Will the Real UCLA Football Team Please Stand Up?


UCLA Football will not be wearing the traditional blue home uniforms against Cal tonight, which is apt because the team itself has become unrecognizable due to injury attrition and their play has been anything but uniform from week to week.

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Predicting how the games will go has been quite difficult this season. Remember my Reasons for Optimism article from right before the Stanford game last week? Yeah, me neither. But this is what the Bruins have thrown out on the field so far:

  • Comprehensive demolition of UVA at home with great QB play. (1-0)
  • Frustrating blow-out over UNLV on the road due purely to talent advantage and excellent defense. (2-0)
  • Scary, physical, come-from-behind, dog-fight victory at home over BYU, overcoming horrendous QB play with breakout running game. (3-0)
  • Closer-than-it-looked laugher at Arizona, where turnovers masked defensive liabilities. (4-0)
  • Poorly coached, physical loss to aggressive Arizona State at home, with impotent offense and soft defense. (4-1)
  • Embarrassing blowout at Stanford despite quietly good offensive production. (4-2)

I’d rate those performances as A, B, C, B, F, D – but your mileage may vary. I think what that points to, though, is the usual up-and-down rhythm we’ve come to expect from Jim Mora‘s UCLA Bruins amplified by the inconsistency inherent in breaking in a true freshman at quarterback. That said, Josh Rosen‘s only truly awful game was the BYU game.*

RELATED: UCLA is Undefeated in Their Home Alternate Uniforms

So what can we expect from the Bruins tonight?

In this week’s staff prediction column, I said the offense was poised for a bounce-back game. That’s actually unfair, since the offense played rather well up at Stanford. Rosen threw for 325 yards for three touchdowns and two interceptions. Paul Perkins picked up 104 yards and a touchdown. The play-calling was, predictably, a wild overreaction from the overly conservative approach taken against Arizona State. But aside from a couple of missed opportunities, it didn’t cripple the offense.

Cal’s defense wants to blitz frequently to force the offense into bad throws that become interceptions. The Golden Bears lead the nation with 21 takeaways, which is a bit of a concern because Rosen’s troubles have come when pressure forces him to make bad throws. The difference between BYU/Arizona State/Stanford and Cal is that Cal’s defense doesn’t have the same physicality to push the Bruins’ offense around. As long as Rosen is smart with the football and trusts Perkins to have a big day against a vulnerable Cal rush defense, the Bruins should be able to put up points…

Sep 12, 2015; Berkeley, CA, USA; California Golden Bears running back Vic Enwere (23) runs the ball against San Diego State Aztecs in the 4th quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY SportsCalifornia Golden Bears won 35-7

…Which they’ll have to do in order to keep up with Cal’s offense. You’ve heard all the plaudits about Jared Goff and Cal’s ‘Bear Raid’ passing game. But the scary wrinkle is that Cal’s success through the air has come as they’ve been able to keep defenses honest with a potent rushing attack, including sophomore Vic Enwere. Enwere is 6’1″, 230 lbs., built similarly to Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage, who had a big day against the Bruins, culminating in that pile-moving touchdown run at the end of the game.

(Credit to Jack Wang, Joey Kaufman, and Matthew Joye, on whose previews I drew for much of the statistics in this post.)

The defense has been reeling in the last two (really three) games, and I don’t expect that to change tonight. They’ve given up 854 rushing yards on 154 carries since Myles Jack and Fabian Moreau joined Eddie Vanderdoes on the injured list. (At 5.55 yards per carry, that’s not earning anyone any defensive awards.) Add to that Deon Hollins‘ questionable status, and the Bruins may have lost their pass rush as well. While the coaching on defense has been concerning (and been infuriating to some of you on Twitter), I’m not that willing yet to hold Tom Bradley accountable for the performance of a defense that has been without three, four, or five of its best players every week since week 3.

Perversely, special teams may end up favoring the Bruins tonight. The Bruins have been awful on the field position facet of special teams, with Matt Mengel averaging less than 38 yards per punt and UCLA ranking 106th in the nation in kickoff efficiency. I think the What’s Bruin Show guys were on to something a while back, noting how special teams coverage units are full of second-string defensive players. With the injuries atop the defensive depth chart, those second string guys are now seeing playing time on defense as well as in kick coverage, so their fatigue level has become a factor.

The only reasonable expectation is points, and we can pick up the pieces from there.

Now the reason I say it may work to UCLA’s advantage tonight is that Cal’s offense is a threat to score from anywhere on the field – not quite to the level of the Marcus Mariota-led Oregon teams, but in that same vein. This game figures to be a shootout that comes down to big plays and turnovers. Field position may not matter all that much. If that’s the case, the Bruins’ biggest weakness becomes a non-factor.

RELATED: Is the Cal Game a Must-Win?

I’ll stick with my prediction of a 49-45 UCLA win, not because I’m certain of the outcome but because anything from a UCLA blowout to an even shootout to a Cal blowout seems equally plausible to me. The only reasonable expectation is points, and we can pick up the pieces from there.

*Which, of course, raises the questions about where the Coaching Josh Rosen feature has gone. I’ve seen literally nothing in the past two weeks that I can even stretch into an ego issue, which is probably because the team has been losing. Unless teammates are fighting or players are openly jettisoning the team goals for individual goals, I’m hard pressed to find signs of arrogance among a team in the midst of a losing streak.

Next: UCLA vs. Cal: Game Day Info

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