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Opponent Defense Preview: UCLA

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Welcome back from the bye, everybody.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 UCLA at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Intros suck. Here’s my intro:

[Insert intro here.]

Wasn’t that great? Anyhoo, onto UCLA:

Personnel and What to Expect

When looking over the UCLA depth chart, it stands out that — and I’m not saying this as an insult — there’s not really many people I recognize on it. Granted, part of this (most of it?) is just from UW not playing UCLA for two years, but I feel like usually there’s some players in these circumstances with reputations that proceed themselves especially considering that their entire starting 11* are either seniors or grad transfers. This time it was just Bo Calvert, who I remember mostly on the basis that A) he’s been around since at least the 90s, somehow B) it’s always exciting when someone flips from USC to UCLA in their recruitment, and C) he’s the older brother of former UW linebacker, Josh.

*On paper, anyway, although that’s always a huge asterisk.

But of course, none of that has anything to do with how UCLA is (and I hope any UCLA fans reading this aren’t offended by my above paragraph because I strongly dislike talking smack to strangers online). The Bruins started the year looking pretty dang good but, in a familiar turn, have since stumbled a bit. Still, that hardly means they haven’t improved. most of this is powered behind their offense — DTR has cleaned up many of the hero ball-fueled mistakes of the past, albeit not completely, and Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown are beasts — and that’s become especially true as some injuries have hit the defense.

Particularly difficult with these injuries is that UCLA’s base is a 2-4-5 nickel with some 3-3-5 thrown in there, and the secondary has been hit the hardest. Corner Mo Osling was out a bit, safety Quentin Lake was out against Stanford and ASU, and the Bruins haven’t been immune to turning to walk-ons during this period. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with walk-ons, but not all walk-ons are the same — Myles Bryant earning a spot many years ago on UW’s stacked secondary at the time doesn’t mean walk-ons on a less-than-deep, middling secondary can step in and be great. Generally speaking, not a great sign if you’re a Bruins fan, although they should be a bit healthier this week against Washington.

UCLA’s defensive totals have been somewhat up-and-down: They gave up 40 and 42 points in losses to Fresno State and ASU (including 455 and 286 passing yards), but only 10, 27, 24, and 16 in wins against Hawaii, LSU, Stanford, and Arizona. In all of these instances, the numbers back up the clear eye test that their run defense is far stronger than their pass defense; looking at the running backs for LSU, Stanford, and Arizona, they only got 2.3, 2.1, and less than four yards per carry, respectively.

This was on display in individual situations even in their losses. The Bruins had a fantastic goal line stand against ASU after a fumble put the Sun Devils in fantastic position that they exacerbated against UCLA’s poor pass defense to get to the one yard line. The progression from there ended up with UCLA stuffing them, then a tackle for loss, then an incompletion and settling for a field goal. There’s a clear strength here compared to their air defense.

One thing that stood out in the games against ASU and Stanford is that there’s too many instances of opponents getting behind the secondary and torching them if you’re Chip Kelly.

Stanford had multiple huge completions after initially not looking too hot offensively. A couple were essentially deep bomb go routes where the receiver just burned the defensive back; there was also a time where the receiver didn’t exactly get behind the secondary, but the closest DB to him was playing so off that, while streaking diagonally across the field, it was pretty easy for him to just change angles after the catch to take it to the end zone.

There’s two ways to look at this if you’re UCLA, either A) they let Stanford get many 40, 50+ completions including two explosive touchdowns or B) they let Stanford get many 40, 50+ completions including two explosive touchdowns and still only gave up 24 points.

Against ASU, meanwhile, they not only allowed a handful of explosive pass plays, but also had some shorter throws that went far after the catch plus explosive rushes where nobody finished the tackle and then the running back just found space as the Bruin back seven were horribly staggered. The sloppy staggering of their linebackers and secondary stood out to me, too, on opponents’ explosive running and short passing plays; it’s not like this is rugby where you want to have a flat line of essentially two-dimensional defense (fullback notwithstanding), but you still want to minimize space between defenders within the confines of your scheme despite having to cover a three-dimensional space. Whether this is schematic on UCLA’s part or just sloppy execution plus poor anticipation, I don’t know. But it definitely makes the whole defense’s job harder.

Considering all this, it’s clear: It’s way more efficient to emphasize the passing game against UCLA than relying on between-the-tackles rushes. Cue nervous laughter...

The one thing that makes me nervous about the passing game — although less so with Dylan Morris at QB than I’d be with the Jakes Browning or Eason — is that this defense kinda likes to blitz. Like... aggressively blitz. I don’t know if their actual blitz rate is higher than average, but their “holy crap oh they’re just full sendin’ it eh there bud”-style blitz rate surely is — a very real metric I just invented that measures how often you go “holy crap oh they’re just full sendin’ it eh there bud.”

That is, don’t be surprised if we see a few six and even seven-man blitzes.

Despite starting the year getting decent pressure, that’s become less of a strength as the season’s gone on. Hence, it makes sense they’ve had to turn to some nuts-o blitzing occasionally, but that’s burned them when offenses have been prepared; ASU had a few hot route completions when they were expecting the blitz that were extremely successful, including one that went for around 50 yards after the catch. This strategy worked better against Stanford initially, but the Cardinal adapted about halfway through the game and were able to take advantage of that — my favorite was a bootleg to the right, then throwing left to a receiver screen with loads of open field since so many players were committed to the opposite side with their momentum taking them out of the play.

If I had to describe this defense in one word, it would be “intriguing.” They’re improved from the past, but still aren’t great, but still have clear strengths (against predictable rushing situations), and even clearer weaknesses (soft zone defense to make up for defensive backs’ abilities, but that just gives opponents more of a cushion, while their blitzes are exceptionally high risk-high reward). A good game plan could gash this team, and a bad one will get you, like, 21 points.

Bottom Line

First off: A and B gap runs will be not very helpful — until they’re not used frequently, and then they could explode occasionally once they’re not the backbone of the offense. Get into the second level against this defense, and there’s a lot of opportunity to make something happen. I keep going back and forth on which running backs this favors; on one hand, Sean McGrew is fantastic in space. On the other, it’s those unfinished tackles that really burned UCLA so far and Kamari Pleasant and Richard Newton could cause a few of those against safeties and linebackers.

But that’s kind of a moot point, because that should all be secondary to Morris’ right arm.

UW should always want to force teams to play from behind so their own offense has to be more aggressive passing, but especially against UCLA with their rushing offense being fantastic and their rushing defense being their clear defensive strength.

The fact is, there’s no reason why Washington receivers shouldn’t be able to find lots of space against this secondary. There’s also no reason why they shouldn’t have a lot of space to move after the catch. Jalen McMillan in particular seems like a perfect candidate to get behind the defensive backs a few times.

The main obstacle that I think will get in the way — and what I think will define whether Washington has offensive success in the scenario where they have a competent game plan — is whether Dylan Morris and the offensive line can A) recognize the blitz when it’s coming and B) adjust accordingly. UCLA will almost certainly run a cover zero blitz a few times; Washington can either get totally demolished by it or make the Bruins pay. There really isn’t too much in-between.

Morris and his receivers need to be able to recognize that — and ideally, John Donovan would not only recognize these were coming but plan to manipulate them strategically, but let’s be real here...

For Washington’s offense, this feels kind of like a boom or bust game. Crossing my fingers.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.