What to watch: No. 22 UCLA at Oregon State

Jim Mora has never beaten Oregon State. This is not because the Beavers have been at the top of the Pac-12, or that they have held some special insight in how to exploit UCLA’s game plans. The two teams simply haven’t played each other since 2012.

OSU was the team that handed Mora his first loss with the Bruins, delivering a 27-20 upset at the Rose Bowl in his fourth game as a college football coach.

That was before anyone realized that UCLA was on the ascent, en route to a 29 wins in three seasons — including three straight over rival USC. Before anyone realized that Mike Riley, thought by many to be a Corvallis lifer, would win just 19 more games with the Beavers before leaving to Nebraska.

Oregon State hosts UCLA (6-2, 3-2) at 1:30 p.m. today in the midst of a difficult first season under Gary Andersen. Despite the 51-year-old’s success at Wisconsin and Utah State, he has yet to guide the Beavers (2-6, 0-5) to a win over a Pac-12 opponent.

When UCLA has the ball

In his six years as Utah’s defensive coordinator, Kalani Sitake orchestrated what was perennially one of the most aggressive and effective schemes west of the Rocky Mountains. Through his tenure, the Utes averaged more than 35 sacks per season, peaking last year with an FBS-leading 55 sacks.

Getting Oregon State to that level will take some time.

So far this season, the Beavers have struggled to adapt to Sitake’s 3-4 system, ranking at or near the bottom of the conference in most defensive categories. They have allowed Pac-12 opponents to score an average of 36.4 points. They’re among the four worst performers in both rushing yards (4.83) and passing yards (7.1) allowed per play. And with only 10 sacks this season, they sit above only eight other teams in the country.

All of this prompted Sitake himself to say in October that the defense had nowhere to go but up. And in the last two games, Oregon State has gained at least a step or two on the ladder. Neither Colorado nor Utah gained more than 372 yards, a small victory for the Beavers after giving up 1,652 to Washington State, Arizona and Stanford.

The defensive front has also been more active. OSU has recorded nine of its 32 tackles for loss in its last two games.

Still, UCLA’s offense has the overwhelming advantage on paper. Paul Perkins still isn’t 100 percent after injuring his knee two weeks ago, but managed 159 yards from scrimmage in his last outing. And while he hasn’t played in rain yet — current forecasts predict a 90 percent of precipitation — freshman quarterback Josh Rosen has now thrown 98 straight passes without an interception.

Edge: UCLA

When Oregon State has the ball

UCLA caught a bit of a break when Oregon State lost Seth Collins. Before he hyperextended his knee during pre-practice stretches last week, the true freshman had run for 536 yards and five touchdowns. Against a Bruin defense that has been vulnerable to running quarterbacks, he represented the Beavers’ best hope for an upset.

Though Collins was scratched on Oregon State’s injury report, Mora said earlier this week that the team is preparing for both quarterbacks.

“Their mobility is something we have to be really careful of,” he said. “They have the ability to get out and run and make plays. That’s something we’ve struggled against this year.”

While Nick Mitchell isn’t as electrifying a runner, he still has the athleticism to pick up yards with his legs. The redshirt freshman ran for 40 yards in a loss to Utah, and can do enough that the Beavers don’t have to significantly tweak their scheme.

The problem is that he hasn’t produced much through the air. In two games of significant action, Mitchell has only completed 28 of 59 passes for 326 yards, with one touchdown against one interception.

And while Oregon State has some playmakers available, they aren’t as much of a threat without a potent triggerman. Versatile speedster Victor Bolden has more yards as a kick returner (302) than as a receiver (282) or a runner (154), while 6-foot-5 sophomore Jordan Villamin has four touchdown catches but just one 100-yard game.

Tailback Storm Barrs-Woods could give the offense a boost, if healthy. Limited by a knee injury most of this season, the program’s fifth-leading all-time rusher has only gained 146 yards in conference play.

Edge: UCLA

On special teams

After an excellent year on kickoff coverage last fall and a strong start this season, UCLA has allowed 312 yards on eight returns against its last four opponents. No one has reached the end zone yet against the Bruins on special teams, but Bolden could break through. The 5-foot-9, 174-pound receiver is top 10 nationally with a 30.2-yard average, and scored a 100-yard touchdown on his second try of the season.

UCLA returners Devin Fuller and Ishmael Adams were both limited in practice this week, so safety Randall Goforth could get the nod on special teams. Oregon State has been decent in kick and punt return coverage, ranking around the top 30 nationally in both.

The Bruins have an advantage in kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, who has been as good as anyone in college football. He didn’t attempt a field goal last week as UCLA’s offense went either boom or bust all day, but should get a few chances in inclement weather today.

Edge: Oregon State, slightly

Prediction: UCLA 35, Oregon State 20. The rain might make this game a bit messier, but the Beavers are winless in conference play for a reason.