It’s here — UCLA Bruins vs USC Trojans — and this one means more this season. Not only are your Bruins a game above .500 for the first time in the Chip Kelly era, the Bruins also have the chance to knock the Trojans out of the Pac-12 Title Game, if of course, Colorado wins this weekend as well.
Without any further ado, here is a full-on preview of the action to come this Saturday.
USC QB Kedon Slovis is completing passes at a high clip for the undefeated Trojans, completing 119-of-165 passes for 1,248 yards and 10 touchdowns against just two interceptions. He’s averaging over 300 yards a game through the air and has also accumulated 53 first downs.
His biggest area of success this season has been taking what the defense has given him and that was evident against Arizona State in Week 1 of the Pac-12 season. He completed 72.7% of his passes in that game and routinely found underneath, short-area passes for first downs and yards-after-the-catch opportunities for his receivers. He’s gone on to complete at least 68.6% of his passes in each game and is coming off of a 5-touchdown performance against Washington State last week that saw him complete four touchdowns in the first quarter to Amon-Ra St. Brown.
As far as UCLA, well we all know how that’s been going and Dorian Thompson-Robinson is coming into the game after his first outing of the season without a turnover. He has completed 57.6% of his passes this season for 699 yards and eight touchdowns, seven of which came across the Colorado and Cal games to open the season.
DTR adds an element with his legs, rushing for 236 yards and three scores on the ground.
Over the past three seasons, USC has allowed 1,274 rushing yards to quarterbacks and just in 2020 alone they have allowed 255 rushing yards to quarterbacks. That included 124 rushing yards from Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels alone.
DTR may have an edge there over a USC defense that has had trouble, historically and in 2020, at stopping the QB run. And that’s a huge advantage with how athletic Thompson-Robinson is and has been with his legs this season.
The Trojans won’t use their running backs nearly as much as the Bruins will but they have had success this season. Three different back have toted the rock at least 27 times, and have found success:
Markese Stepp: 31 carries, 135 yards, 2 TD
Vavae Malepeai: 34 carries, 132 yards, 2 TD
Stephen Carr: 27 carries, 130 yards, 2 TD
Combine that with the fact that the running backs have added 25 catches out of the backfield, and they certainly do need to be accounted for with spying linebackers in coverage.
Arizona State runs a similar offense in the sense that they can spread out defenses and have an element with their running backs contributing out of the backfield, and as such, UCLA ran more man-to-man coverage against the Sun Devils’ passing attack in the win.
UCLA allowed 14-22 passes to be complete in man coverage, allowing just 198 yards and keeping the Sun Devils out of the end zone in the process. Going back to the previous three games, UCLA hadn’t run man coverage schemes on more than half the pass attempts in any one game.
As far as running backs for UCLA — it should be the Demetric Felton show as he’s run for 578 yards on 111 carries and five touchdowns this season. Of his 111 carries, 19 of them have gone for 10 or more yards and he’s been a slippery player to tackle for opposing defenses. In fact, PFF has Felton tied with Jarek Broussard of Colorado with 32 missed tackles forced on his carries. Felton is also second on the team with 17 receptions and has 112 yards including 135 of which have come after the catch.
Felton is a true threat whenever he has the ball in his hands and of course, UCLA fans remember his six-catch, 50-yard performance against USC last year.
The Trojans certainly have the advantage at wide receiver, and even pass-catchers as a whole. Kyle Phillips is the leading man for UCLA, hauling in 23 catches to lead the team, however, those receptions have turned into only 246 yards and one score. Tight end Greg Dulcich leads the Bruins with 312 receiving yards and two scores, but hasn’t recorded more than 28 receiving yards over his past two games.
USC, on the other hand, will absolutely test the Bruins’ secondary and second line of defense. They have five players with double-digit receptions this season and five different pass-catchers have caught a touchdown. Drake London leads the team with 330 yards while St. Brown leads the team with his four touchdowns and 26 receptions. There’s Tyler Vaughns, Bru McCoy and Malepeai who have recorded more than 10 catches while tight end Erik Krommenhoek is a goal-line threat to score each time they line up within the 10-yardline.
Battle in the trenches
While UCLA has the advantage as the better defensive line, this matchup will feature strength vs strength as the USC offensive line has been dominant this year. Alijah Vera-Tucker at left tackle has proven to be the Pac-12’s best, and maybe among the best tackles in the country this season. Jalen McKenzie has been a solid player on the opposite end and they have not had any trouble with either guard or the rotation at center after Brett Neilon’s injury.
The Bruins’ defensive line has proven to be almost as dominant, recording multiple sacks across their last three games. They’ve rounded into form after the Colorado game left them without many pressures in general.
