Game Week: Full UCLA vs. California Preview

Oct. 21 -- UCLA faces a big challenge on Thursday, having to win a critical game against a tough opponent in California, with any remaining shot at a conference title hanging in the balance...

Facts and Factors

• UCLA hosts the California Bears Thursday, Oct. 21st, in the Rose Bowl, with the game kicking off at 6:00 p.m. and carried on ESPN.

• UCLA fell to 4-2 (1-2 Pac-12 South) last week after its loss to Stanford, and fell out of the rankings for the first time this season.

• Cal is 5-1 (2-1) and ranked #19 and #20 in the polls.

• The Bears’ lone defeat was at #3/#7-ranked Utah, 30-24. 

• It will be the the 86th meeting between the two sibling schools in football, with UCLA holding a 52-32-1 edge.

• It’s the fourth consecutive week that Cal has been ranked this season.   The #19 ranking is the highest ranking for the Bears in six years, since the 2009 season. 

• Cal is coming off a bye week, after losing Oct. 10th to Utah. 

• UCLA under Jim Mora hasn’t played well against Cal.  It was semi-blown out in 2012 in Berkeley, 43-17; won at the Rose Bowl in 2013 in disappointing fashion against a really bad Cal team, 37-10;  and barely squeaked out a win last year at Cal, 36-34. 

• The last time UCLA played a Cal team that was ranked higher than the Bruins was in 2007, when the #10 Bears came to the Rose Bowl and were upset, 30-21. UCLA was unranked

• UCLA beat Cal 18 times in a row, from 1972 to 1989. 

• Since then, Cal leads the series 14-11.

• in the last 50 years, going into the Cal/UCLA game, the Bears have only been ranked higher than UCLA 7 other times, and UCLA holds a 4-3 edge in those games.

• Sonny Dykes (45) is in his third year in Berkeley, with a record of 11-19.  It’s been a pretty dramatic turnaround, going 1-11 in 2013, 5-7 last year and not starting out 2015 at 5-1.  Dykes made a name for himself as the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, being one of the principal architects of the Air Raid offense.  He went on to be the OC at Arizona, then the head coach at Texas Tech before being hired as Cal’s head guy after the firing of Jeff Tedford.  Dykes is from Texas, and hired a staff with some Texans at Cal, and it was originally thought it could be difficult for Dykes and his staff to recruit California kids to Cal.

• UCLA Center Jake Brendel’s next start will be his 46th, moving him into a tie for second on the all-time school list (#1 on the list is LB Spencer Havner with 48 starts in 2002-2005).

• Since beating Arizona in game four, UCLA has not had a lead in the last two games against ASU and Stanford.

• UCLA is 11-7 under Jim Mora against ranked opponents. 

• UCLA has now lost back-to-back conference games in each of the last three seasons. 

• UCLA is currently favored by 3 points.

• The weather forecast calls for a high of 81 degrees on Thursday.

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.

WR Kenny Lawler (USA Today)

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.
Deon Hollins

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.

ADVANTAGE: CALIFORNIA

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.

California’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense

Cal’s defense this year is decidedly mediocre, which is a significant improvement over a year ago, when it was bad, which, in turn, was a significant improvement over the year before, when it was awful. Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman is really starting to put his stamp on the defense in his second year, with Cal looking much more disruptive, with the 13th best sack percentage in the country (just ahead of Arizona State, to give you some context). Across the board, it’s a more aggressive Cal defense, and that has paid dividends for the Bears with some big plays at opportune moments.

As a whole, the defense is giving up 5.4 yards per play, which is a significant step forward from last season, when the Bears gave up 6.3 yards per play. Interestingly, the rush defense has actually gotten worse, with Cal giving up 4.2 yards per play after giving up 3.9 yards per play a year ago, but the pass defense has improved significantly, giving up 7.5 yards per play after giving up 8.4 during last season’s injury plagued campaign for the secondary. Obviously, all of those numbers are fairly mediocre from a yardage perspective, but Cal has clearly made the calculation to be a bit more of an aggressive defense rather than sitting back passively. California, significantly, is averaging 3.2 takeaways per game, which leaves the Bears tied with Utah and West Virginia for the second best mark in the country.

