1. Is this UCLA team closer to the one we saw in the first three games or the one we saw against Arizona State?
It might just be recency bias, but I do think the overall look and feel of the team against Arizona State was a better indicator of the overall quality of UCLA this year, at least right now. UCLA had a hard time getting going offensively against Virginia, but since then the offense has been operating at a fairly elite level with Brett Hundley at the helm. While I wouldn't necessarily expect UCLA to score 48 points as an offense every game, like it did against ASU, if Hundley continues to play at the high level he's shown over the last three games (including his few minutes against Texas), there's a chance this offense could be the best of the Mora era.
The question for UCLA is whether that defensive performance against the Sun Devils is an indicator of what's to come. Through four games, UCLA has had one really good defensive performance (Virginia), one decent defensive game (Texas), one mediocre game (ASU), and one pretty awful game (Memphis). Looking at the broad strokes of it, UCLA has clearly gone to more of a coverage-based scheme, with three and four-man rushes being the order of the day. So far, the execution has been a bit lacking, with UCLA's pass rushers struggling to win enough one-on-one battles to pressure quarterbacks consistently and the secondary not playing tight enough coverage on the back end. So, in short, I do think the performance against ASU was a pretty good showing of what UCLA's defense is right now, but there's significant room for improvement with either some slight schematic adjustments (more pressure) or some better overall play in the pass rush and in coverage.
2. The Bruins seem to have improved each week a bit before really taking off against ASU. Is this something we should expect to continue heading into Utah?
I really don't know how much room for improvement there is on offense after that showing, but in watching the ASU game, it really did seem like Brett Hundley is in the process of making a leap into legitimate Heisman-contender territory. He was so much better in his pre-snap reads than he's been at any point in his career, and he's obviously greatly improved his downfield accuracy since last season. If his play over the last few games isn't a mirage, then I'd expect UCLA's offense to play at a pretty high level the remainder of the year.
I would expect the defense to look a bit better against Utah, if only because of the match-ups. If ever there was a team against whom the Bruins could generate a pass rush with just four guys, this would be it. The big thing I'll be looking for is some recognition on the part of the coaching staff of Travis Wilson's issues with pressure. This would be a perfect team for UCLA to finally break out some creative blitz packages, and it'd be a good sign for UCLA fans to see the defensive staff adjust to attack the weaknesses of the Utah offense.
3. Have the issues on the offensive line been fixed or is there still concern? Will UCLA be able to slow an elite pass rusher like Nate Orchard?
It's UCLA -- there will always be concern on the offensive line. The Bruins may have stumbled into a good combination against Arizona State though. When left guard Alex Redmond went down with an ankle injury in the first quarter, redshirt freshman Kenny Lacy stepped in and played very well -- probably better than Redmond has played all year. So far this season, the guards have really been the weak spot, with Redmond and Scott Quessenberry struggling in both pass protection and run blocking. It was just one game, but Lacy looked better than either of those two have all year, and actually did a nice job of getting to the second level on run blocks. For the first time all year, UCLA gave Hundley a mostly clean pocket, and he responded with one of his best ever performances.
As for the pass rush, it'd be foolish to think UCLA, with two converted guards at tackle, will be able to completely stop a pass-rusher with the skill-set of Orchard. Neither Caleb Benenoch nor Malcolm Bunche is the most mobile of tackles, so Orchard will probably get some pressure on Hundley. That said, with improved interior play, Hundley should be able to step up into the pocket and avoid one rusher, even one as talented as Orchard.
4. UCLA's strengths are what? How will they use those against Utah?
UCLA has excellent players up the middle on defense, with defensive lineman Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes, along with inside linebacker Eric Kendricks, all playing at a high level this year. With Utah's strength clearly being its running game with Devontae Booker, we could see UCLA doing a good enough job bottling up his interior runs that it'll force Booker to create more off tackle and bump runs to the outside, which should disrupt the flow of the Utes' attack.
Offensively, Hundley, as both a runner and a passer, has risen to an elite level this year, and his go-to receivers have been excellent at creating yards after the catch. Against Utah's thin secondary, we'd imagine that Jordan Payton, Eldridge Massington, and Thomas Duarte (all big receivers) will once again be able to put together a nice showing with plenty of yards after the catch.
5. UCLA's weaknesses are what? How should Utah try to exploit those?
Right now, most of UCLA's weaknesses fall on the defensive side of the ball. The Bruins have had very little pass rush all year, and the secondary has been spotty at best. UCLA has also shown itself to be susceptible to mis-direction. Sweeps, zone-reads, counters, and other types of tricky runs could cause the Bruins some issues. The question will really be if Travis Wilson can play with enough poise and confidence to take advantage of UCLA's issues in the secondary. If UCLA's pass rush can't get to him, and the Bruins have to send multiple defenders to pressure Wilson, we could see Utah being able to put some serious points up on the board.
Offensively, UCLA probably still is susceptible to the pass rush, especially on the edge. Utah should be able to generate a bit more pressure than ASU, since the Utes have a better defense overall.
Know Your Foe: UCLA Bruins
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