UCLA's Offense v. Notre Dame's D

It's an easy match-up to figure, with UCLA's good running game having an edge against Notre Dame's rushing defense, which is one of the worst in the country. However, the fact that UCLA's tailbacks are banged up could be an issue...

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. NOTRE DAME'S DEFENSE

This is one of the easiest match-ups to figure.

UCLA has the 16th-best rushing offense in the country and Notre Dame has the 107th-best (out of 119) rushing defense.

UCLA hasn't gotten very good play out of its quarterback position. 

Notre Dame's pass defense is much better than its rush defense, being ranked 7th in the country.

Easy math: UCLA is going to run the ball.
Kahlil Bell.


The issue with UCLA running the ball, however, is that both of their "starting" tailbacks are banged up. Chris Markey has turf toe, which he suffered early on against Oregon State. He "took a needle" in that game to return, and he hasn't practiced this week and he's projected as 50-50, which isn't good.  On top of that, Kahlil Bell has a bum shoulder, also suffered in the Oregon State game. He had on a red, no-hit jersey in practice Tuesday, and while he'll play against Notre Dame, it very well could be a factor.

So, what does UCLA have to fill the void?  Apparently, not a great deal. Sophomore Chane Moline, who was limited early in the season by a broken wrist, hasn't seen much action. He was supposed to be the next Manuel White-type guy for UCLA when he came to Westwood and last year looked like he had that type of potential, used particularly in third-and-short situations.  Behind Moline is converted safety Christian Ramirez, who it appears the staff doesn't have enough confidence in to give significant minutes.

Even if Bell is 100% and Markey is out, it will be interesting to see if the UCLA coaching staff will merely give Bell all of Markey's carries or try to work in Moline or Rodriguez. The best bet is that Moline could get 10 or so carries, but Bell will see his carries go up to 25-30. Hopefully his shoulder can take it.

If not, UCLA's offense could be in trouble.

Because it can't rely on its passing game.  Ben Olson looked better in the fourth quarter against Oregon State last week, but that's not enough evidence to say he's close to that corner-turning.  Unless UCLA changes its offensive philsophy and playcalling, you can probably expect to see more out-of-sync passing game in this one.  And Patrick Cowan is still hurt and unable to be used as a reliever.

Notre Dame's defensive strength is definitely in its passing game, and it's a pretty proven strength.  While giving up only 145 yards per game through the air could be influenced by opponents running the ball against the Irish, on the other hand, Notre Dame has gone up against some good teams.  Purdue was the best passing team among them, but last week Notre Dame kept them below their season average for yards gained through the air. 

The secondary is led by veteran Tom Zbikowski (SR, 6-0, 207) at strong safety, who's coming off a very good game against Purdue.  He has a rep as a big hitter and has forced a couple of fumble so far this season.  The new starter at free safety this year is David Bruton (JR, 6-2, 207), who has done well and been a big key in Notre Dame's pass defense. 

Also a huge key has been the play of Notre Dame's cornerbacks. Returning starter Terrail Lambert (SR, 5-11, 191) didn't have a great season a year ago, but he's been much improved this year.  And speaking of not having a good season, the other cornerback, Darrin Walls (SO, 6-0, 180), was torched so bad in one game last season as a true freshman he was taken out and never played much the remainder of the year.  Walls, though, won the position during the off-season and has been solid so far this year.  Ambrose Wooden (SR, 5-11, 190) pushed Walls, and he's the nickel back.

Notre Dame's linebackers are the heart of their defense, especially since the Irish run a 3-4.  The leader is clearly inside linebacker Maurice Crum (SR, 6-0, 230), who has a huge 40 tackles on the season, second on the team.  He's a tackling machine.  Next to him on the inside is another returning starter in Joe Brockington (SR, 6-2, 240), who is no slouch himself, having recorded 38 tackles so far this season.  There was some question about who would step into the two outside linebacker positions this year, and Anthony Vernaglia (SR, 6-3, 234) and John Ryan (SO, 6-5, 253) have done well. Vernaglia didn't play last week when Notre Dame faced Purdue's spread offense, but is expected to get a lot of time against UCLA's pro set.  Ryan is essentially a stand-up defensive end who has been very active. A guy to watch is Kerry Neal (FR, 6-2, 245), who subs in for Ryan, and is a talented youngster who got a sack last week against Purdue.

Defensive end Trevor Laws
But while the linebackers have been strong in pass coverage, the front seven haven't been stellar against the run.  Last season, Notre Dame's rush defense wasn't great, and it's still their main defensive problem.  Replacing two starters from a front three that wasn't that great was an issue going into the season and continues to be.  Trevor Laws (SR, 6-1, 296) was a returning starter at defensive tackle, but has made the switch to defensive end, where he's been incredibly active, leading the team in tackles with 41 and 4.5 tackles for loss.  Pat Kuntz (JR, 6-3, 285) is the nose tackle, and he's been having a difficult time this season, especially against some of the big running teams the Irish have faced. Ian Williams (FR, 6-2, 300) has been spelling him, but Williams is just learning how to play.  The other end spot was considered a big question going into the season, with a pair of untested upperclassmen vying for the spot in Justin Brown (SR, 6-3, 261) and Dwight Stephenson (SR, 6-2, 272). Brown won the spot, but Stephenson gets time and it's still thought to be a problematic spot. Brown has an injured ankle and Stephenson was thought to be looking better anyway.

The main reason they moved Laws out to end was a lack of experience on the edge among their front seven, and while he seemingly has been getting every other tackle for Notre Dame, it still hasn't helped. Opposing running backs have had career days this season bouncing runs to the outside for big yards.

Advantage: UCLA.  It's just a slight edge, because of the injuries to Markey and Bell. If they were 100%, it'd be a bigger one.  But if Markey can't go and Bell isn't completely healthy, getting production out of the running back position could be the biggest question of the game Saturday.  You can probably expect UCLA's passing game to look much like it has this season, out of sync and sloppy, against a good passing defense.  Luckily for the Bruins, who have been very poor at protecting their quarterback, Notre Dame hasn't been able to mount much of a pass rush so far this season, so perhaps Olson won't be under fire as much and he'll have time to make decisions. 

It's amazing that UCLA's tight end, Logan Paulsen, only has three receptions on the season. Whether it's a matter of plays not being called for him, or the UCLA quarterbacks not checking down to him, it's still a situation you'd think UCLA would like to rectify. It has, essentially, taken a major weapon out of its arsenal. 

When UCLA has the ball, no matter who is lined up in the tailback position, you can expect the Bruins to be dedicated to the ground game. Even if Notre Dame stacks the box and rushing yards are hard to come by early, expect UCLA to continue to pound away on the ground, expecting holes to open up as the game progresses.  

UCLA's offense, by no means, will put up a huge amount of points, unless, of course, it benefits from turnovers. But the advantage it has in its offensive line over Notre Dame's defensive front, especially if UCLA gets back Shannon Tevaga, the best offensive lineman on the team who has been out for two weeks due to a slightly torn ligament in his knee, should be sufficient to move the ball on the ground, take time off the clock and keep its defense off the field.

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