CALIFORNIA'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
And now for something completely different — California’s offense. After going against a power offense last week, complete with I-formations and multiple jumbo looks on the offensive line, UCLA will be faced this week with an almost purely spread, pass-first offense. Even though it’s a different challenge, it’s still a considerable one, thanks to Cal’s skill and talent at receiver and quarterback.
Cal’s offense this year has improved a bit statistically from last year, and is comfortably in the top 25 in yards per play at 6.2. The makeup of the offense hasn’t changed much from last year. Cal has run the ball slightly more than a year ago (45% of downs vs. 43% of downs), but that might simply be a product of being ahead in more games late and trying to run out the clock. Cal’s offense has been productive from a yardage perspective, but haven’t been incredibly efficient scoring the ball in the red zone (which is oftentimes a knock against spread passing offenses). Regardless, Cal’s offense presents some real challenges to a UCLA defense that is suddenly looking particularly weak.
Jared Goff (6’4, 215), now a seasoned junior, is a very dangerous quarterback. He has a very good arm, and can thread the ball into very tight windows. It appears, though, that he’s gotten perhaps a bit overconfident in his ability to fit the ball into small spaces, as his interception rate has gone up considerably. Last year, he threw seven interceptions all season (twelve games), and this year he has already thrown nine through six games. Obviously, some of that is the disastrous performance against Utah, where Goff threw five interceptions, but he had also thrown one interception in four of his five other games. Some of it is probably overconfidence, but it could also be that Goff is starting to feel the heat from the pass rush a bit more. He has taken 14 sacks this year, but 11 of those have come in the last three games against Washington, Washington State, and Utah. One of Goff’s best qualities over the last few years has been his imperturbability, but it’s certainly being tested through the beginning of Pac-12 play.
The offensive line has not done a great job in pass protection this season, but especially through the last three games against the very good pass rushes of Washington and Utah (and the underrated one of Washington State). There were some significant changes on the offensive line from last year to this one which might explain the drop off. Cal has new starters at left tackle in senior Brian Farley (6’7, 290) and center in JuCo transfer Dominic Granado (6’4, 290), and if we had to pin Cal’s protection problems down to a couple of issues, we’d say Granado sliding in at center hasn’t been a perfect fit yet in terms of adjusting blocking assignments and identifying blitzers, and that Farley hasn’t had the strength to deal with the bull rush from opposing defensive ends. The rest of the offensive line is fairly experienced, with Chris Borrayo (6’3, 310), who has started at points in each of the last two years, at left guard, and at right guard, Jordan Rigsbee (6’5, 300), who has been a Swiss Army Knife for the Bears over the last three years in starting games at guard, center, and tackle. Junior right tackle Steven Moore (6’6, 305) had offseason shoulder surgery but is back in the starting group after starting 12 games a year ago.
They haven’t been particularly good at opening holes for the running backs either. Cal’s rushing attack has been pretty poor by Pac-12 standards, with 4.3 yards per rush. Senior Daniel Lasco (6’1, 205), the starter, has been nicked up with a hip injury this year, and hasn’t looked quite as quick and explosive as he looked last season, but much of that is also a product of Cal’s offensive line not opening holes consistently. Lasco’s injury did give junior Khalfani Muhammad (5’9, 170) and sophomore Vic Enwere (6’2, 230) a chance to shine, though, and both showed off some real talent. Muhammad is more of an explosive, home-run threat, with great speed, while Enwere, as his size would suggest, is more of a between-the-tackles type who is very tough to bring down. Muhammad exploded for a big game against Texas, but has been quieter since, with just over five yards per carry in the last three games on 21 carries. Enwere has been more consistent, and has generally been able to grind out yards against even tough defenses like Washington and Utah.
But the true strength of this offense is its passing game, and so much of that is due to the talented, deep, and experienced receiving corps. Goff has a wealth of targets on the outside, but his favorite is pretty clearly junior Kenny Lawler (6’3, 195). Lawler is a great playmaker, with huge hands and great leaping ability that allows him to turn virtually any one-on-one opportunity into a mismatch. He has more than enough speed for defensive backs to have to respect him deep, but he really makes an impact on jump balls and in the red zone. Senior Y receiver Stephen Anderson (6’3, 230) is Goff’s safety valve a lot of times, and Cal loves to hit him on seam routes when given the opportunity. The former walk-on is a big, physical receiver who can cause issues for smaller nickel backs. Seniors Darius Powe (6’3, 220) and Bryce Treggs (6’0, 185) split time in the slot. Powe is another bigger receiver who presents a nice target for Goff, but Treggs has a little bit of jitterbug ability to make guys miss in the open field. Since hitting a high point in 2013 with 77 catches, Treggs’ usage has slowly gone down, with 52 catches last year, and now on pace for just 36 this season. As that has happened, though, his average yards per play has gone up, which stands to reason, because opposing defenses are much more worried about defending the mismatches, Lawler and Anderson. Seniors Trevor Davis (6’2, 185) and Maurice Harris (6’3, 195) round out the rotation, and both are very good pass catcher in their own right. Davis has some big play ability, with very good top end speed. It is, top to bottom, probably the most talented receiving corps in the Pac-12, and possibly the country.