Osa Odighizuwa leads the group with five sacks while Caleb Johnson and Michell Agude each have recorded multiple sacks. Mo Osling and Qwuantrezz Knight have also chipped in with impressively-timed blitzes for multiple sacks as well. Those, of course, are thanks to a dominant pass-rush that has freed holes in the offensive line for the secondary members to record the sacks. It’s been a total team effort on defense as of late but it certainly starts up front for UCLA.
Lumping in the linebackers here with nickel and slot defenders as these two units will likely determine the game for either side. USC CB Chris Steele moved to nickel cornerback in his last outing against Washington State and, well, was dominant for a first-time player at slot cornerback.
For UCLA, that consists of Knight, Osling, Elisha Guidry, Bo Calvert, Caleb Johnson and Carl Jones. Knight and Osling have documented success this season on blitzes but have also been terrific in coverage with five pass breakups between the two of them. Johnson and Jones have combined for an interception and another pass breakup as well with the only real coverage lapse among the second-level defenders being Calvert.
Calvert has shown well against the run this season but certainly has had his issues with keeping up with underneath receivers. His impact will be key towards the matchup against USC and their heavy-underneath attack.
For USC, the second-level of defense consists typically of CBGreg Johnson, CB Max Williams, LB Ralen Goforth (if healthy), LB Kana’i Mauga, and more recently, Steele.
First time ever playing nickel too. I’ll take it . https://t.co/dv0whbhwCx— Steele. (@KinggChris7) December 7, 2020
Steele’s played up to his recruiting platform in 2020, allowing just seven catches for 66 total yards in 2020. That includes outside cornerback targets in his first three games and then the slot nickel role against Washington State.
Goforth should be available after he was a game-time decision a week ago but didn’t play. As far as Mauga and Johnson, they’ve each had suspect lapses in coverage but have been otherwise solid in terms of limiting much after the catch.
True secondary players
For UCLA, the secondary has been a strength as well this season. Jay Shaw is playing his best football and perhaps even some of the best football for any Pac-12 cornerback. Shaw has recorded pass breakups in two games and had the interception against Arizona State. Opposite Shaw is Obi Eboh, who hasn’t quite been as solid, but certainly hasn’t been all too troubling.
The Bruins’ safety duo of Quentin Lake and Stephan Blaylock has recorded four total plays on the ball that include Blaylock’s interception and three PBUs from Lake. They also utilize the services of Elisha Guidry in support as Guidry has chipped in with two breakups himself. They’ll all have to be at the top of their game in middle-of-the-field defense to stop Slovis while also relying heavily on the outside cornerbacks to do their job and funnel in the aerial assault.
For USC, with Steele kicking inside, they went with Isaac Taylor-Stuart on the outside versus Washington State alongside Olajiah Griffin. Taylor-Stuart and Griffin haven’t allowed a touchdown in their coverage and Griffin has recorded an interception and two pass breakups. If they continue to utilize Taylor-Stuart and Griffin outside with Steele at slot is a question, but certainly, a good problem for them to have as each of them has played great football in 2020.
The Trojans also utilize a dominant safety combination of Isaiah Pola-Mao and Talanoa Hufanga, who should be watched closely by Coach Kelly and Co. Hufanga has recorded three picks this season and even had an incredibly athletic leap on an interception return in his bag this season. Hufanga patrols the middle of the field like a pro and makes plays on balls that aren’t even in his coverage look routine.
Trojans kicker Parker Lewis is a perfect 16-for-16 on extra points and has knocked home 7-of-9 field goals including a perfect 3-for-3 from beyond 40 yards. Lewis also had a successful onside kick attempt against Arizona State that gave them the chance to come back against the Sun Devils in the opening week. Ben Griffiths is averaging 44.7 yards per punt and has knocked eight of his punts inside the 20-yardline.
UCLA kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira has made 20-of-21 extra points and is just 3-of-3 from field goal range, including all three from further than 30 yards out. Luke Akers is averaging 42.6 yards per punt and has knocked in nine of those attempts inside the 20.
Felton leads all kick returners in this game with 170 on kick returns as neither team has had much success in the return game this year to think this will be a dependable strategy to hope for.
The Trojans are certainly looking like the Pac-12’s best team heading into this matchup with their first complete game of the year behind them. Their aerial assault got the benefit of playing a down Washington State secondary in terms of outside cornerback play a week ago — but that won’t be the case against UCLA. USC will have to find other ways around Shaw, Lake and Blaylock in coverage.
If the Bruins can rely on their quarterback to not turn the ball over, the key to this game will certainly be stopping the passing attack of USC but if they can force Slovis to make a few errant decisions in the passing game, UCLA has a chance.
One thing is for sure: The Bruins have the defensive line to push any pocket.
And maybe that’s the biggest advantage overall.