Five thoughts after UCLA’s win over Utah

In case you missed anything from UCLA’s 17-9 win at Utah, here’s our coverage from yesterday in Salt Lake City.

» The Bruins’ defense made key adjustments, and shut a team out of the end zone for the third time this season.
» Jordan Payton set a new UCLA record with his 194th career catch. He also became only the eighth Bruin to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season, and the first since Nelson Rosario in 2011.
» VIDEOS: Jim Mora, Tom Bradley, Josh Rosen / Paul Perkins, Deon Hollins, Jordan Payton, Takkarist McKinley, Jayon Brown

A few more thoughts on UCLA, and the road ahead …

1. The Bruins are in good position to win the Pac-12 South. Jim Mora has won three straight games against USC, taking the last two by more than two touchdowns. If a fourth is what stands between UCLA and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship, it’s very difficult to imagine this team letting up. As much as he’s struggled against Stanford, Mora has consistently prepared to against both USC and Arizona, going 7-0 with an average margin of almost 21 points. That’s not just happenstance.

While the Trojans have opened as 3.5-point favorites, that only feeds into UCLA’s preference for the underdog role. Even Josh Rosen has caught onto this.

“I hope we don’t get ranked after this game,” he said Saturday. “Because for some reason, we don’t like playing ahead. We like when people doubt us.”

That said, with the division at stake, this could easily go down to the wire.

2. The offensive line could have issues. Left tackle Conor McDermott injured his right knee on Saturday, and wasn’t able to walk off the field unassisted. Mora wouldn’t say much about his status, but coming back from something like that in one week seems unlikely. Continue reading

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UCLA CB Johnny Johnson left loss to WSU with muscle spasms

UCLA cornerback Johnny Johnson suffered muscle spasms in his neck during the second half of a 31-27 loss to Washington State on Saturday night.

His status for the Bruins’ Saturday trip to Utah could be questionable. Head coach Jim Mora was uncertain about Johnson’s chances of returning to practice with the team on Tuesday.

“I hope he’s gonna be OK,” Mora said. “I don’t know for sure yet. That young man’s overcome a lot. He’s gotten to a point where he’s playing pretty effectively.”

Johnson, a redshirt sophomore, had lost his first two seasons at UCLA to shoulder surgeries. The former four-star recruit has broken out over the past month, starting four straight games and making a case for himself as the Bruins’ best cover corner.

He has 17 tackles this season to go along with four pass breakups and an interception. The secondary is already missing all-conference cornerback Fabian Moreau, who suffered a season-ending foot fracture in UCLA’s third game of the season.

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What to watch: No. 18 UCLA vs. Washington State

With just one more home game at the Rose Bowl, UCLA remains on track for the Pac-12 South title.

However, Washington State looks like a different squad than the one that dropped a season opener to FCS opponent Portland State, and still sits in second place in its division after a two-point loss to No. 7 Stanford.

After three consecutive wins, the No. 18 Bruins (7-2, 4-2) can clinch a spot in the Pac-12 Championship by winning three more. Keeping that path clear will require navigating past a resurgent Cougars squad eager to pull an upset at 7:45 p.m. tonight.

When UCLA has the ball

It might be time for Paul Perkins to grab everyone’s attention again.

The redshirt junior has run for only two touchdowns since injuring his knee more than three weeks ago, but was healthy enough to carry the ball 23 times last Saturday — the tailback’s heaviest workload since September. WSU has allowed 18 rushing scores and 5.1 yards per carry, both of which stand as bottom-three marks in the Pac-12.

But the Cougars (6-3, 4-2) could open the game by stacking the box, as many other teams have done in an effort to neutralize Perkins. If that happens, UCLA will need some creative playcalling early and use Josh Rosen to stretch open the field. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp position reviews: Defensive backs

UCLA Bruins defensive back John Johnson (7) during a NCAA college spring football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, April 24, 2015. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News)

UCLA cornerback Johnny Johnson runs with the ball during the Bruins’ “Spring Showcase” at the Rose Bowl on April 24, 2015.
(Keith Birmingham/Staff)

Like UCLA’s offensive line, the secondary is a unit that has grown significantly during the Jim Mora era. Back in 2012, the Bruins were maligned for their pass defense, one that ranked eighth in the Pac-12. In the last two years, they haven’t ranked lower than fourth.

With every starter returning, there’s plenty of depth in the defensive backfield, one that has emphasized positional versatility to facilitate the use of shifting schemes and to better secure against injuries. This fall, the X-factor will be whether or not any one player makes the leap into becoming a dominant, shutdown corner.

The best candidate is likely still senior Fabian Moreau, who looked fantastic in spring and fall camp last year before a very uneven 2014 season. The former running back was burned repeatedly through the first half of his junior campaign, but eventually found more a rhythm as the year wound to a close. Position coach Demetrice Martin said in April that Moreau often appeared to be in great position for a play, then explicably stopped running all the way through. The Florida native has since made an effort to work on his ball skills and fix that habit. Continue reading

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Demetrice Martin breaks down UCLA’s veteran secondary

UCLA defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin said this week that he’s coaching the deepest secondary he’s ever had in Westwood — one that will also welcome a highly touted freshman this summer in four-star recruit Dechaun Holiday.

Much of that has been due to Martin’s own recruiting efforts, landing multiple four-star prospects every cycle. This year, the Bruins’ top five defensive backs have 80 combined games of starting experience in this system.

The assistant coach broke down a few of his players.

On cornerback Marcus Rios, who put on more than 20 pounds since the end of last season:

“Now he’s feelin’ a lot more cushion for the pushin’. I always joke with him, say he took his legs off and attached them to his shoulders, put his arms on his legs. He’s able to run into guys, feeling real muscular. … He’s fearless, man.”

On cornerback Fabian Moreau, who struggled out of the gates in what was a heavily hyped junior campaign:

“I call him a Cadillac. He’s a such a smooth, powerful guy, where sometimes he feels like he’s in great position, and then it looks like he relaxes. Continue reading

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