Few expect UCLA to leave Eugene victorious this weekend. Oregon and its second-ranked offense is riding a streak of four straight BCS bowl berths, and looks on course for a second appearance in the national title game. Meanwhile, the Bruins are fighting through injuries and trying to rebound after Stanford delivered them their first loss of the season.
Can Jim Mora’s team pull the upset?
UCLA offense vs. Oregon defense:
If Mora sticks by his words, UCLA won’t try to bog down Oregon.
“We want to score points,” he said Thursday. “Our offense operates best when we’re going fast. That’s what we’re going to go do. We’re going to play our game.
“We’re not going to try and slow the game down, run it every play, snap it at one second to keep Oregon off the field. That’s not what we do well.”
UCLA is 15th in the country in total offense, and could probably keep up with Oregon if it played the way it did back in September. This month, however, has not been kind to the Bruins. Their offensive line has lost two starting tackles in Torian White (ankle) and Simon Goines (MCL), plus a backup in Conor McDermott (shoulder). Three true freshmen are expected to start on Sunday, with Scott Quessenberry in line to become the 18th first-year Bruin to play this season. No other team in the six major conferences has used more.
It also doesn’t help that center Jake Brendel, a Freshman All-American last season, has inexplicably struggled with false starts and low snaps — throwing off the timing rhythm of the Bruins’ offense. He said he plans to fix the snaps, but didn’t offer details as to how that would happen.
Quarterback Brett Hundley, superlative early on, is also coming off his most pedestrian performance of the season. Against Stanford, he was just 2-for-8 for 42 yards on passes longer than 13 yards. He missed some short throws in the flat as well.
Oregon’s defense is perennially shadowed by its powerhouse offense, but has been stingy considering how much time it spends on the field. (The Ducks are 118th in the country in time of possession.) It ranks 12th nationally in opponent scoring (17.3), 14th in sacks (20), fifth in fumbles forced (11), ninth in interceptions (11). Its numbers recently have been a little less stellar — 62 points allowed in the last two games — but a powerful offense gives allows room for error.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is widely considered the best cornerback in the country, and could completely shut down UCLA’s Shaq Evans. Terrance Mitchell is a solid defender on the other side of the field too. The front seven is also capable despite losing some key talent; defensive end Tony Washington is second in the Pac-12 with 6.5 sacks, and linebacker Derrick Malone is fourth with 8.4 tackles per game.
UCLA defense vs. Oregon offense:
According to former Ducks’ All-American Joey Harrington, redshirt sophomore Marcus Mariota will leave Oregon as the best quarterback in program history.
It’s not an outlandish claim (though Dennis Dixon might have pushed for that title had he not torn his ACL). Mariota is the fifth-most efficient passer in the country, just a shade below Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. He has thrown for 19 touchdowns against zero interceptions. No defender has picked off any of his last 265 attempts, the longest active streak in the country. (The next highest? Nevada’s Cody Fajardo, down at 188.)
His legs make him even harder to defend. Mariota averages 10.06 yards per carry, which leads the country regardless of position. He is seventh in the Pac-12 with 70.43 rushing yards per game, and has found the end zone nine times.
All-purpose stud De’Anthony Thomas is expected to return from a sprained ankle, but the Ducks’ run game hasn’t missed a beat without him. Sophomore Byron Marshall and freshman Thomas Tyner are the Pac-12′s fourth- and ninth-leading rushers, combining for 1,106 yards and 16 scores.
Of Oregon’s 66 plays of at least 20 yards — best in the country — 29 have come on the ground.
“They’re a run-first team,” Bruins linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “They really are. You better be devoted to stopping the run.
“Better have a guy for their dive. Better have a guy for their quarterback. Better have a guy for their pitch. Every. Single. Time. The big plays come off more their run stuff than their pass.”
UCLA may be more equipped to defend Oregon than any other team the Ducks have yet seen. The Bruins are hardened by up-tempo practices against their own offense, and boast what is arguably the best quartet of linebackers in the conference. The unit will be tasked with defending frequent zone reads, and making sure Mariota doesn’t scramble out for long gains.
Linebacker Anthony Barr is the only man who can challenge Mariota for the title as the Pac-12′s best player. Stanford coach David Shaw said a week ago that, in his mind, the two are tied as the nation’s best. Barr’s stats are down slightly in his second year on defense, but opposing offenses have to account for him on every single play — whether he pass-rushes or hangs back in coverage.
Myles Jack is as good as any true freshman can be, while Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks are stout in the middle. Kendricks left the Stanford game with suspected kidney bruising, but practiced all week and is expected to go.
“We’re built in the right way,” Ulbrich said.
Bralon Addison leads the conference with 22.30 yards per punt return, but that average is skewed a bit by his 142-yard, two-touchdown outburst against Cal. With the emergence of Marshall and Tyner as a strong one-two backfield tandem, however, Thomas could take more return duties. He has taken back just five kickoffs this season, and no punts.
UCLA is excellent in punt return coverage, ranking 14th in the country with 3.11 yards allowed per return. If Thomas comes back in that role, however, he’s always a threat to break one loose.
Edge: Oregon, slightly
Prediction: UCLA’s defense keeps the game close in the first half, but the dam starts to crack in the third quarter. The Bruins rush for triple digits for the first time in three weeks, but Brett Hundley takes three sacks. Oregon 45, UCLA 21.