Game Week: Five Things to Watch

Nov. 3 -- UCLA will have to deal with a very good pass rush and another linebacker-turned-running back when they head to Washington this week...

1. How will UCLA adjust for Washington’s pass rush?

Washington has likely the best pass rush that UCLA will have faced this year, with all apologies to Nate Orchard and the Utah defensive line. Between Hau’oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton, and Andrew Hudson, Washington has one of the most dynamic fronts in all of college football, with Kikaha actually the nation’s sack and tackle for loss leader. The last time UCLA faced off against a truly dynamic pass rusher in Orchard, the Bruins gave up ten total sacks and lost at home to Utah.

This will be the first time this year that Conor McDermott will be well and truly tested on the edge. He’s started the last three games at left tackle and looked good, but it will be an entirely different situation to effectively block players like Kikaha and Hudson. If he can do it, it’ll give UCLA a great chance of winning the game and also likely solidify him as UCLA’s left tackle of both the present and the future.

2. Will Thomas Duarte be ready for the game?

Duarte’s absence has definitely been felt over the last two games, with UCLA not really having much of an attack over the middle since he went down in the first quarter of the California game. Duarte suited up for last week’s game against Arizona, but didn’t play. Jim Mora indicated on the Sunday teleconference that Duarte should be fully ready to go this weekend against the Huskies, but, given the history of injury information at UCLA, it’s difficult to say that will happen with any certainty.

It’s been pretty obvious that Duarte is one of Brett Hundley’s favored options in the passing game, and seemingly his only real security blanket over the middle. If he can’t go, Mossi Johnson has shown himself to be effective in many aspects of the game, but it doesn’t seem yet that he’s nearly the trusted target that Duarte is for Hundley. Against a team that will likely be able to generate some pressure against Hundley, getting one of his favorite receivers back is going to be key.

3. How will UCLA deal with Shaq Thompson?

Shaq Thompson.
Thompson is more than likely going to play exclusively on offense this week, and he’s looked like a very dynamic running back over the last couple of weeks. He ran wild on Colorado last weekend, and looked explosive and powerful. UCLA hasn’t really had to deal with a running back with his combination of skills this year—he’s big, fast, and powerful, combining the best aspects of a power running back with very good speed. As many have opined, think of it like UCLA having to defend against Myles Jack running the ball 20+ times, only if Jack were used in every package of the offense.

UCLA’s run defense looked improved last week against Arizona, but this is a different beast entirely, and Washington does a bit more traditional running that Arizona does. If UCLA’s interior linemen can play like they did last week against Arizona, though, that would go a long way toward shutting down Thompson and taking away Washington’s best offensive threat.

4. Who will win the budding guard competition?

Don’t look now, but Malcolm Bunche might be in danger of losing his hold on a starting guard spot. Alex Redmond and Kenny Lacy both worked in for him during the game against Arizona, and at this point, Bunche hasn’t really been impressive enough to have a secure hold on that job. Redmond didn’t look great before his injury earlier in the year, but he does look fully healthy again, and Lacy did a very good job in relief earlier in the year.

Based on what we’ve seen in games this year, Lacy has probably looked the best of the three at guard, but it’s a pretty close thing. It’s now two straight games that Redmond has come in for a stretch to spell Bunche, so it’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic shifts through the next couple of weeks.

5. Will we see any differentiation in the Myles Jack package?

It looked pretty clear that, by his third carry or so, Arizona had sniffed out exactly what UCLA was going to run when Jack came in the game, and started to stuff it. UCLA showed some variance earlier in the year, with a few play-action throws out of the package that appeared to work well, but since Eddie Vanderdoes got stuffed on 4th and 1, UCLA has gone fairly conservative, running Jack every time out of that formation.

It’s still a valuable formation, of course; since teams are selling out against the run, play-action is extremely viable. But the issue with that formation is the gimmick of having defensive linemen as the fullbacks; as Kenneth Clark showed a few weeks ago, defensive linemen don’t always have the best hands. If UCLA can mix up the personnel a bit, we still think it has a lot of value as a formation in the red zone. Heck, sliding Conor McDermott back to one of the fullback slots wouldn’t be horrible, since he can block in space, and he actually can catch the ball, having played a little bit of tight end in his past.

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