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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the UCLA Offense

For our last set of opponent previews this season, let’s meet the UCLA Bruins!

NCAA Football: Southern California at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

At the risk of beating a dead horse, Sonny Dykes has not done well against Cal’s in-state rivals. Last week’s Big Game loss dropped Coach Dykes to an ignominious 0-11 record against Stanford, USC, and UCLA. I’m no math whiz, but that’s about as bad as an 11-game series can get. Sonny has a golden opportunity to get off the schneid this weekend, however, as Cal closes out its season against a bumbling UCLA team.

After some slight regression in 2015—from 10 wins to eight—the wheels have started to come off for Jim Mora’s program. The Bruins own a 4-7 record and will almost certainly miss a bowl game for the first time during Mora’s tenure. (First they steal our song and colors; now they want our mediocrity?) UCLA has lost five of its last six games and counts its only road wins against hapless UNLV and Arizona teams.

Josh Rosen’s shoulder injury, which he suffered against Arizona State and which has kept him sidelined since, is a convenient excuse for the Bruins’ poor performance. But it’s just one of numerous problems the Bruins face on offense. Offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu—promoted from RBs coach upon the departure of Noel Mazzone last winter—promised a multifaceted offensive scheme based on the power run. Instead he has been forced to simplify his system and return to a more spread-based approach as the power running game failed to take root. That hasn’t worked especially well either, as Rosen’s replacement Mike Faful has struggled in his five starts. As a result, the Bruins rank 83rd in total offense and score a middling 26.7 points per game.


Josh Rosen was having a pretty nice year until Arizona State linebacker Koron Crump landed a crushing fourth-quarter sack that would end his season prematurely. Rosen had made some moderate improvements off an impressive freshman campaign, but further progress will have to wait while he recovers from shoulder surgery.

His replacement, fifth-year senior Mike Fafaul, hasn’t been able to meet the high bar Rosen set. The former walk-on was regarded more for his vision and awareness than for his physical gifts as a passer, but his line—53% completion rate, 11 TDs, 10 INTs—seems to belie that scouting report. He’s had ups (five touchdowns against Utah) and downs (four interceptions against Utah), averaging out to be a roughly replacement-level QB who hasn’t done quite enough to lift up a struggling offense. Last week was more of the same against USC; he threw two TDs and no picks but completed a dreary 48% of his passes. Despite his struggles, Fafaul has a very quick throwing motion and can put some serious zip on the ball. We’ll get plenty of chances to see what he can do, as Polamalu will ask him to throw on roughly 60% of downs.

Running Backs

UCLA seemed well-positioned to replace 2015 leading rusher Paul Perkins, returning a trio of proven contributors in Soso Jamabo, Nate Starks, and Bolu Olorunfunmi. That hasn’t been the case in practice, as the entire team has combined for just 927 rushing yards. Reaching the 1,000-yard milestone shouldn’t be a problem against Cal’s defense, but the point stands that this unit has been a disappointment. The 6’3” sophomore Jamabo leads the group in carries (81) and yardage (313), followed by the tougher and tackle-breaking-er junior Starks. Olorunfunmi, the most powerful back of the bunch, has seen an expanded share of touches in the second half of the season. He leads the group in production with four yards per carry and four rushing touchdowns.

A pair of freshmen, Jalen Starks and Brandon Stephens, will also contribute a handful of rushes. At the start of the season, it appeared the running game would also rely on the assistance of two fullbacks as Polamalu sought to install his power concepts. With the Bruins’ return to a spread offense, however, both FBs were reassigned to roles with the defense.

Receiving Corps

Though UCLA started the season without four of Rosen’s top five targets from 2015, this unit wasn’t a complete rebuild. Junior Darren Andrews was already a major contributor and quickly became Rosen and Fafaul’s favorite weapon. The top tier of Bruin targets also consists of sophomore Jordan Lasley, senior Kenneth Walker III, and senior tight end Nate Iese. Walker and the 6’3” Iese are the team’s two biggest deep threats, averaging upwards of 16 yards per catch. Lasley heads up scoring for the group with five TDs, while Andrews is the most consistent of the bunch. That’s crucial, as consistency has been a major issue for the Bruins: out of the top seven targets, only Andrews has a catch rate over 60%.

Iese was held out against USC with a knee injury, but he’s expected to be back and healthy against the Bears.

Offensive Line

The Bruins also saw significant personnel change on the offensive line last offseason, replacing three regular starters. Since then though, continuity hasn’t been a problem. Aside from an ankle injury that held LG Kenny Lacy out last week, this offensive line has been largely healthy as a unit. Scott Quessenberry returned after missing last season with shoulder injuries, soon becoming a stalwart at center. Unfortunately for the Bruins, health alone hasn’t been enough. This OL has allowed 21 sacks while simultaneously failing to spring the ground game into action. As evidence, the Bruins rank 120th or worse in power success rate, stuff rate, and opportunity rate. If any one of these linemen is going to lead his unit to more success against Cal, it’ll be LT Conor McDermott, a 31-game starter who is earned nominations to the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award watchlists.

This UCLA team could be just the sort of matchup that propels Sonny Dykes to his first rivalry game win. It’s hard to say how motivated either team will be after being beaten down by their respective arch-nemeses and being eliminated from bowl eligibility, but both coaches surely know the importance of a win here. Could Cal’s senior game provide the extra motivation to get them over the hump?

UCLA has been largely one-dimensional all season, and since Rosen’s injury that one dimension hasn’t been too impressive. A receiving corps that creates its own mistakes will be a gift to Cal’s secondary, and in exchange maybe we can help the Bruins reach that all-important 1,000 yards rushing. Seems like a fair trade as long as we come away with the win.