The disruption starts with the front four. Senior defensive end Kyle Kragen (6’2, 245) has been the leader of this revamped defensive line. Kragen has a very good motor, which has helped him tally five sacks through the first six games. He also is the team’s leading tackler, and it’s always a good sign for a defense when a front-line player is leading the team in tackles. Junior defensive end DeVante Wilson (6’5, 265) has been nursing a foot injury since the middle of September, but he’s expected to be fully ready to go for this one and he’ll get the start opposite Kragen. He’s more of a run stopper than Kragen, but he also has a sack so far this year. The interior linemen, sophomore James Looney (6’3, 280) and sophomore Tony Mekari (6’1, 280), both tend to be gap fillers more than anything, but each of them has also recorded a sack this season. The main sub off the bench is senior defensive end Jonathan Johnson (6’2, 245), who filled in substantially while Wilson was out. He has four tackles for loss this season and two sacks. Cal rotates a good amount of defensive linemen, and while you wouldn’t say the Bears have elite talent along the line, they have plenty of above average players to keep the front four fresh.

LB Hardy Nickerson (USA Today)

The linebackers have been solid so far this year for the Bears, but they haven’t been quite as good as many around Cal were expecting. As a unit, it’s probably the least disruptive group on the field for the Bears, recording just two of Cal’s 19 total sacks. The group is led by junior middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson (6’0, 225), who’s the leading tackler among the linebackers. He’s the acknowledged leader of the defense and a very steady presence in the middle. He gives up a little bit of weight, but in the present Pac-12, that’s not such a big deal. He’s fairly effective in pass coverage while also being good against the run. Senior weak side linebacker Jalen Jefferson (6’2, 240) took over the starting spot from junior Michael Barton (6’0, 240) from last year, and has looked good so far this season. He has done a little bit of everything — rushed the passer, dropped into coverage, pursued against the run — and has done it all fairly well, with an interception, a sack, and a few pass breakups already this season. Junior strong side linebacker Jake Kearney (6’2, 225) is the player most likely to come off the field during nickel situations, and in the Pac-12, that means he’s probably on the field less than half of all possessions.

The secondary might be the overall strength of the defense, which is a stunner after last year. It’s a vastly improved unit from a year ago, when Cal suffered a ton of injuries. Kaufman is also using this group very aggressively, with a bevy of safety and nickel blitzes throughout the first six weeks of the season. Senior boundary safety Stefan McClure (5’11, 205) is somehow, impossibly, still at Cal, and he’s developed into quite the player now that he’s a senior. He’s good in coverage, and has shown skill as a blitzer. His fellow safety, junior Damariay Drew (5’11, 200), is actually Cal’s second-leading tackler and is more often the final line of defense for the Bears. The corners, senior Darius White (6’0, 180) and sophomore Darius Allensworth (6’0, 190), are newcomers to the starting lineup this year, but have been solid, and White, in particular, has shown an opportunistic streak, with two interceptions this season in addition to fumble recovery. Allensworth also has a pick this season, in addition to two forced fumbles. The most interesting player in the secondary, though, is junior nickelback Cameron Walker (5’10, 185). Cal loves to use Walker as a blitzer, and he already has four tackles for loss and a couple of sacks this season, as well as an interception. It’s a fair bet that he’ll come off the edge at Rosen once or twice on Thursday. In a bizarre development from last season, backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer (6’0, 195) made the switch to safety this offseason and has looked…decidedly OK this season! He’s even recorded an interception, and has 13 total tackles.

