Game Week: Washington's D vs. UCLA's O

Nov. 5 -- Washington's defense is a talented group, led by two of the best pass-rushing linemen in the country...

Washington’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense

On the face of it, Washington’s defense may present the stiffest challenge of the season for UCLA’s offense. The Huskies have one of the best front sevens in the Pac-12, and led by defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, this Washington team has developed one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the country, with the second-highest sack total in the country behind Utah. It’s a dangerous defense that can present many issues for teams with questionable offensive line play.

It’s primarily a 3-4 defense that often functions like a 4-3, much like UCLA’s defense in 2013 and 2012 with Anthony Barr more often than not acting as a fourth defensive lineman. Washington doesn’t blitz a lot, but mostly because it hasn’t had to this year, thanks to the significant pressure its gotten from just its front four. The Huskies have given up 4.8 yards per play in FBS contests this year, a number that’s very comparable with Utah in the Pac-12, but a significant step behind Stanford (which is giving up a ridiculously low 4.1 yards per play). As you might imagine given their sack totals, the defensive front is also stout against the run, giving up just 3.4 yards per carry, which is very comparable with both Utah and Stanford.

For Washington’s defense, everything begins with the defensive line, which is a talented, senior-laden group. Senior buck linebacker/defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha (6'3, 246) is effectively the “Anthony Barr” of the defense, only if Barr had put up even more ridiculous numbers. Kikaha is leading the nation in sacks with 16, putting him on pace for 20+ on the year. He combines a great motor with a great speed rush to get many of his sacks, but he also has good strength, oftentimes being able to shuck offensive linemen. He does occasionally look for the sack too often, which can come at the expense of containment or run defense, but he is a force off the edge. He probably splits time about evenly between having his hand down and standing up. He’s joined in the pass rush by senior nose tackle Danny Shelton (6'2, 339), who might be the best interior defensive lineman in the Pac-12. Shelton leads the team in tackles and — again — he’s the nose tackle. He also has 7.5 sacks so far this year, to go along with 12.5 tackles for loss. He’s an absolute playmaker on the interior, with incredible strength that demands double teams along with underrated athleticism. On the other end, opposite Kikaha, is another talented edge rusher in senior Andrew Hudson (6'3, 246). Hudson has certainly been the beneficiary of much of the attention paid to Shelton and Kikaha this year, but even still, he has shown some good athleticism off the edge to register six sacks of his own. Senior Evan Hudson (6'6, 273), who’s not related to Andrew, mans the other defensive tackle spot, and isn’t much of a pass rush threat, acting more as a gap-plugger. Junior defensive tackle Taniela Tupou (6'2, 282) and redshirt freshman nose tackle Elijah Qualls (6'1, 311) will work into the interior rotation, and Qualls in particular has some real talent, with great strength and athleticism, though he is inexperienced.

John Timu
The linebackers are also very good, but there is a big question mark as to the depth chart there. Junior linebacker Shaq Thompson (6'1, 228), the star of the group, switched to offense two weeks ago to help out the Huskies beleaguered attack. Chris Petersen has said this week that he expects Thompson to go both ways, and if Thompson does end up playing mostly defense, he can present some real issues for opposing offenses. He’s essentially a converted safety, so he can cover slot receivers very effectively, but he’s also big enough to be stout in run support. His biggest strength, though, is in his ability to run sideline-to-sideline and chase down ball-carriers. If he plays more offense, though, it’s likely that his spot will be taken up by redshirt freshman Keishawn Bierria (6'1, 221), who’s been decent enough in Thompson’s absence, but is very inexperienced, and nowhere near the athletic freak that Thompson is. Senior John Timu (6'1, 246), though, can help cover up for a lot of inexperience. The senior linebacker is the second leading tackler and is particularly stout against the run, though he’s also shown more than enough athletic ability to cover bigger receivers over the middle. Junior Travis Feeney (6'4, 218), the third starter, is the one more likely to leave the field in nickel situations, but even still has made an impact this year. He’ll be used as a pass rusher off the edge from time to time, and has good athleticism, if a bit of a slight frame. Junior Cory Littleton (6'3, 229) also gets a significant amount of time backing up, and if Bierria starts, he’ll probably be the first linebacker off the bench to spell the others.

