Roll On: Previewing The UCLA Defense

Replace 82 with 21 and 85 with 1 and you'll get a preview of Saturday's action.

Boy, one 384 yard, 34 point performance sure changes the mood around here, doesn't it?  Cal's offensive performance felt like a huge step forward because Utah represents the best defense Cal will face until the Big Game.  Thus we're faced with the odd feeling of actual confidence for the next three games - particularly against UCLA.  Why?

There’s no way to get around it.  UCLA’s defense is bad, and they had, by a wide margin, their worst performance of the season last week.  They looked unprepared, undisciplined, and uninterested.  As you’ll soon read, the stats match what you see with your eyes. 

UCLA defensive coordinator Rocky Seto Joe Tresey is in his first year in Westwood after stints as the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati and South Florida.  He generally had solid to excellent defenses but had the unfortunate luck of getting hired at South Florida just before Jim Leavitt’s player abuse scandal resulted in full scale regime change.  But prior to coming to UCLA he had a reputation for producing aggressive defenses that forced turnovers and racked up negative plays.

So far this year?  Well, either Big East offenses are way different from Pac-12 offenses, or the talent at UCLA just isn’t at the level needed to do what Tresey wants to do, because UCLA’s defense hasn’t displayed any of the usual characteristics of Tresey’s best defenses.  Now Tresey is taking just as much heat as every other coach on the UCLA staff.  Let’s take a closer look at his charges.

Defensive Line: LDE – Jr. Datone Jones ; DT – So. Cassius Marsh SUSPENDED, replaced by Sr. Nate Chandler ; DT – Sr. Justin Edison OR Jr. Donovan Carter ; RDE – Jr. Damien Holmes

There’s just not much production here.  The entire defensive linemen two-deep has combined for just four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in seven games.  That might be an acceptable total in a 3-4 when you’re asked linemen to hold the point of attack for your linebackers.  But UCLA runs a 4-3 and their linebackers haven’t been racking up big player either.

Cassius Marsh is probably the best player on the line – he leads UCLA with two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss . . . and he’s suspended.  When one dude has 33% of your sacks and gets suspended, and that 33% consists of just two sacks, you know you’re in deep, deep trouble.

Considering that we’ve all been generally encouraged by the performance of Cal’s offensive line under coach Michalczik, I think we should expect lots of push down the field this week.  At the very least I’m not expecting to see UCLA players getting through to the backfield with any regularity.

Linebackers: Left OLB – Sr. Glenn Love OR So. Jordan Zumwalt ; MLB – Jr. Patrick Larimore ; Right OLB – Sr. Sean Westgate

Larrimore is the guy you’ll see playing the vast majority of the time, and like any decent middle linebacker he leads the defense in tackles at 6.6 a game. 

Westgate and Zumwalt are the other two usual starters, but I’d keep an eye out for redshirt freshman Eric Kendricks, who has been one of the few bright spots for UCLA’s defense.  Despite having zero starts he’s 3rd in the team in tackles, within shouting distance of Larimore.  He’s also the only non-defensive lineman on the entire team with a sack, although that says more about the rest of the defense than it says about Kendricks.

Secondary: CB – Jr. Aaron Hester ; Free Safety – RS Fr. Tevin McDonald ; Strong Safety – So. Dietrich Riley ; CB – Jr. Sheldon Price OR Jr. Andrew Abbott

Senior Tony Dye has been listed as a co-starter at free safety but he’s out for the year with a neck injury, so the deep middle of the field will be patrolled by true freshman Tevin McDonald.  McDonald had been gradually earning playing time over Dye anyway, so it's not like he's totally green.

Hester leads the secondary in both tackles, passes-broken-up and passes-defended.  If UCLA subscribes to the ‘our best cornerback goes against their best WR’ philosophy, he’ll be matched against Keenan Allen.  However, Hester wasn’t matched up against Juron Criner all the time last week.

Sheldon Price is typically the other starter at cornerback but struggled mightily upon returning from a sprained knee injury last week and admitted that he wasn’t 100% against the Wildcats.  I’d expect to see lots of Andrew Abbott unless Price is all the way back.

Against the run


5.05 yards/carry, 103rd in the nation.

Keep in mind that UCLA has played five teams this year with a yards/carry average ranked 69th in the country or lower.  In other words, UCLA has generally faced bad rushing offenses and still ranks in the 100s, around luminaries like Memphis, AUB and Rice.  And they don’t even have to face LaMichael James or Chris Polk this year!  I’d argue they got lucky but this season is already a disaster so luck doesn’t really matter.

And as mentioned above, UCLA’s best interior lineman is out!  If Cal doesn’t average 6 yards/carry or better that means either 1) Cal has built a huge lead and spends most of the 2nd half running low yield runs up the middle because Tedford called off the horses or 2) something has gone Very Very Wrong.

Against the pass


7.0 yards/attempt, 53rd in the country

You all saw the highlights of Juron Criner doing whatever he wanted against UCLA’s secondary from last Thursday.  And thus, you’re all quite reasonably dreaming of Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones doing the same.

Well, UCLA’s average yards/attempt allowed isn’t actually all that bad.  But they do allow a very high percentage of passes to be completed, lots of touchdowns, and not too many interceptions.  To me, the relatively low yards/attempt stat may be a function of having played Houston, Arizona and Oregon St., two air-raid pass teams that are masters of the dink-and-dunk, short pass attack and one team that features check down throws to their running back as their main form of offensive production.

That and when your rushing defense is so bad, what’s the point of throwing the ball deep?  The bottom line is that I’m hoping for another controlled, efficient performance from Zach Maynard.  There will be open receivers on most plays and he should very much have the time to find them.


Stats of Dubious Predictive Value


Turnovers

9 total turnovers forced (4 fumbles, 5 interceptions), 92nd in the nation

Not so great. 

3rd Down

55.96% conversion rate allowed, 118th in the nation

Nearly worst in the nation.

Red Zone

64.52% touchdowns allowed, 93.55% scoring allowed (86th and 116th in the nation, respectively)

Not so great.  Are we all sensing a pattern here?

Conclusions

All of the component stats add up to a defense that offers very little to recommend itself.  This is a unit that, on the whole, ranks in the bottom 20 in the nation.  Stanford, Arizona, Texas, and Houston have all been able to do essentially whatever they want on offense.  Washington State and Oregon State both moved the ball effectively but were done in by extreme red zone profligacy and turnovers, respectively.

So: If the same offense that you saw in the 2nd and 3rd quarters against Utah shows up Cal should have no problems at all moving the ball and scoring points.  But if Maynard starts throwing interceptions like he’s playing that other team from L.A., or if the entire team gets the yips inside the 20 again, it’s possible Cal won’t maximize their chances to score points.

Still, even if they don’t maximize their opportunities, Cal should still score in the low 20s, which is what Washington State and Oregon State managed despite their own follies.  With the state of the UCLA offense and the state of Cal’s defense, that should be enough for a win.

There is no excuse for not winning this game.  Cal was already the better team before six Bruins were suspended, before Rick Neuheisel was all-but-fired, before UCLA fans launched all-out efforts to fire everybody in their own athletic department with the power to make decisions.  This is a rivalry game, and a game Cal can’t afford to lose if they expect to make a bowl and fulfill the expectations most fans had at the beginning of the season.

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