The UCLA Bruins come to town on Saturday for a rare afternoon (1:30 pm) kickoff. This game has huge Pac-12 South implications. The Bruins (7-3, 4-3) still control their own destiny despite losing at home to Washington State last weekend. Utah (8-2, 5-2) needs to win out and needs USC to lose at least one of their remaining two games to capture the South crown.
UCLA’s defense is coached by Tom Bradley, who is in his first season with UCLA. Bradley is a longtime Penn State assistant coach and spent 2014 with West Virginia. Entering 2015, the UCLA defense was stacked with names like Eddie Vanderdoes on the defensive line, Myles Jack at linebacker and Fabian Moreau at cornerback. Fast forward to the first week of October, and all three players had suffered season ending injuries, and Jack has left the program entirely to prepare for the NFL draft.
Despite the loss of potentially three First Team All-Pac-12 players, the Bruins have plenty of talent to fill in, and Bradley has put together a pretty darn good defense. The Bruins rank in the top half of the conference in pass defense, scoring defense, and yards allowed per game. The noticeable deficiency is in run defense, where UCLA ranks seventh in conference allowing 4.37 yards per carry.
Coming into the season, the Bruins ran a 3-4 base defense under former defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich and head coach Jim Mora. Tom Bradley likes to run a 4-3 base, so the Bruins have moved between the two base sets depending on the opposition, though even Mora admits it is more of a 4-3 defense at this point. That being said, UCLA will run pretty much whatever defensive scheme they think provides the best matchup, opening games in a 3-3-5 several times this season.
Defensive tackle Kenny Clark is a monster on the defensive line for UCLA. The 6-3 310 lb. junior has been a disruptive force all season for the Bruins, tied for first on the team with five sacks, second with eight tackles for a loss and third on the team in tackles with 53. At end, 6-2 250 lb. Takkarist McKinley can bring pressure, with 4.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles. 6-3 305 lb junior defensive tackle Eli Anouku and 6-2 275 lb. sophomore defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Marnier will see steady rotation.
The linebacker position has been snakebitten with injuries this year. Myles Jack was lost for the season, Isaako Savaiinaea suffered a high ankle sprain against Cal, and Kenny Young had to leave the game against Colorado. The result is, Junior inside linebacker Jayon Brown, who is not even listed as a starter leads the team in tackles with 65.
Brown was expected mostly to be a contributor on special teams this season, however with the injury to Myles Jack, was forced into a larger role. Sophomore inside linebacker Kenny Young is second on the team in tackles with 54 and also has an interception and a forced fumble. Outside linebacker Deon Hollis is a talented player Utah will need to be aware of as well, with 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for a loss.
The Bruins have a very talented cornerback in junior Ishmael Adams. The speedster has two interceptions including a 96 yard pick-six to go with four pass breakups and 22 tackles. Junior cornerback Marcus Rios has stepped in at the other cornerback position with the loss of Moreau, with six pass breakups and 33 tackles this season.
At safety, junior Randall Goforth is the veteran leader with two interceptions, five pass breakups and 49 tackles. Sophomore Jaleel Wadood gets the start as the other safety and redshirt freshman Adarius Pickett is the Nickelback on passing downs.
The UCLA defense has recovered nicely from a rash of injuries to star players on their defense. Unlikely players have stepped up to become big players on this defense, and after a midseason swoon, the Bruins are playing well. Despite the loss to Washington State, the Bruins defense ranks first in the conference is pass defense efficiency, leads the conference in passes defended with 6.9 a game is fourth in opponents third down conversion and is second in opponents red zone conversions.
The positive for Utah is UCLA’s weakness is the run defense, however with Booker potentially out, Utah might not have the advantage as much as people think. The pass defense is pretty tight for UCLA, so it’s hard to imagine Travis Wilson having a big day through the air. Utah will likely stick to a conservative run first approach, using Wilson’s legs in combination with Joe Williams and a limited Devontae Booker to try and wear out the UCLA defensive front. Utah will likely have some success using this strategy, but as we’ve seen in the past few games with a limited passing attack, relying on the run might not be enough.