What to watch: No. 18 UCLA at Washington

Despite its sometimes uneven play this season, UCLA has yet to lose away from the Rose Bowl. Of course, the Bruins’ five opponents have a combined record of 22-22. Of those five, only Arizona State (7-1) looks like it could currently knock off UCLA in a rematch.

With the Sun Devils still sitting a game ahead in the Pac-12 South standings, the No. 18 Bruins have little room for error through their final three regular-season contests. A stiff test looms at Washington, which has NFL prospects on the roster but is still looking for its first win over a ranked opponent in the Chris Petersen era.

What to watch for in today’s 4 p.m. kickoff at Husky Stadium:

UCLA offense vs. Washington defense: Washington has collected 37 sacks this season, which gives them more per game than anyone else in the FBS except Utah. The Utes, of course, got 10 of their 39 sacks against UCLA — including three straight to snuff out a drive at UCLA’s own goal line.

Defensive-end-turned-linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha leads the country with 15.5 sacks — 3.5 ahead of Utah’s Nate Orchard, who occupies second place. Fellow Bednarik semifinalist Danny Shelton has 7.5 sacks of his own, which is absurd for a nose tackle. That type of interior pressure will put a heavy burden on UCLA’s offensive guards, who haven’t seen anyone quite like Shelton yet.

The good news for the Bruins is that their offensive line has made dramatic improvements since that 30-28 home loss a month ago. Conor McDermott has stabilized protection on Brett Hundley’s blind side, and the competition at left guard has become deep enough that Malcolm Bunche, Alex Redmond and Kenny Lacy are each getting reps there. UW has gotten at least three sacks in all but one game this season and will likely hit that bar again, but if recent trends are any indication, Hundley won’t get completely battered. (Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone even said this week that most of the sacks Hundley took last week were coverage sacks, a result of how much defenses have dropped back against him.)

Shaq Thompson is Washington’s biggest defensive playmaker — four touchdowns on fumble and interception returns — and will likely play some linebacker after sticking exclusively at running back against Colorado. Continue reading

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Five questions: Seattle Times’ Adam Jude talks Washington

After beating then-No. 14 Arizona at home, No. 18 UCLA is slowly crawling back up the national rankings. But to stay alive in a tight Pac-12 South race, the Bruins can’t afford to lose any of their last three regular-season games. They visit Washington on Saturday for their last road trip, and are currently listed as a 6.5-point favorite over a team that doesn’t have any victories over ranked opponents. Adam Jude of the Seattle Times answered five questions about the Huskies.

1. Since moving to running back, how valuable has Shaq Thompson become to Washington’s offense? What does the Husky defense miss most when he’s not in?

Shaq has quickly become the Huskies best offensive weapon, with 272 yards on 36 carries in two games as the Huskies’ featured running back. Before that, you could make a strong case that he was UW’s best defensive player. His four defensive touchdowns this season are the most in college football over the past decade, according to ESPN research, and he was drawing some national pub at midseason as a national defensive player of the year candidate. There’s no doubt, though, that he is more valuable to the team as a running back right now. It’s likely that he will play some at linebacker against UCLA, but the Huskies are fairly comfortable with the depth they have on defense behind him.

2. UW also has a pair of Bednarik semifinalists in Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton. How much does the defense rely on their performance? And given how much UCLA struggled against a similarly aggressive Utah front, do you see any soft spots the Bruins could try and find?

Two of the best (and nicest) guys I’ve covered. Kikaha is as good as any player at this level at getting to the quarterback; he leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. And Shelton leads the team in tackles — as a 340-pound nose tackle. Not sure I’ve ever seen that. When the Huskies can pressure the quarterback with four linemen, it makes life much better for the back end of the UW defense. That’s true for every team, but especially so for a UW secondary that will start three true freshmen against UCLA in the wake of Marcus Peters’ dismissal late Wednesday. Continue reading

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UCLA freshman Nate Starks credits Paul Perkins for guidance

UCLA is not a team accustomed to using true freshmen in the backfield.

Last year, linebacker Myles Jack pulled double duty and rushed for 267 yards and seven touchdowns in just four games. But before that, the last Bruin tailback to play without needing redshirt year was Malcolm Jones in 2010.

This fall, UCLA has deployed another newbie in Nathan Starks, who has touched the ball 21 times for 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns. It isn’t much, but as the only full-time back on the roster listed above 200 pounds — 5-foot-11, 205 — the Colorado native gives position coach Kennedy Polamalu a different type of prospect to mold.

That process has involved a guiding hand from redshirt sophomore Paul Perkins, who recently became the 13th Bruin to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

“Paul is actually one of the first running backs I got close and talked to when I got here,” Starks said. Continue reading

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Washington dismisses starting cornerback Marcus Peters

Washington has reportedly dismissed all-conference cornerback Marcus Peters, dealing a significant blow to its already thin secondary heading into Saturday’s game against No. 18 UCLA.

