (6'3, 220) will get the start, and he’s been solid in run support.
UCLA’s offense looked good on the stats sheet against Oregon, but the Bruins managed just 10 points going into the 4th quarter and garbage time. The main issues for UCLA on Saturday were inopportune turnovers, red zone scoring, and odd decision-making on 4th down. The Bruins were nowhere near as efficient inside the red zone as they were between the 20s, Brett Hundley had two turnovers that set Oregon up inside UCLA’s 20, and UCLA’s coaching staff opted for two field goal tries in the first half when it seemed likely that the Bruins would need considerably more than three points to keep pace with the Ducks.
On the bright side, from a personnel standpoint, UCLA actually did a pretty nice job on offense against Oregon. After the Utah game, when the offensive line completely struggled to stop Utah’s pass rush, the Bruins did a much better job against the Ducks, limiting them to two official sacks. One big encouraging sign from an offensive line standpoint was Conor McDermott playing significant snaps at the end of the game in place of Malcolm Bunche. If he is approaching full health, and could slot into one of the tackle spots, it would drastically increase the effectiveness of the line by allowing one of Bunche or Caleb Benenoch to move inside. The Bruins may also see some players return to health this week, including Simon Goines, who Jim Mora said practiced well this week. Getting McDermott or Goines or both back in the lineup would be a significant positive step for UCLA.
Brett Hundley, aside from the two turnovers, wasn’t bad against Oregon. He had one sure touchdown pass tipped at the line of scrimmage, and actually ran the zone read pretty effectively at times. The game plan called for an emphasis on the running game, so he wasn’t asked to do a whole lot as a passer. As a runner, he was very effective, and was arguably the only thing keeping UCLA alive for a good stretch of the game.
The receiving corps, after an explosive effort against Arizona State two weeks ago, hasn’t produced at the same level since. This would be a good week for Eldridge Massington and Jordan Payton to get back in the swing of things after two games heavily dominated by the ground game.
The Bruins should be able to pass effectively against the Bears; their pass defense, which was bad enough coming into the game, should be considerably worse with two more players out and a couple others likely still banged up to some extent.
Additionally, we’ve liked what we’ve seen from UCLA’s running game in the past few games, and we don’t see much about California that should be able to take that away from the Bruins (it shouldn’t be like last year, when the Bruins had already started to suffer some serious attrition on the offensive line). If Cal does sell out to stop the run, which is what we’d imagine they’ll do, it should free up plenty of opportunities for Hundley to make plays through the air.
As we’ve seen though, UCLA can put the clamps down on its own offense at times with some questionable decision-making. With the way that California’s offense will likely be able to score against the Bruins, it’s going to be imperative that UCLA opt for taking chances at touchdowns rather than field goals, and remain as efficient in the red zone as they’ve been between the 20s. It’s something we didn’t see a lot of against Oregon or Utah, and against a Cal offense that’s just a step below Oregon’s, it’s going to be very important for UCLA to not fall behind.
At the end of the day, Brett Hundley and company should be able to hold serve against a pretty bad Cal defense and keep at least some of the pressure off of its own defense.
UCLA’s kicking game has become a real problem. Ka’imi Fairbairn has not shown himself to be a consistent and effective kicker in his college career, which makes UCLA’s constant decisions to kick on 4th and short even stranger than simple mathematics would render it. The punting game has at least improved a bit, with Matt Mengel looking decidedly better through the last two games than he did through the first four.
The Bruins have an excellent return man in Ishmael Adams, who was stifled against Oregon, but should be able to get going again against California. UCLA’s kick return teams have been very good all year, and we’d expect nothing different against the Bears.
Chris Harper and Trevor Davis are likely to handle the majority of kick returns for Cal, and Davis is particularly dangerous, having returned two kicks for touchdowns against Washington State. It’ll be interesting to see if UCLA can shut down the Bears the way they’ve been able to quiet most return games this year.
Senior James Langford (6'3, 215) is a good enough kicker at the college level, with effective range out to about the 45. Cal’s punter, junior Cole Leininger (6'1, 200), has been good this year, with eight of his 25 punts dropped inside the 20 yard line and just three touchbacks.
As we wrote immediately after the Oregon game, this is a critical week for UCLA. The Bruins, coming off of two losses, have virtually no chance at the playoffs and a national championship, both of which were the goals coming into the year. This week,and this game, are going to be a test of the mental fortitude of UCLA’s personnel, and the mental toughness and Jim Mora has spent the last three years building.
On the other end, we have those same doubts about the Bears’ ability to stop UCLA. Cal not only has a bad defense, it has a bad, injured defense, and is likely going to be scrambling to put together a secondary against the Bruins this weekend. UCLA should be able to score consistently against the Bears, and we wouldn’t be shocked if the offense is as effective as it was against Arizona State.
The question will simply be whether the defense can either get some stops or, better yet, get some turnovers against that Cal offense. That will require putting some pressure on Goff and forcing him into some questionable decisions.
Picking UCLA games this year has been a difficult exercise, and this game is no different. With both defenses looking pretty bad, and both offenses probably somewhere in the neighborhood of pretty good, the game could come down to who can get a good special teams play, or a key turnover, or, and this will be a shock, a defensive stop at the right time.
The game could legitimately go either way, from what we’ve seen, but we’ll lean on the idea that UCLA will show some mental toughness and pull out the first win in Berkeley since 1998.