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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