UCLA hasn’t won at Memorial Stadium in 1998, but this is no longer the Cal team that placed in the top half of the conference under Jeff Tedford for most of the 2000s. The Bears have been one of the Pac-12’s biggest surprises, with a 4-1 start already matching their win total from the past two seasons — but could get exposed with a rough second-half schedule.
The Bruins, meanwhile, need to keep their season from spiraling out of control after back-to-back losses to Utah and Oregon most likely erased their playoff hopes.
What to watch heading into today’s 12:30 p.m. kickoff:
UCLA offense vs. Cal defense: By at least one measure, UCLA has the No. 1 offense in college football. No, that’s not a typo. The Bruins are first overall in offensive FEI, an efficiency rating that accounts for the strength of opposing defenses. In those rankings, the weakest defense UCLA has faced this season is Memphis, at No. 54.
But even by more traditional stats, the Bruins’ chances look good on Saturday. UCLA’s best offensive performance this year came against Arizona State, a team that lost nine defensive starters and currently gives up 6.07 yards per play. That number is good for 99th in the FBS and last in the Pac-12.
Cal isn’t much better. The Bears have surrendered 5.92 yards per play and, like the Sun Devils, are particularly vulnerable through the air. Now is a good time to remind everyone that Brett Hundley had the game of his life in Tempe: an absurdly efficient performance that saw him throw for 355 yards and four touchdowns on 18-of-23 passing. UCLA needs him to do something similar at Memorial Stadium.
Pac-12 quarterbacks are averaging 8.8 yards per attempt against the Bears. Consider that the three quarterbacks Cal has faced are Washington State’s Connor Halliday, Washington’s Cyler Miles and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau — who together average 7.2 per pass attempt on the season. That Halliday-Miles-Liufau Frankenstein would rank 67th in the country in that stat. Hundley is sitting at No. 9 with 9.4 per attempt.
Hundley’s pocket awareness still isn’t polished, and he’s struggled most this season when faced with heavy pressure. But the Bears’ only have 10 sacks this season — as much as the Utah did in one game against UCLA — and are without their best pass rusher in defensive end Brennan Scarlett (knee). Safety Griffin Piatt, who has three of Cal’s six interceptions this season, is also sidelined.
UCLA defense vs. Cal offense: UCLA’s defense started the season in bend-don’t-break mode, giving up yards but making enough big plays to compensate. Those plays haven’t been happening lately. Utah and Oregon both ran for more than 200 yards against the Bruins, the first time that’s happened in consecutive games since Jim Mora arrived in Los Angeles.
But while Cal has a quietly effective running back in Daniel Lasco (479 yards, 4 TD), it is only 10th in the conference with 3.78 yards per carry. That’s nearly a full yard worse than the Utes, and more than two yards worse than the Ducks. Couple that with the fact that change-of-pace back Khalfani Muhammad will play with a cast over his broken thumb, and the Bears’ ground game doesn’t look intimidating.
The real danger will come from above. Jared Goff is growing into his promise as one of the Pac-12’s most prolific quarterbacks, while true freshman Luke Rubenzer gives Cal the type of running threat behind center that has troubled UCLA this month. The Bruins haven’t generated much extra pressure this season; if that remains the case, the game could come down to how well UCLA’s secondary matches up against the Bears’ myriad receivers.
Goff can definitely stretch the field, with nearly 13 percent of his pass attempts this season (30 of 232) resulting in at least a 20-yard gain. That’s a larger proportion than any Pac-12 quarterback except injured Arizona State starter Taylor Kelly, who has only thrown 68 passes. Goff also has enough options that he can try and pick the ideal matchup on each play: Bryce Treggs, Kenny Lawler and Chris Harper each have at least 20 catches, and have combined for 964 yards and 13 touchdown catches. At 6-foot-3, Lawler is four inches taller than the others two, so look for him to draw the 6-foot-1 Anthony Jefferson — the Bruins’ most consistent defensive back this season.
Receivers Trevor Davis and Stephen Anderson add two more deep threats. Both have 18 catches, and have combined for five 50-yard plays this season.
Special teams: Cal is allowing opponents just 3.67 yards per punt return (slightly better than UCLA’s 3.83) and 17.0 per kick return (slightly worse than UCLA’s 16.87). Both teams rank top-25 nationally in both categories, although the Bears get a bit more help from punter Cole Leininger. Leininger’s 41.7-yard average on isn’t eye-popping, but he’s placed eight of his 25 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Cal and UCLA are both SportsCenter threats on returns, although the fact that they’ve also been effective in coverage could snuff out big plays. Harper and Davis split punt return duties, and only average around 8.0 yards per return, but the latter has shined on kick returns. He has 281 yards and two touchdowns on seven tries, giving him a 40.14 yard average that’s second-best in the FBS.
Ishmael Adams has been quieter lately on UCLA’s returns, but the talent and vision is still there for him to break out again.
Prediction: The Bruins haven’t played all that well lately, but Cal’s already subpar defense has been further whittled down by injuries. Brett Hundley has one of his best games of the season, and UCLA wins in a shootout. UCLA 48, Cal 41.