Quickie UCLA Football Defensive Preview

Sure, why not? If we're going to try to have a 2020 season, may as well make it as goofy as possible

UCLA OUT OF NOWHERE

On one hand, this is an exciting opportunity. This year is likely to be too dumb and broken to get anything meaningful out of the entire season, so if we’re going to find joy it’s likely in individual games. And so suddenly getting to play a likely bad UCLA team means a free shot at a win that will make all of us really happy.

Of course, playing a rival in a season with the inherent volatility of 2020 also means an increased chance of random awful thing making us miserable. I wouldn’t call that likely, but it’s on the table.

2019 in review

UCLA probably didn’t have the worst defense in the Pac-12 last year. Arizona, Washington State, Oregon State, Colorado, and Stanford are all in the conversation. But outside of oddly good performances against Stanford and Colorado, UCLA’s defense was largely ineffective:

I mean, sure, everybody gets torched by Oklahoma’s offense. But 63 points allowed to Washington State? Nearly 8 yards/play and 48 points to Oregon State? When you can point at that last performance against Cal as a better than average showing, you know it was a rough year.

Basically UCLA last year had an OK run defense . . . and that’s about it. The pass defense was nonexistent, and whatever strength UCLA has on the D line that translated into a good run defense didn’t translate into a pass rush. Or maybe UCLA’s secondary was so crummy that the ball got out before UCLA’s rushers could get anywhere near the QB anyway.

If you want to watch UCLA’s iffy pass defense play out, check out this video of every offensive snap from that insane game vs. Washington State last year:

If you don’t have the time to watch 45 minutes of bad defense, just go to the 11:10 mark of the video and watch back-to-back plays. On the first play, UCLA’s linebackers hand off a WSU receiver to the safeties behind them in zone too early, or maybe the safeties are playing too deep. Either way, there’s a gigantic gap in the middle of the field that’s easy for WSU to exploit for a 23 yard gain.

On the very next play, a WSU receiver is lined isolated on the left side of the field against a UCLA corner. The WR gets an easy clean release to the outside and has a solid 3-4 yards of space to haul in a catch well before the safety gets anywhere near the play.

Two plays, one a failure of zone coverage and the other a failure of man coverage, both entirely representative of the struggles UCLA had on pass defense all season long.

Honestly, after reviewing everything, I heartily concur with Chip Kelly’s show of faith in their defensive coordinator. Let’s all eight clap everybody!

Personnel

Starters vs. Colorado:

Defensive line: Sr. Datona Jackson, Sr. Osa Odighizuwa
Linebackers: Jr. Bo Calvert, Jr. Caleb Johnson, Jr. Mitchell Agude, Fr. Damian Sellers
Secondary: Jr. Jay Shaw, Sr. Obi Eboh, Sr. Qwuantrezz Knight, Jr. Quentin Lake, Jr. Stephan Blaylock

UCLA nominally plays just two defensive linemen, but generally one or both of their OLBs will line up like a defensive end. Odighizuwa is 100% the dangerman to watch. He didn’t get any all-conference recognition last year but probably deserved to. He’s the only returner on the UCLA defense of note.

UCLA’s defensive starters appear relatively experienced, and I suppose they are in terms of years playing football. But it’s not a team that has played together particularly. Knight and Eboh are both grad transfers (From Kent St. and Stanford, who both had bad defenses last year) and Caleb Johnson just arrived from the JC ranks. The rest of the linebackers are all new starters who generally saw some time in back up roles last year. Really, only Odighizuwa, Lake, and Blaylock are Shaw are returning starters.

Back up DBs Jonjon Vaughns and Mo Osling also saw action, along with LB Carl Jones, but nobody else on the defensive depth chart really registered on the box score

Performance vs. Colorado

Well, let’s just check in on the box score:

In some ways, 48 points feels unfair for the UCLA defense. After all, they didn’t turn the ball over 4 times (plus two turnovers on downs) and Colorado had three touchdown drives of 25, 7, and 1 yard. One could argue that UCLA’s defense really only gave up 27 points!

But in other ways, UCLA’s defense was let off the hook. Colorado pass the ball at will, had multiple long touchdown drives, and then let their foot off the gas after building up a gigantic lead thanks to all of the turnovers. Colorado ran the ball 64% of the time despite averaging 3.4 more yards/play when they threw. They consciously chose to run clock and try to shorten the game rather than run up the score. I think Colorado could’ve gone for more points in this game if they had needed to.

If you’re interested in more UCLA pass coverage problems, go to the 5:00 mark of this video:

Just like the WSU highlights above, you start by watching a WR run a simple in route across the field with no UCLA zone coverage defenders near him, and then watch a WR beat his man to the spot on a quick slant. All of the same problems as last year. UCLA’s linebackers also generally struggled to find Colorado’s tight end throughout. It was ugly, as you would expect from any game where the opponent pushes for 50 points.

Keys to the game

Don’t run at or double team Odighizuwa

He’s UCLA’s best player, and likely a guy who will win one on one battles against Cal’s line. There’s a reason that UCLA’s run defense is noticeably better than their pass defense.

Exploit UCLA’s inexperienced linebackers, especially in coverage

Wheel routes, tight ends, running backs, crossing routes . . . anything that forces UCLA’s linebackers to make decisions and plays in space is likely an advantage for Cal.

Win battles in the secondary

For the first time in years, Cal should have a pretty clear experience/talent advantage at wide receiver. Nikko Remigio, Kekoa Crawford, Makai Polk, and Trevon Clark should be able to find space in zones, beat single coverage, and generally make life miserable for a cobbled together UCLA secondary.