Before the raid: Previewing UCLA's defense

As if Josh Shipp wasn't bad enough as it is. - Harry How

Can Cal's offense keep pace with the Bruins? Let's dive into the numbers

I feel like this offense will turn a corner at some point this season. You see flashes of what it could be. At some point this season, there will be a game when Cal's opponent can't get much pressure on Goff, and nobody fumbles, and the Bears convert in the red zone, and when it all gets added up Cal explodes for 50 points. And hey, maybe that's enough points to win! Dare to dream!

That's probably not happening this week. By football outsider's S&P metric, UCLA will be the 5th top 43 defense Cal has faced this year. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Let's take a look at a defense that, in an alternate universe, is Cal's defense. Seriously, with so many recruiting battles between Cal and UCLA, how did UCLA win all of the battles for the healthy, productive players while Cal won all the battles for injured and/or academically ineligible players?!

Personnel

Defensive Line: So. DE Ellis McCarthy; Sr. NT Seali'i Epenesa; Sr. DE Cassius Marsh

There's a decent chance that Ellis McCarthy won't participate because of a concussion, although he'll be replaced by another 5 star recruit in Eddie Vanderdoes, who has actually been slightly more productive as a back-up this season anyway. So don't expect UCLA to suffer.

Like in most 3-4 defenses, these guys are mostly focused on occupying blockers so that the linebackers can make plays, but the DEs are uniformly quite talented and will have success bringing pressure.

Linebackers: Fr. OLB Myles Jack; Sr. ILB Jordan Zumwalt; Jr. ILB Eric Kendricks; Sr. OLB Anthony Barr

The heart of the defense in every way. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr remind me of Mychal Kendrick and D.J. Holt - the younger Kendricks, like his older brother, is a tackle vacuum sucking up anybody who makes it past the line, and Barr is the disruptive, big hitter who forces turnovers and gets to the quarterback.

On a side note, why didn't we recruit Eric?!?!

Zumwalt is a veteran and Jack is playing like one anyway. These four players are the four leading tacklers on the team so far, and as a group they've been adept at creating pressure and dropping back into coverage as necessary.

Secondary: So. CB Fabian Moreau; Jr. S Anthony Jefferson; So. S Randall Goforth; So. CB Ishmael Adams

Four brand new starters, and they've fared quite well so far. I don't think this group has any ball hawks yet, but the Utah game at least showed they're perfectly capable of grabbing batted balls. To be perfectly honest, they haven't been challenged a ton yet, as UCLA's pass rush has been very disruptive so far. The sack numbers aren't huge, but the Bruins have pretty consistently batted down passes at the line, hit the quarterback while he's releasing the ball, forced him out of the pocket and otherwise disrupted plays.

2013 So Far

4.1 yards/play allowed in a 58-20 win over Nevada
4.3 yards/play allowed in a 41-21 win over Nebraska
5.0 yards/play allowed in a 59-13 win over New Mexico State
5.0 yards/play allowed in a 34-27 win over Utah

Nobody has yet managed a remotely good game against the UCLA defense, either in terms of yards/play, total yards, or points. I'd like to think that Cal could outperform all of the teams above offensively . . . but UCLA handled Utah and Nebraska on the road, and Cal is in L.A., and we all know how things have gone down south over the last decade.

Against the Run

2012: 4.13 yards allowed/attempt, 63rd in the nation
2013: 3.50 yards allowed/attempt, 33rd in the nation

2012's number seems disproportionately high, probably because UCLA got to enjoy three games against Stanford and Oregon in total. While beating up on New Mexico State and a depleted Nevada squad might mean the stats are artificially low, slowing down Nebraska is a solid data point in their favor.

Having Khalfani Muhammad presumably healthy and ready to go should help a bit, but it seems unlikely that Cal will suddenly have a ton of running room this week after not having much all season so far.

Against the Pass

2012: 7.8 yards allowed/attempt, 68th in the nation
2013: 5.9 yards allowed/attempt, 20th in the nation

A big improvement in 2013, which is somewhat surprising considering that UCLA lost their entire starting secondary (Tevin McDonald, Sheldon Price, Andrew Abbott and Aaron Hester) from 2012. As I mentioned above, the front seven are playing a big role in that improvement. Still, Travis Wilson might be the best quarterback the Bruins have faced, so it's worth wondering if this improvement is going to last when the schedule gets tougher. Cal as a whole may not count as the tough part of the schedule, but this will be a relevant test for a remade secondary.

Advanced Stats

S&P STATS, 2013

Total Defense

Standard Downs

Passing Downs

Run Defense

Pass Defense

National Rank

21

22

27

28

26


It's worth noting that the numbers in the table above are unadjusted numbers. Football outsiders has adjusted numbers that add in pre-season projections (which will eventually be removed) and a strength of schedule modifier, and when you add that in, the UCLA defense rises all the way to 6th. That's likely because the advanced stats think that Nebraska and Utah have pretty solid offenses so far. Discerning minds might quibble with that take, but it's not an irrational take on UCLA's schedule.

Stats of Dubious Value

As a reminder: Below are stats that, while interesting, may have little if any predictive value on what will occur over the course of 80-100 offensive snaps tomorrow.

Turnovers

2012: 32 forced turnovers, 9th in the nation (17 fumbles, 15 interceptions)
2013: 9 forced turnovers, 51st in the nation (2 fumbles, 7 interceptions)

This year, UCLA's entire turnover record is basically tipped passes from Travis Wilson. Last year, UCLA mostly thrived by forcing and recovering an unusually large number of fumbles, a number that advanced stat aficionados would likely peg as unsustainable. For all the good that will do us tomorrow.

3rd Down

2012: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 33.33, 20th in the nation
2013: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 24.14, 3rd in the nation

Last year UCLA was quite good on 3rd downs, thanks in part to a pass rush that recorded 46 sacks, the 4th highest total in the nation. This year, the numbers are even better, near the point of absurdity, even though the Bruins aren't getting to the quarterback at quite the same rate as last year. Gulp.

Red Zone

2012: Opponent scoring percentage of 89.58, 116th in the nation
2013: Opponent scoring percentage of 90.0%, 100th in the nation

2012: Opponent touchdown percentage of 68.75, 109th in the nation
2013: Opponent touchdown percentage of 60.0%, 60th in the nation

When you've only allowed 10 red zone possessions over 5 games, there's not much to reach conclusions on. I will say it's surprising how poorly UCLA fared as a red zone defense last year.

Conclusions

If Cal can keep Cassius Marsh, Anthony Barr and everybody else that Lou Spanos throws at Jared Goff at bay, then it's not unreasonable to think that Cal's wide receivers can find space against a very young, inexperienced secondary. And it's worth noting that last year, Washington State's air raid passed for 457 yards and scored 36 points, so it's worth wondering if UCLA's scheme and talent in the secondary is capable of slowing down a well run air raid.

Having said that, the chances of Cal keeping Goff's jersey clean are pretty slim. Steven Moore and Chris Adcock are out and the rest of the line clearly struggled against a lesser pass rush at home against Washington State. It all adds up to the same thing we'll be saying every week for the rest of the year:

1. This offense will put up yards. Surely over 400, possibly over 500.
2. That isn't a guarantee of points, but hey, maybe this is the week Cal finds success in the red zone and doesn't turn the ball over a bunch?
3. Even if they do, it's going to be really, really hard to outscore UCLA.

But hey, weirder things have happened. Like, last year's UCLA game. That game was shocking at the time and even more so in retrospect. So why not again?

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