Roll On: Previewing The UCLA Defense

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After two straight ugly offensive performances, is there any reason for hope against UCLA? Eh, probably not. But we'll all be watching anyway, so let's see what we should expect.

For the last few weeks, I think I've been writing these preview articles all wrong. I've been analyzing opposing defenses as they compare nationally. For example, Ohio State has a defensive line that has elite, national level talent.

But so far this year, it hasn't much mattered how the opposing defense rates nationally. They're still going to get lots of sacks against Cal. As of right now, the relevant question each week will be: is this front seven better than Cal's pass protection? The answer will always be ‘Yes,' and until that answer changes Cal will not be favored to rack up lots of yards or points.

Which brings us to UCLA. The Bruin resurgence has been based on a suddenly potent offense and an iffy defense that has nevertheless forced a whole ton of turnovers. From a neutral point of view, the defense is merely average at best. They got pretty well gashed by Nebraska, Sean Mannion made them look bad, and even Rice did pretty well moving the ball against them.

But their front seven is better than Cal's pass protection, so whatever little issues and vulnerabilities they may have are moot. Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh may as well be Bruce Smith and Bryant Young.

So what follows is your usual breakdown of UCLA's personnel and what they have accomplished so far this year. But as you know, it's all relative.

Personnel

Defensive Line: Sr. LDE Datone Jones ; Jr. DT Seali'i Epenesa ; Jr. RDE Cassius Marsh

Cal fans are plenty familiar with Jones and Marsh, who have been mainstays on the Bruin defense for a few years now. The move to a 3-4 means that junior Owamagbe Odighizuwa moves to the bench, but he'll still see the field plenty spelling Marsh and Jones.

Like many 3-4 defenses, these guys are busy occupying blockers more than they are busy making tackles. Jones has 9 tackles for loss and 2 sacks, but the rest of the rotation only has a combined 4.5 tackles for loss. By-and-large you just don't see eye-popping numbers from this unit. I suspect that's mostly by design.

Linebackers: Jr. LOLB Jordan Zumwalt ; Sr. LILB Damien Holmes ; So RILB Eric Kendricks ; Jr. ROLB Anthony Barr

It hurts to see a Kendricks on UCLA . . . and it hurts that picking UCLA might have been the right choice. He's now doing for UCLA what his brother did for us: anchor the middle of the defense by making a ton of tackles.

The guy you should be really afraid of is Anthony Barr, who has six sacks in five games, which is a huge number for anybody, let alone a linebacker. Expect to see him charging around the outside all day. Holmes is the other guy they like to send after the quarterback, and he has four sacks of his own.

Secondary: Sr. LCB Sheldon Price ; Sr. SS Andrew Abbott ; So FS Tevin McDonald ; Sr. RCB Aaron Hester

The unit that we laughed at until Zach Maynard threw three passes right into the gut of Tevin McDonald. Granted, it's not like McDonald did a ton to force those interceptions, other than standing deep down the field. But I guess he still gets credit, and just reading his name gives me irrational nightmares. He's certainly been productive so far this year, as he leads the secondary in tackles.

Hester and Price have seemingly been around forever and have made a combined 65 starts. Both have seemingly been in the ‘good, not great' category for years now. UCLA hasn't had a lock-down secondary over the last few years, but they haven't been scorched either. The reason is mostly Hester and Price, who play solid, unspectacular football.

Price has 4 interceptions on the season while Hester hasn't even registered a pass break-up or pass defended, which suggests to me that opposing offenses have been targeting Price for whatever reason. It hasn't been especially successful so far.

2012 Performances

  • 358 total yards allowed (4.59 yards/play) in a 49-24 win over Rice
  • 439 total yards allowed (6.55 yards/play) in a 36-30 win over Nebraska
  • 388 total yards allowed (4.91 yards/play) in a 37-6 win over Houston
  • 501 total yards allowed (6.59 yards/play) in a 27-20 loss to Oregon State
  • 309 total yards allowed (4.75 yards/play) in a 42-14 win over Colorado

Nebraska and Oregon State were able to consistently move the ball on UCLA - Nebraska via the run, OSU via the pass. After the Ohio State game I'd have said that Cal's talent and ability on offense compare much closer to that of Nebraska and Oregon State than Houston or Colorado. Now? Don't answer that question.

Against the Run

We're finally tossing out 2011 stats from the preview equation, in part because we have 5 games of data from this year, and in part because UCLA has an entirely new coaching staff and a new defensive formation, rendering last year's stats especially misleading.

  • 4.47 yards allowed/attempt, 81st in the nation

Believe it or not, this is actually a relatively significant improvement from what UCLA did last year against the run, when they allowed 5.15 yards/attempt, good for 11th in the Pac-12. Take that, Colorado!

It is worth noting that at least three of UCLA's opponents thus far this year are below averaging running teams. On the flip side, there's not a ton of shame in getting gashed by Nebraska's run offense. Cal has probably the 2nd strongest rushing attack UCLA has faced . . . or at least, the 2nd strongest group of running backs.

Against the Pass

  • 6.4 yards allowed/attempt, 38th in the nation

Perhaps the most relevant question here is: Can UCLA create pressure on the QB? The answer to that question so far has been an unequivocal yes. UCLA is currently tied for 10th in the country with 3.4 sacks/game. As a matter of fact, five of Cal's last seven opponents are in the top 25 in most sacks per game! Gosh, aren't we all just thrilled at how the schedule has shaken out this year!

With Cal being a weekly contender for the Spike Factor award, there's very little hear to inspire confidence. We still have Keenan Allen and you know he's good for somewhere in the vicinity of 100 receiving yards if Maynard is given even a little bit of time. But an easy prediction is that Cal fans will lose a little chunk of hair for every obvious passing down the team is forced into.

Stats of Dubious Value

Turnovers

  • 14 turnovers forced (9 interceptions, 5 fumbles), 4th in the nation

Gulp

3rd Down

  • 29.11 opponent conversion percentage, 16th in the country

Yikes

Red Zone

  • Opponent scoring percentage of 83.33%, 74th in the nation, Opponent touchdown percentage of 58.33, 62nd in the nation.

This would be comforting if I thought that Cal's red zone struggles were caused by stiff opposition rather than internal issues.

Conclusions

I'll go on record as saying that I think UCLA's defense isn't as good as the numbers indicate. UCLA is 35th in scoring defense but 65th in yards/play, and that's because the Bruins have been forcing turnovers and getting off the field on 3rd down. The general statistical wisdom suggests that the former is random luck and the latter could easily be the function of a small sample size. I do think that this UCLA defense has improved from last year's iteration, but not this much.

I won't go on record as saying that anything I just said matters in this individual game. UCLA's biggest strengths (pressuring the QB and forcing turnovers, if that is a skill) happen to mesh perfectly with Cal's weaknesses. But if UCLA's defense has a weakness that can be exploited, it's in the run game.

After the last two weeks, it's clear that potentially extreme tactics should be on the table. Run the ball on 1st down, run the ball on 2nd down, run the ball on 3rd down. Pitch it to Isi. Give is to Keenan on a reverse. Hand it off to C.J. Have Isi run the zone read with the option to hand off to Bigelow. I'm only kinda kidding here. I love our running backs, and I'd prefer to win or lose this game with the ball in their hands.

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