The front end of UCLA's 3-4 is mighty beefy. Eddie Vanderdoes (So., 6-3, 305) has to be the biggest defensive end in the conference. Vanderdoes played well as a true freshman last season, and through 9 games this year he has totaled 37 tackles, 4 TFLs, and one sack. He's primarily an end, but don't be surprised to see him lined up as a 3-tech defensive tackle from time to time. From that spot, he is more of a threat to penetrate into the backfield.
NT Kenny Clark (So., 6-3, 308) is UCLA's man in the middle. Like most nose tackles, his role is to plug up the middle against multiple blockers, and it's something he does pretty well. His 48 total tackles and 4.5 TFLs are impressive considering those responsibilities.
The playmaker of this bunch is DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa (Sr., 6-3, 270). He's tied for the team lead with 3 sacks while leading with 7.5 TFLs. Those numbers aren't eye-popping, but almost all of that behind the line of scrimmage production has come against conference opponents. He racked up 4 TFLs in a close loss to Utah, and has scattered 3 sacks over the last six games.
Eric Kendricks (Sr., 6-0, 230) lives to tackle people. 76 tackles in 2011, 149 in 2012, 105 last year, and already 97 this year. Massive tackle totals from inside linebackers are pretty common when a defense simply lacks talent at other positions (Cort Dennison anyone?), but it's undeniably impressive that Kendricks has continued to rack up tackles now that he's not even the most well-known 'backer in the starting lineup. He's also chipped in 6 TFLs and a pair of sacks.
OLB Myles Jack (So., 6-1, 231) obviously needs no introduction. At the risk of sounding bitter about missing out on a local kid, it's worth noting that all the two-way hype may have resulted in Jack being a bit overrated as a true linebacker. He's a very good player, certainly one with a professional future, but Kendricks is the more valuable defender. Jack is still 2nd on the team with 67 tackles. He also lags just behind Kendricks with 5 TFLs.
Deon Hollins (So., 6-0, 225) will start on the outside opposite of Jack. Kenny Young (Fr., 6-1, 230) is listed as a starting inside linebacker, filling out the 3-4 scheme's front seven. He is the LB that comes off the field whenever UCLA plays nickel, meaning he pretty much splits time with the 5th defensive back.
In fact, a handy chart of who has started each game for the Bruins provided in the UCLA game notes lists Tahaan Goodman (So., 6-1, 190) as having started the last four contests in place of Young. I assume that just means the Bruins came out in nickel on the first snap of the game.
Both Fabian Moreau (Jr., 6-0, 195) and Ishmael Adams (So., 5-8, 190) started at corner throughout last year, and they've both started every game this season. Moreau was honorable mention All-Pac-12 last year. Adams has run back both of his interceptions for touchdowns.
According to UCLA's game notes, the two starting safeties will be Anthony Jefferson (Sr., 6-1, 193) and Jaleel Wadood (Fr., 5-10, 175), with Goodman serving as a fifth defensive back. I'm a little fuzzy on that, so if any UCLA fans want to correct me, feel free.
On paper, this front seven is physically impressive and loaded with young talent. In reality, UCLA has been middling against the run (7th in the conference in yards per carry and tied for 7th in rushing TDs allowed) and downright disappointing when it comes to making plays behind the line of scrimmage (9th in TFLs and 11th in sacks).
It has actually been the play of the secondary that has kept UCLA's defense average to above average among Pac-12 teams. Opposing quarterbacks have only averaged 6.2 yards per attempt, 3rd behind Oregon State and Stanford. Overall, the Bruins are only allowing 5.2 yards per play, slightly better than Washington's 5.27, despite the mediocre run defense.
If you look at total yardage (414, 7th) or scoring (27.7, 8th) UCLA has been a little less impressive.
Basically, this is a pretty good defense that rarely dominates opponents. Saturday's 17-7 win against Arizona was the best performance of the season by far. Besides holding a bad Texas offense to 17 and allowing 20 to Virginia, every opponents has managed to score at least 27 points.
Unfortunately, all of those Pac-12 offenses that scored 27 or more have far better offenses than Washington. Arizona also has a better offense than Washington. It's at least encouraging that this game is at Husky Stadium and not Pasadena, where the Wildcats fell completely flat.
For UCLA, the main priority will obviously be stopping Shaq Thompson. While his performance against Colorado was exciting, it's important to keep in mind that the sample size is really small.
Throwing out the game against Eastern, we're talking about the ASU game and the Colorado game. ASU is one of the worst teams in the conference against the run. Shaq managed to grind out 98 yards in 21 carries. Then he exploded against Colorado, by far the worst run defense and the country, racking up over 200 yards of offense and a touchdown.
I'm as excited as everyone else to see what he does on Saturday, but I'm not exactly comfortable with the fact that the fate of the offense rests on the shoulders of a guy that just started playing the position full time only two weeks ago.
Of course, Washington also has a quarterback and some receivers. I don't mean to act like the Huskies are literally incapable of throwing the ball. It's just that Cyler has only played efficiently when the run game has been established.
It's totally possible for Shaq to break some tackles and go off even if Washington's offensive line once again struggles to generate push, but if the Bruins win the line of scrimmage and tackle with good technique (and in swarms), it's tough to imagine Cyler leading the offense on too many successful pass-heavy drives.
How bizarre is it that this entire matchup will revolve around an offensive player that wasn't even a serious part of the equation mere weeks ago?
This season has been a little surreal, and I have a feeling it's going to be a particularly strange game.