From the Seattle Times:

Peters got into an argument with an assistant coach during practice Wednesday, a source said, apparently the final straw in a series of run-ins with Washington’s new coaching staff. He also got into an argument with coaches during UW’s victory at Colorado on Saturday and then missed practice on Tuesday, sources said.

After injuries in the defensive backfield, the Huskies had already planned to play leading receiver John Ross III as a nickel cornerback. The Huskies could potentially start three true freshman defensive backs against the Bruins. UW ranks eighth in the Pac-12 in allowing 7.3 yards per pass attempt and 275.3 passing yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks are also completing 65.1 percent of their passes against Washington, the highest mark for any team in the conference except Arizona.

A third-year starter who led the team with three picks and 10 pass breakups, Peters is regarded as a potential first-round draft pick who is ranked the No. 13-best prospect in 2015 by CBS Sports.At least one UCLA receiver was looking forward to the matchup.

“He’s definitely an NFL corner,” said junior Jordan Payton, who leads the Bruins with 783 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches. “It’s definitely exciting. You only get a couple of those corners come your way in a lifetime, so you have to take advantage of it.”

UCLA head coach Jim Mora looked surprised this morning when asked about Peters’ dismissal: “He’s a good football player. He’s an NFL-type guy.”

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VIDEO: Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich previews Washington

UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich talked about Shaq Thompson and the “exotic shifts and motions” of the Washington offense, as well as the play of cornerback Fabian Moreau — who has improved recently after a rough start to the season.

» Myles Jack did it last year, but Shaq Thompson has now become college football’s “running backer” du jour.
» After some costly penalties against Arizona, Jack vowed to keep his emotions in check against the Huskies — with whom he’s had a bit of history.

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Weekly Q&A — 11/3/14 Answers

Q: What are the odds of UCLA winning their next three games at this point? Assuming that does happen, is it better for UCLA not to play in the Pac-12 title game enhancing their chances of landing a “New Year’s Six” bowl or wish for a rematch against Oregon but risk falling to the Alamo or Holiday Bowl with a third loss? Can UCLA even make the playoffs as Pac-12 champs despite an 11-2 record?

A: UCLA’s chances at winning out the regular season actually don’t look half bad given its defensive resurgence against Arizona. Stanford and Washington have both struggled on offense recently, and it’s hard to imagine the Bruins playing sloppily against USC — particularly considering that they get a bye week beforehand. Even a worst-case scenario for UCLA now looks like going 1-2 the rest of the way.

But the Bruins aren’t going to make it to a “New Year’s Six” bowl without making it to the Pac-12 title game. The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl are playoff semifinal games this year, so they’re obviously out of the picture. The Orange Bowl still has tie-ins with the ACC and the SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame. That leaves the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl — one of which will be filled by the highest-ranked “Group of Five” mid-major conference champion. With just five more spots, there’s almost no way the selection committee will pick a two-loss team that couldn’t make the Pac-12 title game.

As for the playoff … even assuming UCLA wins out convincingly and beats a top-five Oregon team at Levi’s Stadium, it’ll still need a lot of other teams to lose. It’s not impossible, but there’s little purpose in hoping for a playoff berth given where the Bruins currently stand. Continue reading

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UCLA moves up to No. 18 in College Football Playoff rankings

Now on a three-game winning streak, UCLA moved up to No. 18 in the second edition of the College Football Playoff rankings.

The Bruins’ placement is a four-spot jump from their debut at No. 22 a week ago. They are sandwiched between Utah — the team that dealt them their first lost — and Arizona, which they defeated 17-7 on Saturday.

The Pac-12 landed two teams in the top 10. Oregon moved up one spot to No. 4, and is in line for a spot in the inaugural four-team playoff if it wins out. Arizona State is ranked ninth.

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Paul Perkins thanks offensive line after becoming 1,000-yard rusher

As Paul Perkins walked out of the UCLA locker room this week, a reporter joked to him: “You can’t say the words, ‘offensive line.’”

Perkins chirped back: “You can’t say ’1,000 yards.’”

Like many running backs, the Bruins’ redshirt sophomore has made a habit of thanking the big fellas in front of him for anything he does. During UCLA’s 17-7 win against then-No. 14 Arizona this past Saturday, Perkins became the 13th player in school history to cross 1,000 yards in one season.

He stuck true to form: “They do a great job of blocking up front. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys.”

Perkins needed just two carries against the Wildcats to reach his big moment, and finished with 21 for 78 yards. He now sits second in the Pac-12 with 1,074 yards on the season.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know I got off the sideline and someone told me I got to 1,000,” he said.

Naturally, it was an offensive lineman who broke the news.

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