The Cal defense is a fun group that disrupts opposing offenses and gives its own offense a chance to actually win games this year, as opposed to being the almost insurmountable impediment it was a year ago. The Bears will certainly give up some yards and some points to good offenses, but they make up for it to some extent with big plays and turnovers.

UCLA’s offense has been fairly good this year. The last two games haven’t been particularly kind to statistical measures of the UCLA offense, but taken on the whole, UCLA has been pretty effective. The Bruins are averaging 6.1 yards per play (just a hair behind Cal and Arizona in the league), and that’s actually an uptick from a year ago, when UCLA averaged 5.9 yards per play.

Against Stanford, UCLA wasn’t able to keep pace with a terrific Stanford offense, and scored just 20 points while the game was still relatively in doubt. Many of the issues had to do with ill-timed penalties more than anything. UCLA had a huge variety of critical penalties in this one, ranging from personal fouls to offensive pass interference to a couple of strange illegal man downfield calls. A touchdown was even negated by an illegal formation call. In other words, UCLA’s offense was probably more effective against Stanford’s defense than its statistics indicated, but penalties wiped out a lot of the good that UCLA accomplished.

Josh Rosen, six games into his college career, looks like an above average college quarterback, which is quite a feat. Against Stanford, his statistics were underwhelming (three touchdowns and two interceptions, and once again hovering around 50% on his completion percentage), but given that he was often under duress, he generally made good decisions and accurate throws.
Steve Cheng (BRO)

The running game hasn’t been quite as good as last year in conference play, which might be due to teams being able to key on the running back more now that the quarterback isn’t much of a running threat. Paul Perkins is averaging six yards per rush attempt right now, which is very good, but a small step down from last year, when he averaged 6.3. Nate Starks actually suffered a head injury against Stanford that could hold him out this week, which means UCLA will likely use Sotonye Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi more. Jamabo had an underwhelming series of snaps against Stanford, but Olorunfunmi looked good in junk time, and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets more carries early in this one.

The offensive line took some hits against Stanford, with starting left tackle Conor McDermott (knee) and starting right guard Alex Redmond (hand) both going down. The status for both is uncertain for this week. Redshirt freshman Kolton Miller would probably start if McDermott is unable to go, and Fred Ulu-Perry would likely get the nod if Redmond is unable to play. If McDermott is able to play, but Redmond can’t, it’ll be interesting to see if the Bruins bring in Miller at right tackle and have Benenoch move down to guard. Obviously, if both are unable to play, that’ll cause UCLA some real issues up front, as there is virtually no depth behind Miller and Ulu-Perry.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

Cal’s defense is improved, without a doubt, but it’s still mostly mediocre, and the Bears’ run defense presents a good opportunity for UCLA’s rushing attack to shine. Paul Perkins could have his first really big game in a while in this one, and if he doesn’t, it’ll be because Cal sold out more against the run than even Arizona State, which should open up opportunities for Josh Rosen.

This is a game where it would probably be ideal for UCLA to come out with the mindset of establishing the run early. The Bruins should force Cal to show it can stop interior runs early before it commits to challenging the secondary and putting Rosen in drop-back situations. Cal’s pass rush can be tricky, with guys flying in from different spots, so getting the defense on its heels a little bit first would probably be the ideal course. If McDermott and Redmond are out, that’ll present some issues for pass protection, which makes it all the more crucial to establish a rushing attack early.

Overall, we think UCLA can get what it wants on the ground for the most part, which will set up Rosen for opportunities on the outside later in the game. Cal has some good, experienced safeties, so deep shots could be tricky, but Rosen should be able to challenge the Bears’ corners, who lack that level of experience.

Special Teams

Cal’s placekicker is sophomore Matt Anderson (6’0, 185) who is six of nine this year on field goals with misses from 35, 40, and 44 yards this season, and a long of 41 yards. This is his first year kicking, and it looks like Cal won’t use him from longer than 45 yards or so. Ka'imi Fairbairn has been great so far this year, making nine of ten kicks with the only miss from 50 yards. He has a long of 53 this season, and hasn’t missed a kick since the opener against Virginia. Big advantage to UCLA.

