What to watch: No. 18 UCLA vs. No. 12 Oregon

No. 12 Oregon’s arrival at the Rose Bowl on Saturday could give UCLA a chance at a program-altering win it sorely needs right now — even if head coach Jim Mora was reluctant to acknowledge it this week.

What to watch heading into today’s 12:30 p.m. kickoff:

UCLA offense vs. Oregon defense: For all the talent and skill that Brett Hundley possesses, he can’t do much once he’s dragged to the ground. And considering that the Bruins’ allowed 10 sacks in last week’s loss against Utah last week, it’s almost surprising that the final 30-28 margin wasn’t larger.

The offensive line isn’t completely to blame for all those sacks, but even the staff agreed that the protection on the edges were lacking. Starting tackles Malcolm Bunche and Caleb Benenoch are playing out of position after arriving at UCLA as guards, something that especially showed against Utah defensive ends last weekend. A significant part of the Bruins’ hopes for an upset will depend on if the unit up front can redeem itself — an opportunity that Bunche himself suggested earlier this week.

If Hundley has time to throw, he should be able to find holes in the Ducks’ defense. The redshirt junior has stretched the field in his final season at UCLA, and already has nine passes of at least 40 yards — just eight shy of his previous two-year total. Those nine passes rank him third in the country in that category, behind Cal’s Jared Goff and Washington State’s Connor Halliday.

After allowing fewer than 5.0 yards per play in five of the last six seasons, Oregon is giving up 5.73 this season. It’s looked pedestrian against both the run and the pass, and missed more than 30 tackles in a loss to Arizona nine days ago. Still, the Ducks have plenty of talent on that side of the ball, including All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The 9.3 yards per pass attempt they surrendered to Arizona freshman Anu Solomon was their worst mark since 2011, and could serve as a wake-up call.

Oregon has been able to force its way past the line of scrimmage, and has 38 tackles for loss this season (a distant second to the Utes’ 51). Four of those belong to defensive end Arik Armstead, who is questionable with a left foot injury.

Edge: Oregon, slightly

UCLA defense vs. Oregon offense: Oregon’s offensive line has lost three offensive tackles from its main rotation since training camp. It has allowed 15 sacks, second-worst in the Pac-12 and ahead of only UCLA (22). It has slowed down a run game that had been absurdly dominant over the last half-decade. The Ducks were first in the country in yards per carry in three of the last six years, and ranked no lower than fifth in the other three. This season, they rank 25th — despite adding a true freshman starter to two returning backs who combined for 1,479 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground in 2013.

“They’re one of the worst offensive lines I’ve ever seen at this level,” an anonymous FBS coach told FOX Sports recently.

Which makes senior Jake Fisher’s potential return from a leg injury a tremendous boost for the Ducks. Reportedly a game-time decision to play at the Rose Bowl, the all-conference honorable mention started at right tackle for most of the last two seasons — and moved to left tackle after 26-game starter Tyler Johnstone tore his ACL in August. Without Fisher in its last two games, Oregon gave up 12 sacks. (Getting him back won’t be an instant fix, but it’s a start.)

Those sacks have made life hard for star quarterback Marcus Mariota. But despite hitting the ground more often than he ever has in his career, the Heisman candidate has maintained a sterling 15-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. On paper, UCLA’s defense looks like it has little hope of stopping him.

Against quarterbacks that started the season as backups, the Bruins have given up 933 yards and eight touchdown on 89-of-137 passing — making two interceptions. Take out Texas’ Tyrone Swoopes and Mike Bercovici, who look like they could be major conference starters, and the combined line still stands at 23-of-35 for 249 yards and three scores.

So what will happen against the FBS’ second all-time leader in pass rating? The key to figuring out Mariota, UCLA coaches and players said this week, is sticking to their assignments and forcing him to stay in the pocket.

“He’s so creative and he’s so athletic when he gets outside of the pocket,” said head coach Jim Mora. “You don’t see a lot of teams pressure him, first of all. You see teams get there with four … but you don’t see a lot of teams putting additional pressure him.”

Edge: Oregon

Special teams: Oregon’s offense has been so prolific in recent years that it’s rarely settled for field goals, attempting exactly 14 in each of the past three seasons. And given their kicker’s relative inexperience, the Ducks could elect for a fake if it sets up for a long try. Sophomore Matt Wogan only has one career attempt from beyond 40 yards (a missed 43-yarder), and has also missed twice from 32. He is 10-of-13 overall.

Receiver Charles Nelson took his first career punt return 50 yards for a touchdown, but UCLA didn’t have too much trouble with Utah’s Kaelin Clay last week — holding the likely All-Pac-12 returner to just 22 yards on two punt returns and 13 yards on a kickoff return.

UCLA defensive back Ishmael Adams only had 18 return yards against Utah, easily his lowest output of the season. He’ll almost certainly do better against Oregon, which ranks in the middle of the Pac-12 in punt and kickoff return coverage. A special teams touchdown from Adams could swing the game for the Bruins.

Edge: UCLA

Prediction: Jake Fisher returns from his leg injury and helps stabilize the Ducks’ offensive line. UCLA keeps the game close, but with more time to throw, Marcus Mariota is too much to handle. Oregon 42, UCLA 35.