As a first-year head coach last season, Jim Mora got a bit of a wake-up call when UCLA fell flat in a 43-17 loss at Cal — a performance for which he blames himself.
Mora still got his team to nine wins in a resurgent season. Sonny Dykes’ Berkeley debut won’t come close to that. Done in by both injuries and a relative inability to play defense, the Bears have become one of the worst teams in the Pac-12. Here’s how the two teams stack up for their 7:30 p.m. Saturday kickoff at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA offense vs. Cal defense
UCLA is averaging 48 points per game (fifth in the country), 561.8 yards (fourth) and a 58.33 percent third-down conversion rate (third). Cal is allowing 524.0 yards per game (123rd) and 45.0 points (124th).
The Bruins shouldn’t have much trouble moving the ball. Quarterback Brett Hundley threw a career-worst four interceptions against the Bears last season, but that secondary has been decimated by injuries. At the end of their loss to Washington State, they were left with three healthy bodies. Starting receivers Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper even saw some practice reps at cornerback this past week, giving Cal a contingency plan if another defensive back is lost.
Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond will likely start next to each other on the right side of UCLA’s offensive line, but Cal’s front seven won’t keep anyone up at night. Its three sacks on the season ranks 112th in the country, and its 28 tackles at 74th. Linebacker Brennan Scarlett was expected to be the Bears’ top defensive player, but hasn’t played since offseason hand surgery. He and defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil (knee) could both seek medical redshirts. Dykes also dismissed defensive end Chris McCain, a former four-star recruit.
Linebacker Khairi Fortt, who leads the Bears with 36 tackles, is one of only three starters who were listed as such on the preseason depth chart.
Edge: UCLA, easily
Cal offense vs. UCLA defense The Bruins’ passing defense is second in the conference with 204.8 yards allowed per game, but haven’t faced many quarterbacks who attack downfield. The first four they saw have combined for 22 pass plays of at least 30 yards; Cal’s Jared Goff has 13, tied for sixth in the country.
It’s Goff who gives the Bears hope. Helped by Sonny Dykes’ high-volume offense, the true freshman is poised to rewrite the school record book. He set a single-game program record with 504 passing yards against Washington State, breaking a 17-year-old mark that required four overtimes. He has capable weapons in receivers Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper. The latter moved to the slot last weekend and erupted for 14 catches and 231 yards. They’ll test a defense looking to build on a six-interception showing in Utah.
Cal’s 515.4 yards of offense ranks 17th in the country and fourth in the conference. Most of those yards have not led to points.
The Bears have scored touchdowns on 45 percent of its red-zone trips, 113th in the country. Their 38 rushing attempts inside 20 yards have resulted in 1.7 yards per carry. Brendan Bigelow, thought to be one of the Pac-12′s hottest breakout candidates, has been benched for true freshman Khalfani Muhammad. The junior has yet to score a touchdown, and has fumbled three times in the last two games.
UCLA has given up 585 rushing yards through four games, but opponents have only rushed for three touchdowns. (That total ties Oregon, which has played five games, for a conference low). The Bruins should also be able to knock Goff around a bit. Cal has already allowed 17 sacks this season, last in the Pac-12 and 113th in the country. Linebacker Anthony Barr has three sacks in his last two games, and should continue his run against 6-foot-8 left tackle Freddie Tagaloa.
Special teams Vincenzo D’Amanto has hit 11 of 12 field goal attempts on the season, making him the second-most accurate kicker in the Pac-12 (behind Utah’s Andy Phillips, who is perfect on nine field goals). Both his lone miss and longest make came from 46 yards out. He also threw a touchdown pass to receiver Jackson Bouza on a trick play against Northwestern.
The punt return team hasn’t done well, with receiver Bryce Treggs averaging 3.67 yards per return. True freshman Khalfani Muhammad, a state track champion, has done better taking back kicks: his 23.25-yard average ranks fourth in the Pac-12. Conversely, UCLA has limited opposing kick returns to 16.87 yards, second-best in the conference. Shaq Evans and Steve Manfro both rank second on kick and punt returns, respectively.
Cal’s Cole Leininger has 87 career punts, while UCLA’s Sean Covington has nine. Covington has landed a third of those inside the 20, however.
Prediction: Brett Hundley exploits a wounded secondary and throws for touchdowns on the Bruins’ first two drives. The defense picks off Jared Goff just once, but a long return sets up another score. UCLA 45, Cal 17.