Senior Cole Leininger (6’1, 210) handles punts for the Bears, and he has been just fine this year. On 17 punts, he’s nailed seven inside the 20 and has only had one touchback. Goff will actually quick-kick it every now and then, and he’s pretty effective doing it. On the UCLA side of things Matt Mengel has really struggled this season, and even with his backup, Adam Searl, indefinitely suspended after being arrested on rape charges, we wouldn’t be surprised if UCLA opts for a different punter on Thursday. Big advantage to California.

Cal’s return game has been pretty poor, overall. Trevor Davis handles kicks and punts and he hasn’t really had any big plays this season. Cal’s kick coverage has been good, though, especially on kickoffs, where opponents are averaging just 21 yards per return. UCLA’s returners have been pretty good this year, with Devin Fuller averaging 24.4 yards per kick return, and a robust 14.6 yards per punt return. UCLA’s kick coverage has looked suddenly very bad in recent weeks, with two big returns in the last two games. The Bruins are giving up an astonishing 29.8 yards per kick return, which is very bad. We’ll call this one, overall, a wash, but if we had to say there was an advantage, it would point toward Cal.

ADVANTAGE: Even

Prediction

This is a very similar situation to the game last year, when UCLA faced Cal on the road after a two-game losing streak that saw any real hopes for a playoff run or national championship evaporate. In that game, UCLA won a weird one 36-34 that, in equal parts, shouldn’t have been that close but also could have easily been won by Cal. That game sparked a five game winning streak for the Bruins, and they’ll be looking for a similar run this year.

Of course, they are two different teams than a year ago. Cal is a little bit better, and UCLA is definitely suffering from more severe injuries than it was a season ago. The inherent matchups, though, are still similar: Cal’s offense can probably take advantage of UCLA’s defense to a large extent, but UCLA’s offense can likely do the same to Cal’s defense.

The question then becomes: which defense is more likely to get stops? Cal’s defense has generated more big plays, and UCLA’s defense has looked positively abysmal in two of the last three games, so it’d make sense that Cal’s defense should get more stops. The thing is, Cal’s offense doesn’t run the ball particularly well, and that’s clearly the main weakness for UCLA right now. It might simply come down to which team’s weakness is weaker, and that’s unclear.

On the flip side, this is probably the best offense Cal has faced this year, and probably the most balanced. UCLA should be able to run the ball on Cal, which negates a good amount of Cal’s strength on defense, the pass rush.

This is probably the toughest game to predict this year. There’s a reasonable chance this could be anything from a really close, one-possession game to a blowout in either team’s favor, depending on so many factors. We’ve gone back and forth on it a few times, but ultimately, it boils down to this: UCLA’s strength on offense, its running game, has a really good chance of dictating the pace and flow of this game, because Cal’s rush defense is not great. UCLA’s weakness on defense, its rush defense, is unlikely to be exploited to its fullest extent by the Bears. While Goff is very good, if Cal elects to drop back 40+ times in this game rather than run the ball, it’s probably a good thing for UCLA, because odds are on at least a couple of plays, UCLA will generate enough pressure to force a mistake or two.

Then from an intangible perspective, given what we’ve seen of Jim Mora’s teams in the last three years, this is the kind of game they win — with their backs against the wall after being all but eliminated from any postseason discussion. Mora’s teams have generally shown good mental toughness and the ability to bounce back, and that has to be factored into the discussion, at least a little.

Like we said, though, this is a very tough one to predict. If UCLA’s defense is as bad on Thursday as it was against Stanford, then the Bruins will need an otherworldly performance from Rosen and the offense to stay with the Bears. Cal’s offense, though, is nowhere near as good as Stanford, and we think UCLA’s defense could show enough wrinkles to slow the Bears down for a close win at home.

UCLA 38
California 34

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