In short, Cal’s offense is a good one, but it has been limited at times this year by the offensive line, which has been poor at pass blocking and just OK at run blocking. If the Bears can start to get more consistency up front, there’s no reason why Cal’s offense can’t have an elite finish to the regular season.
UCLA’s defense is coming off one of its worst performances of the Jim Mora era. The Bruins were unable to do much of anything to even slow down Stanford’s offense last week, as the Cardinal rolled for over 300 yards rushing en route to a 56-35 victory that wasn’t nearly that close. The run defense has now been decidedly below average for three straight games, and it’s pretty clear that UCLA needs to make some changes on that side of the ball to start putting together some credible performances.
From a personnel standpoint, obviously, UCLA is down some guys. The Bruins are without defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, linebacker Myles Jack, and cornerback Fabian Moreau, and that has certainly played a role in UCLA’s woes on that side of the ball. But so far, aside from UCLA plugging some new guys into those positions, we haven’t seen much in the way of scheme adjustments to account for the losses. Without a transformative player like Jack, or an elite run-stopper like Vanderdoes, the bend-but-don’t-break scheme that UCLA wanted to use this year just isn’t effective.
So, what can be done? We haven’t seen much blitzing from UCLA this year, and, somewhat counterintuitively, we’ve seen even fewer blitzes over the last three games than we saw in the first three games. Perhaps a bit more pressure would be one answer — without the ideal personnel to run the scheme UCLA wanted, becoming more aggressive and forcing the issue might be a better strategy. In any case, it was apparent last week that whatever UCLA was doing wasn’t working, so it’ll be interesting to see what changes are made going forward.
UCLA still has plenty of talent on defense, with Kenneth Clark continuing to look like he’ll be starting for an NFL team next year. Clark has looked even more dominant than usual of late, as if he’s taken the responsibility of single-handedly shoring up the defense. He hasn’t quite been able to, but it isn’t for lack of effort or ability. At linebacker, Isaako Savaiinaea has emerged as a nice option for the Bruins, with good instincts and solid tackling ability.
From an injury standpoint, UCLA could be without Deon Hollins on Thursday. Hollins injured his knee against Stanford and was in and out of practice on Sunday and Monday this week. If he’s unable to go, it’s uncertain what UCLA’s option would be at that position, since getting a pass rush from that spot should be an absolute priority. The best options for a pass rush outside of Hollins are probably Kenny Orjioke, Cameron Griffin, or maybe even something interesting with Matt Dickerson where he plays on the edge a bit more.
This isn’t quite the complete mismatch that Stanford’s offense presented. The Cardinal, from top to bottom, was a pretty flawless offense, and it started up front with a dominant offensive line. California, on the other hand, has some weaknesses on the offensive line, and doesn’t have that same ability to kill teams with both the run and the pass.
Still, it’s a tough matchup for a depleted UCLA defense. Goff hasn’t responded well to pressure in recent weeks, but UCLA hasn’t shown a great ability to pressure any quarterback in recent weeks. If Hollins is unable to go, UCLA will have even greater issues, since this is a matchup almost tailor-made for Hollins’ ability to act as a one-man pass rush. If Goff is given time, he can carve up a defense as well as any quarterback in the country.
UCLA’s run defense has been abysmal recently, but this is a much better matchup for UCLA’s strengths. Cal does some zone read, but not nearly as much as the Arizona schools, which should make it a little easier on the linebackers. UCLA’s defensive line, even without Vanderdoes, is talented enough to keep Cal’s offensive linemen from getting to the second level, which should allow Savaiinaea, Kenny Young, and Jayon Brown to make plays. We’re reluctant to say that UCLA will stop any team’s running attack at this point of the season, but we’re very confident in saying that Cal won’t have anywhere near the success that Arizona or Stanford had on the Bruins.
The question is whether UCLA can get pressure on Goff, and that means Hollins’ health is key. If he’s healthy, UCLA can probably get some pressure with just four, which is ideal against Goff. If he’s limited, though, UCLA could have a tough strategic decision on its hands: blitz, and risk Goff carving the defense up, or sit back in coverage…and risk Goff carving the defense up.
We think UCLA’s defense will bounce back a little bit in this game, and the Bruins will probably throw a few new wrinkles at Goff that will confuse him. Ultimately, though, we think Goff will be able to get what he wants much of the time against the UCLA defense, and it’ll be the responsibility of the UCLA offense to win this one for the Bruins.