If there’s a weakness in this defense, it’s probably the secondary. Teams have been able to pass on the Huskies, at least to a much larger extent than they’ve been able to run on them. Washington starts two true freshmen in the unit, with Budda Baker (5'10, 173) manning one of the safety spot and Sidney Jones (6'0, 171) manning one of the cornerback positions. Baker has actually been mostly good this year, playing similarly to how Jaleel Wadood has played for UCLA, but Jones has had some struggles at times matching up against physical, more experienced receivers. Again, though, there is some talent in the group. Junior Marcus Peters (6'0, 190), the junior cornerback, has become one of the most heavily touted cornerback prospects in the country, thanks to his combination of instincts, speed, and athleticism. He has three interceptions and seven pass breakups this year, which gives an indication of his ball skills. Sophomore Kevin King (6'3, 183) is the other safety, and he’s long and rangy, but not incredibly talented. It’s not a particularly deep unit, either, with two more true freshmen in Naijiel Hale (5'10, 171) and Darren Gardenhire (5'11, 173) factoring into the rotation at cornerback. This week, there’s been noise that sophomore John Ross (5'11, 179), Washington’s talented receiver, could play at cornerback. Ross was a good corner in high school, but it’s really anyone’s guess what he’ll be able to do in his first outing as a college corner. That should give you an indication, though, of some of the depth issues Washington has in the secondary.

UCLA’s offense was fairly inept last week against Arizona, after putting together only so-so performances against California and Colorado. All three teams had pretty weak defenses, but each was able to flummox UCLA’s offense fairly consistently by dropping seven or eight into coverage and forcing Brett Hundley to make difficult reads downfield. Against Arizona last week, Hundley took off on more than a dozen scrambles after seeing his first or second receiver covered, and, because he’s a very talented scrambler, it paid off, with UCLA’s offense riding the scrambling of Hundley and the running of Paul Perkins to a weird 17-7 victory.

The question is really whether that strategy — essentially hoping that Hundley can make plays with his legs — can really work long-term, especially against good defenses. Hundley hasn’t been seeing the field well, arguably since he sustained ten sacks against Utah, and his struggles in the passing game have led UCLA to opt more for the rushing attack. It’s mostly worked the last three weeks against poor defenses, but through the final three games of the season, UCLA will play one decent defense (USC), one good defense (Washington), and one elite defense (Stanford), and UCLA will need to show a much more consistent and dynamic passing attack to make it through that gauntlet unscathed.

UCLA Offensive Line
Thankfully for the Bruins, the improved offensive line should be able to help facilitate this. We’ve written it for three straight weeks, but it bears repeating — the addition of Conor McDermott to the offensive line has drastically changed the dynamic for the unit. McDermott has the athleticism you expect of a high-level offensive tackle, and has shown surprisingly good savvy and awareness for a guy who really hasn’t played much. The interior of the line hasn’t had a great couple of games, though, and it’ll be interesting to see whether left guard Malcolm Bunche, who switched from left tackle when McDermott emerged, starts to feel some real heat from Alex Redmond and Kenny Lacy. Redmond has played in each of the last two games, while Lacy played last game, so it’ll be interesting to see if their time increases against the Huskies.

UCLA has had one big injury in the receiving corps the last couple of weeks, with Thomas Duarte sitting out the last two games with a hamstring issue. As Jim Mora said this week, Duarte was suited up for the game last week, but didn’t end up getting in. He’s expected to be healthy this week, and a full go, which should help Hundley in providing him another target over the middle that he trusts. Duarte, if he’s fully mobile and healthy, presents a matchup issue for many linebackers and safeties, with good athleticism, good size, and great hands.

ADVANTAGE: Washington

It’s not a huge advantage; there are weaknesses in Washington’s attack, and UCLA has shown improvement in recent weeks in areas that Washington might have exploited. But still — this is the best pass rush UCLA will have faced since Utah, and we all remember how well the Bruins fared against the Utes.

The Huskies have the ability to pressure many aspects of UCLA’s offensive line at once; in that respect, Washington is actually different from Utah, which was primarily geared toward the edge rush (at least when the Utes weren’t blitzing). Washington should be able to pressure both on the interior and on the edge at once, which will leave UCLA’s linemen often blocking in one-on-one situations, which could be very tricky. We actually think Conor McDermott could hold up well against Kikaha — McDermott moves his feet well enough to deal with the speed rush, and the weight he added between this year and last should help against Kikaha’s underrated strength. We actually see the primary issue as Scott Quessenberry, Jake Brendel, or Malcolm Bunche lined up against Danny Shelton. Shelton’s combination of strength and athleticism is like nothing any of those guys have dealt with this year, and the interior of UCLA’s line has actually been the weakness the last couple of weeks.

It’s obviously critical for UCLA’s offensive line to win enough battles to keep Brett Hundley relatively secure. It’s unrealistic to expect them not to allow a sack or three, but if this turns into the sack-fest that Utah turned into, Hundley will be hard pressed to put together any sustained drives. If the offensive line does give him some time, there should be some favorable match-ups against that young Washington secondary, but much will hinge on the battle in the trenches. Even more to the point, it’s going to be important for the interior of the line to open up some lanes for Paul Perkins and company to run through, since that’s quickly becoming the strength of the offense.

It goes without saying (or should, at least) that if Washington is able to get consistent pressure with its front four and also stop the run that it’ll be a long, brutal day for UCLA’s offense.

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