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Previewing the UCLA defense

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For better or worse, a defensive preview haunted by the recruiting failures of seasons passed. My kingdom for a healthy safety!

Probably the two most important figures for UCLA's defense: Eric Kendricks and Jim Mora.
Probably the two most important figures for UCLA's defense: Eric Kendricks and Jim Mora.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, UCLA had what might have been the 3rd best defense in the Pac-12, which is no shame considering the talent USC and Stanford had in 2013. Unfortunately for UCLA, three excellent seniors graduated from that defense, most notably 9th overall draft pick and national sack leader Anthony Barr. UCLA also lost defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, who elected to head to Tennessee to become the Titans' linebacker coach.

How much that matter is unclear. Jim Mora is a defensive-minded head coach and undoubtedly has plenty of say in how UCLA's defense functions. New head coach Jim Ulbrich is in only his 5th year of coaching and his first as a coordinator, and has been making headlines for the wrong reasons.

All of this change may or may not explain why UCLA's defense has slightly but meaningfully declined from their 2013 heights. Is it because of NFL departures, coaching changes, general instability, or all of the above? I don't know, but I do know that this is a good-but-vulnerable UCLA defense. Can Cal take advantage? Let's find out.

Starters

DE: Sr. Owamagbe Odighizuwa ; NT: So. Kenny Clark ; DE: So. Eddie Vanderdoes

Shocking stat: UCLA's defense has collected only seven sacks this year, and for a total of just 30 yards. Based purely on the cumulative numbers, UCLA has the worst power-5 pass rush in the country. Yes, worse than Cal. Considering the defensive line talent that has been recruited to UCLA in the past few years, the lack of production is stunning.

Granted, this is a 3-4 defense, so the lack of sacks also falls on the linebackers. UCLA's line mostly does a good job against the run, and they have collected a decent number of non-sack tackles for loss. Still, this is a line that badly misses the contributions of Cassius Marsh.

LB: So. Deon Hollins ; LB: So. Myles Jack ; LB: Sr. Eric Kendricks ; LB: Fr. Kenny Young

When UCLA starts a game playing 4 linebackers, these are the guys that will play. However, UCLA started the last two games playing nickel with three linemen and three linebackers, and it seems exceedingly likely that they will do so against Cal. Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 is spreading!

Myles Jack gets all of the plaudits, but Eric Kendricks is probably the best LB on the team. Jack has actually been oddly unproductive after his freshman All-American 2013, without a sack, interception, forced fumble, or fumble recovery yet this year. Kendricks, meanwhile, is averaging more than 10 tackles/game and reminds me enough of his brother to make me sad.

Hollins and Young will both see time as the 3rd/4th linebackers, and neither has been especially productive so far this year. Hollins has been the most productive blitzer amongst the linebackers, so Cal will have to be ready for that. Still, neither Hollins nor Young have replaced the production UCLA got from draft picks Anthony Barr (13.5 sacks last year!) and Jordan Zumwalt.

CB: Jr. Fabian Moreau ; Safety: Sr. Anthony Jefferson ; Safety: Fr. Jaleel Wadood ; CB: So. Ishmael Adams

Probably the strength of the defense, and there isn't really an obvious weak link. Ishmael Adams is one of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-12, Fabian Moreau has been solid on the other side, and both safeties have been productive. Wadood has done a commendable job stepping in for an injured Randall Goforth. Sophomore Tahaan Goodman will likely be the nickleback and see a ton of the field on Saturday.

Please to not be letting Adams intercept the ball tomorrow.

Season So Far

4.6 yards allowed/play in a 28-20 win over Virginia
5.8 yards allowed/play in a 42-35 win over Memphis
5.0 yards allowed/play in a 20-17 win over Texas
5.7 yards allowed/play in a 62-27 win over Arizona State
4.7 yards allowed/play in a 30-28 loss to Utah
6.9 yards allowed/play in a 42-30 loss to Oregon

Honestly, the profile doesn't look that bad to me. Sure, Oregon moved the ball - but Oregon moves the ball on everybody, and they had a healthier line than usual too. Nobody has torched the UCLA defense . . . but nobody has really, really struggled either. Virginia moved the ball when they replaced their quarterback, Memphis had sustained drives, Arizona State piled up first downs when they weren't coughing up the ball . . . you get the idea.

It's worth noting that, in my opinion, UCLA has only played two excellent offenses, and had the luxury of facing a first time starting quarterback against one of those offenses (ASU). I would like to think that Cal is at least the 3rd best offense UCLA has faced this year.

Against the pass

2013: 6.5 yards/attempt allowed, 25th in the country
2014: 6.7 yards/attempt allowed, 45th in the country

Don't pay too much attention to the national rankings, which are probably still influenced this early in the year by FCS teams and generally weak non-conference schedules. The yards/attempt numbers haven't changed drastically. That makes sense, as UCLA's secondary returns 3 starters, including both cornerbacks. Additionally, Jack and Kendricks are both good linebackers in coverage.

