By James Durrant
The offensive line for the Bruins is the reason for the lack of offensive production. UCLA’s starting five are not playing well, not playing together, and getting beat on too many snaps. In the running game, the line isn’t getting a push or generating movement when zone blocking, and the man power blocking has been terrible. Pulling linemen are either not picking up the correct defenders or missing blocks as defenders are coming clean through the hole. UCLA has turned to running more zone blocking plays due to the inability of the line to execute man and power schemes.
Conner McDermott was the big name returning on the offensive line, but the senior left tackle has taken a step back from his 2015 performance. He still moves well and can be a dominant player, but for some reason he is getting beat far too often. Left guard Kenny Lacy was benched after starting the first six games, replaced by Josh Wariboko-Alali. The move did not produce any change in the effectiveness of the line in either the run game or pass protection. UCLA will likely be without starting right tackle Kolton Miller for the third consecutive game. Andre James is taking Miller’s place, and looks lost on the field at times. Scott Quessenberry at center and Najee Toran at right guard round-out the disappointing unit.
UCLA running backs have not helped out their offensive line, as the backs lack the burst to take advantage of any holes the line does open or the ability to bounce runs outside when the middle is clogged up. No Bruin back has run for 100 yards in a game this season, and no back with more than 20 carries is running for four yards per carry. Soso Jamabo has been the most productive of the ball carriers, gaining 207 yards and 3 touchdowns on 52 carries. Nate Starks leads the team with 66 carries, though he has gained just 181 yards with a touchdown. Bolu Olorunfunmi is the third back, picking up 165 yards and 2 touchdowns on 46 carries. Look for freshman Brandon Stephens to feature more in the rotation as UCLA searches for a spark. Stephens has gained 75 yards on 16 carries this season, and his 4.7 yards per carry leads the team for players with more than a carry. Stephens has some of that explosion and wiggle that UCLA has been missing.
On the outside of the offense, when the receivers catch the ball they have been productive. Consistency has been the major issue, though the corps possession plenty of athleticism and raw ability. UCLA will play five receivers and will also involve the tight ends in the passing game. Darren Andrews leads the team with 33 receptions, 439 yards and 3 touchdowns. Kenneth Walker is tied for the team lead with 3 touchdowns on 20 receptions, and also leads players with more than 3 catches with a 17.2 average yards per catch. Tight ends Nate Iese and Austin Roberts have combined to catch 26 passes for 406 yards and 2 touchdowns. Ishamel Adams has struggled with injuries; when healthy he is a dangerous threat with the ball in his hands.
Josh Rosen is one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, though he can get himself into trouble forcing passes into coverage. When healthy and on his game, Rosen is an excellent passer. However, he has been bothered by a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the game against Washington State and might not allow him to play against Utah. Should Rosen not be available or be ineffective, backup Mike Fafaul (Fay-ful) will be the quarterback. Fafaul has a good arm and can move around a bit, but he is nowhere near the caliber of player Rosen is. Fafaul doesn’t have great accuracy and will underthrow deep routes despite having a big enough arm, and he will also force the ball into coverage at times. On the season, he has thrown 4 interceptions in 52 pass attempts, completing 28 passes for 315 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Injuries continue to pile up for the Utes, who will likely be without three key starters. Utah has already played several games without the services of defensive end Kylie Fitts, who is out for the season. It does not appear that Tauteoli or Williams will be available this week after suffering injuries against Oregon State. The loss of arguably the best players at linebacker and in the secondary will make it difficult for the Utes to contain a productive passing game.
Against a team that struggles to run the ball, Utah will likely play with Puta Taumoepenu at end and Filipo Mokofisi inside at tackle. Mokofisi has started the last two games at end against teams that are better running the football. The pass rush will be key regardless of quarterback, and Taumoepenu is an outstanding pass rusher.
Kavika Luafatasaga and Tauteoli were turning into a nice pair of linebackers over the past three games. Utah will need Luafatasaga to turn into the playmaking linebacker he was at the JC level last season. Cody Barton is a decent player, though he has been much better against the run than in pass coverage. Freshman Donovan Thompson could get some playing time at linebacker. Thompson has been excellent on special teams this season.
Utah might go with six defensive backs and a linebacker regardless of if Williams plays or not. Jordan Fogal will take Williams’ place at free safety, and while he lacks the range and ball skills of Williams, he is a solid coverage player. Utah could move Chase Hansen down as a linebacker, taking advantage of his skills in the box and in coverage on tight ends. If that happens, look for Boobie Hobbs to play as a dime back and deep safety, giving the Utes the ability to play more two-deep coverages.
Utah corners have struggled recently, either giving up deep passes against Cal and Arizona or not able to wrap up and tackle against Oregon State. Brian Allen, Dominique Hatfield and Reggie Porter need to step up their play this week to take pressure off the safeties. When on, the corners can be excellent. They need to turn it around after three consecutive sub-par games.
UCLA is struggling on special teams. Kicker JJ Molson has made 9 of 14 kicks, has not made a kick of 40 yards or more, and has made 4 of 9 kicks of 35 yards or more. Punter Austin Kent is not getting much distance of height on his kicks, netting 37.1 yards on average with 6 of 39 punts travelling 50 or more yards.
The Bruins have been average at best on kick coverage, giving up 22.6 yards per kick return. The good news is they haven’t allowed a big return, as they longest return they have allowed is 36 yards. The bad news is that UCLA hasn’t faced a team with a dangerous return game, though Utah hasn’t exactly been explosive in that area. The Bruins are decent on punt coverage, though part of their solid numbers is due to the short punts.
Ishmael Adams is a dangerous threat in the return game, though he has not been explosive this year, averaging 21 yards on kick returns and 3.1 yards on punt returns. Randall Goforth has been a solid fill-in on kick returns, gaining 65 yards on 2 returns. Adarius Pickett has 43 yards on 6 punt returns.
Utah’s special teams are playing as well as they have all season. Andy Phillips has made 10 of 12 field goal attempts, including his only attempt in the weather last week. Mitch Wishnowsky might have had his best game punting against Oregon State, netting 41.8 yards per punt with a pair of punts downed inside the 10-yard line despite the poor weather conditions. He continues to lead the country in gross and net punt average.
Utah’s coverage teams have improved each week, especially on kick returns. The Utes are allowing 20 yards per kick return despite coverage breakdowns in the first four games of the season. Opponents are averaging 3.8 yards on punt returns.
Utah needs to improve on punt returns. Boobie Hobbs has struggled outside the opener against SUU, averaging 5.5 yards per return since then. He has been worse in conference play, gaining 30 yards on 7 returns. Hobbs has a tendency to be too aggressive fielding punts, and doesn’t have the breakaway ability to justify that aggressiveness.
The Utes have improved on kick returns since the return of Cory Butler-Byrd. He is averaging 28.2 yards per return the past two games. The reason for the improvement has been the play of the blockers, as Butler-Byrd no longer has to make three defenders miss before reaching the 20-yard line. Given a crease, Butler-Byrd is a home run threat.