This upcoming Saturday night, the Bruins head back to the Rose Bowl after a tough 34-27 win on the road over Utah. They'll face off against UC Berkeley or the California Golden Bears, a team that has struggled mightily to start the year at 1-4 (0-2 in Pac-12). They have played a pretty tough slate objectively, having lost to undefeated Oregon and Ohio State, one loss Northwestern and a seemingly resurgent Washington State program. Their sole win was a eerily close 37-30 victory over the 3-3 Portland State Vikings of the Big Sky League.
As you may be aware, Cal actually beat the hell out of the Bruins last year in what is the biggest blemish on Coach Mora's career at UCLA. The score of that game was 43-17, Brett Hundley threw 4 interceptions and Zach Maynard and Keenan Allen looked like Aaron Rodgers and Desean Jackson reborn. After that win, Cal beat Washington State and then lost their last 5. That stretch was enough to end the Jeff Tedford era at Berkeley.
Tedford was replaced by Sonny Dykes, a coach that I have actually been a fan of since his time as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech (Mike Leach coaching tree). Dykes has a pretty solid resume, having spent the last three years as Head Coach at Louisiana Tech, where he turned a relative nobody into one of the most prolific offenses in college football. Before getting hired there, he was at Texas Tech as a wide receivers coach from 2000-2006 and served as offensive coordinator or co-offensive coordinator his last three years. He then moved to run the offense and coach quarterbacks at Arizona from 2007-2009, the (Nick Foles-Willie Tuitama teams that embarrassed CRN three times).
Dykes is a offensive-minded guy, who along with offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has Cal playing at a pretty high level on that side of the ball. The defense is another story. Part of that seems like it has been injuries, part of it is that they just aren't very good on that side of the ball. Their DC is Andy Buh, who seems like a guy who knows how to coach. Buh spent a couple seasons as the co-defensive coordinator at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh; but it is a bit of a red flag that Harbaugh didn't take him to the NFL with him. Buh floated around coaching linebackers at WIsconsin and as DC at Nevada before being hired by Dykes.
I'll also take a look at Cal's special teams play to preview that part of the game.
They've been pretty decent at defending returns of kickoffs (ranking 33rd allowing 19 yards per return), but punts are a much different story as Cal has allowed 2 PR TD (only 4 teams in the country have done that) and give up over 20 yards per return. Look out for Shaq Evans on those this week, as UCLA ranks 16th in the NCAA in PR yards.
The Bear's return game on punt has been mostly non-existent, only 8 returns for 40 yards (good for 92nd in the NCAA). The two guys that have fielded those so far are Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper. Those two WR are plenty talented, but haven't done anything on this end thus far. Don't expect UCLA to give up a ton here, having only allowed 4 returns for 22 yards so far.
Kickoff returns have been much better to the Bears, ranking 65th in the country at over 21 yards per return. Most of that damage has been done by true freshman Khalfani Muhammad from Sherman Oaks. Muhammad is a track guy and a threat to break one, having a long return of 42 yards and averaging 23.2 on his total of 12 returns. Treggs has also fielded a couple of these, as well as the explosive Brendon Bigelow.
I trust UCLA's kickoff return coverage team against anyone though. They've been elite this year (9th in the country, giving only 16 yards per return.
The Bear's punter is Cole Leininger, who is averaging 42.4 yards per punt, but due to the return TDs, his net punting average is only 35.7 (91st in NCAA). 5 of his 27 punts have landed inside the 20.
While the punting game has had ups and downs, the kicking game is a bright spot and is one of the few places that the Bears have a clear edge over the Bruins. Vincenzo D'Amanto has started the year 11-12, having his only miss be a 46-yarder against Portland State. If the Bears get in FG range, they'll probably get points unless the turn it over.
There you go, look forward to the offensive and defensive previews in the upcoming days and the game on Saturday night. Until then, Go Bruins!