Against the run

2013: 3.95 yards/attempt allowed, 46th in the country
2014: 4.37 yards/attempt allowed, 77th in the country

UCLA's lack of disruptive linemen and outside linebackers really shows up here. Utah just pounded the ball, over and over, and found consistent success, and that's something that wouldn't have worked last year. UCLA has actually faced nearly as many rushing attempts (after re-categorizing sacks as passes) as quarterback drop backs. I think that's reflective both of the offensive styles UCLA has faced, but also a weakness to the run that hasn't really been addressed by the Bruin defense.

But can Cal exploit it? The Bears just simply haven't had a consistent rushing attack. True, it's unclear if that's because the team abandons the run to catch up or out of ineffectiveness. If Cal is ever going to use the run to move the ball, this is the game that would seemingly call for it.

Advanced stats

As always, advanced stats courtesy of Football Outsiders, and for the first time they are fully adjusted for strength of schedule and deep enough in the season to have a little bit of meaningful weight behind them.

2013 S&P: 27th in the country
2014 S&P: 42nd in the country

2013 FEI: 18th in the country
2014 FEI: 56th in the country

Those are some pretty precipitous declines, consistent with losing key personnel at key positions. But what I find more interesting is some of the strategy/style data. Currently, UCLA ranks 19th in the country in explosive drive prevention, and 128th in methodical drive prevention.

What does that mean, exactly? Simply speaking, UCLA is an extreme bend-but-don't-break defense. They don't allow big plays, but they have a hard time preventing repetitive short gains that keep drives going over many plays. That's a big reason why they have respectable yards/play numbers without keeping teams off the scoreboard.

S&P's components are less interesting, but it's worth noting that UCLA has been poor on passing downs, which I suspect has a lot to do with their total lack of pass rush. A 42% opponent 3rd down conversion rate strongly suggests that quarterbacks have time to sit back and eventually find a receiver behind the sticks.

It goes deeper than that. UCLA has an absurdly low havoc percentage (explanation, in case you don't typically read Bill C. or Nam's work). If I did the calculation correctly, UCLA's current havoc% is 11.2%, which is lower than Cal's 12.6%. I've openly worried about Cal's ability to make big plays on defense, but UCLA is even worse, despite having significantly more recruiting talent and better health. I don't want to completely savage a coaching staff that has generally produced solid results, but were I a UCLA fan I would be concerned. Mora's hand-picked and hand-developed players are playing a larger role than in the past, and the initial results are iffy.

Turnovers

2013: 26 forced turnovers (14 interceptions, 12 fumbles), 26th in the country
2014: 7 forced turnovers (4 interceptions, 3 fumbles), 96th in the country

I noted above that UCLA seems to allow more points than they should based on their play-by-play efficiency. One big reason? Very few turnovers. UCLA forced 4 against Arizona State and not-so-coincidentally blew them out. They forced three turnovers against Virginia and needed them all in a game that UCLA's offense did nothing in. UCLA's other four games? Not one single turnover. It's a huge reason why they lost to Utah, struggled to beat Memphis and Texas, and got blown out by Oregon.

Ishmael Adams is a ball hawk, and we know what Myles Jack is hypothetically capable of, even if he hasn't shown it much this year. Other than that, UCLA seems to be lacking big time play makers on defense.

Conclusions

Last week, we learned that elite offensive production cannot yet be taken for granted. I had almost started to believe that, outside of clear outlier units like Stanford, Cal would successfully move the ball on anybody. That's clearly not the case. Still, Washington is probably the 2nd best defense Cal will play this year. The sky is not yet falling.

All in all, I'm not terribly impressed with UCLA's defense as a whole. Yet I'm not feeling terribly confident about Saturday. The strengths of Cal's offense don't seem to match up with UCLA's weaknesses. Cal leads the nation in 40+ yard plays. UCLA has allowed two 40+ plays and ZERO 50+ plays. UCLA is vulnerable to consistent, physical rushing attacks . . . which isn't really what Cal does. UCLA has lots of reliable defenders at the 2nd and 3rd level who can cover passes and make tackles.

To me, UCLA's defense looks like Washington's defense, if you happened to replace two elite pass rushers with two decidedly non-elite pass rushers. The Bruins will challenge Cal to move down the field in small chunks, play after consistent play. Our offense hasn't yet shown the consistent ability to do that.

Maybe Jared Goff will have the time to eventually carve up UCLA's defense like Marcus Mariota did. Maybe this is the game that Daniel Lasco goes for 25-150. Maybe Cal learns from their failure against Washington and demonstrates a newfound ability to sustain long drives.

Maybe Cal falls behind early and Goff can't go down field enough to keep pace. Maybe the running game can't create manageable 2nd and 3rd downs, and Cal's drives are stopped every time there's an incompletion. Maybe the disruptive UCLA defense that showed up against Virginia and Arizona State shows up.

I honestly don't know. I think there's a huge variability in possible offensive performance this week. If Cal gets right back to putting up big plays, big yards, and big points, then there's reason to be very optimistic about what the Bear Raid can do against every single non-Stanford team left on the schedule. If, however, this game is another Washington-like struggle, then it's a sign that earlier successes may have had more to do with indifferent defense than we all want to believe.

This is a swing game in multiple ways. Let's hope it swings our way.