Coming off of a solid win against Stanford where the final score covered up some of the ongoing situational offensive challenges we’ve faced this season, the Huskies take their first road trip down to Pasadena to square off against UCLA. While the Bruins have a more talented defense than the Cardinal on paper, they are still working through some of the same defensive struggles that have plagued them since last year when Chip Kelly had to completely overhaul his defensive staff. The fresh faces on the field and on the sideline have helped to turn around the defense, but this will still be a game full of offensive fireworks.
For as explosive as Chip Kelly’s offense was last year, their defense allowed opposing offenses to be similarly explosive. After giving up over 26 points per game in 2021, most notably 40 points to Fresno State, 42 points to ASU, and 44 points to Utah, Kelly made the move to clean house. Jerry Azzinaro was let go, and Kelly brought in NFL vets Bill McGovern and Ken Norton Jr. to be the DC and ILBs coaches. Kelly also brought in former UW Co-DC Ikaika Malloe to takeover the OLBs and former Oregon State/USC assistant Chad Kauha’aha’a to coach the DL.
As far as schematic changes go with the new defensive assistants, you probably won’t see much of a visual change. The Bruins have stuck with a 4-2-5 structure under McGovern, and both EDGE players will primarily play from a 2-point stance. We won’t see them drop into coverage much, but they will occasionally play coverage as a change up. On the back end, UCLA likes to play from a tilted 2-high shell with one safety coming down into robber coverages a fair amount, but this has been more to shore up a porous coverage group than to be a true playmaker. With numerous blown coverages last year and a bunch of new players at LB and DB, McGovern leans heavily on spot drop zone coverages to create an umbrella over the top of the offense that his defenders can rally to for limited gains. This will leaves a lot of soft coverage match ups for opposing offenses that are patient enough to march down the field with underneath throws and the run game.
The run defense wasn’t great last year, but it is something to watch this week. South Alabama almost pulled off the upset against UCLA two weeks ago with a surprisingly productive run game leading the way. The Bruins gave up 162 yards on the ground to the Jaguars, and La’Damien Webb led the way with 16 carries for 124 yards on the ground. Poor gap discipline led to a lot of creases in the defensive front, and poor open field tackling on perimeter runs from the safeties yielded big gains.
Key Players & Personnel
On the personnel front, the UCLA defense made good use of the Transfer Portal this past offseason and will lean heavily on transfers to make plays. After losing Mitchell Agude and Myles Jackson to the portal, UCLA went out and got Gabriel and Grayson Murphy and former UW OLB Laiatu Latu to headline a rejuvenated UCLA DL that has made waves early in the season. UW fans will remember that Latu was poised for a breakout season after arriving as a star recruit and earning playing time as a freshman, but a serious neck injury forced him to medically retire before living up to his billing. A fresh start at UCLA under his former UW coach has breathed new life into his career, and Latu is currently leading the Pac-12 in sacks (5.0 through 4 games). The Murphy twins have also made an immediate impact after transferring from North Texas with both more or less serving as starters in an EDGE rotation that likes to cycle in fresh legs. The three transfer EDGEs all own PFF pass rush grades of 80+ and a combined 44 pressures this season. They will give our offensive line its biggest test since Michigan State.
At the second level, JonJon Vaughns and Hawaii transfer Darius Muasau lead the UCLA LB corps. Vaughns is better in coverage than Muasau, but Muasau is a downhill run stuffer that will play a role in pressure packages. Fun fact: if/when Wayne Taulapapa is met at the LOS by the Bruin defensive front, it’ll be a kind of reunion between several members of both teams. Muasau’s older brother was an offensive lineman that paved the way for Wayne’s record-setting HS career while Darius often roamed the sidelines during practice, and back up UCLA DL Sitiveni Havili-Kaufusi was once a HS RB that played alongside former UW kicker Tim Horn (back when he was a QB) and backed up Wayne during his senior year at Punahou.
The new-look line up doesn’t stop on the defensive front. After losing 4 of their 5 starters in the secondary, the Bruins have a number of new players that are still settling into their starting roles. Stephan Blaylock is the only incumbent starter in the secondary, but there is plenty of older experience that has stepped up or been brought in. Mo Osling is a RS Senior that has been a reliable tackler on the back end, and Wyoming transfer Azizi Hearn is another RS Senior that will factor at their slot corner position.
The Bruins’ defense should be a tougher challenge than Stanford’s was last week, but this will still be a match up of two high-flying Pac-12 offenses more than a hard-hitting defensive struggle. If a shootout is in the cards, UW should feel confident in our offensive firepower getting the better of a porous UCLA coverage unit if we can block their talented EDGEs. Getting the run game going will be a tall ask given our production so far this season, but this is not the game that we want to leave time on the clock for. Look for Grubb to be on the hunt for an early lead then ease up on the tempo and pound the ball help our own defense out.