Welcome back to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the 2019 UCLA Bruins football season! We are taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examining their strengths and weaknesses, and making a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
It’s time to take a look at UCLA’s twelfth opponent: the UC Berkeley Golden Bears.
Honestly, I don’t do this a lot, but I do want to give a lot of sincere credit to UC Berkeley head coach Justin Wilcox. Part of this has to do with the low expectations I had for the former Steve Sarkesian defensive coordinator, but I didn’t think he had what it took to turn the Bears around and he has absolutely exceeded my expectations. The Bears’ defense is one of the best in the country despite starting with almost no talent thanks to previous coach Sonny Dykes’ insistence on ignoring defense entirely and the Bears were able to make a bowl game last year. That’s impressive, all things considered, and I want to be honest and give Wilcox a shout-out here.
Of course, the Bears probably would have had a better bowl appearance if their offense wasn’t awful. Being merely bad might have snuck them an extra win or two, but when UCLA’s bad defense was able to have the kind of performance they did in a road game, you have some problems. Still, going 6-7 in what is the tougher Pac-12 division is nothing to sneeze at.
And, finally, the less said about that Cheez-It Bowl performance, the better.
The UC Berkeley offense is so weird. They went through three quarterbacks last year, only one of whom was even halfway-acceptable, and are losing their top rusher and four top wide receivers going into 2019. The Bears’ offense was one of the worst in the nation last year and it is actually projected to somehow get worse in 2019.
Chase Garbers looks to have locked down the starting position at quarterback, which makes sense. He was clearly the best quarterback for the Bears last year and he had a solid mix of passing and running ability. But, at the same time, former UCLA quarterback Devon Modster is now here and available to play and, if Garbers falters, you’d think Wilcox might be more than willing to turn to a player like Modster who has experience.
Everything else is essentially new. With Patrick Laird gone, the Bears will now turn to Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy at running back, who were fine in brief spells but will now have to prove themselves with a larger load. The top four receivers are gone and, so, the Bears will be turning to a host of young, untested options to take over on the outside. These guys are definitely talented and, if UC Berkeley fans are to be believed, much more talented than the guys they’re replacing, but it’s still a huge loss of experience. The offensive line is also in a partial rebuild with only two full-time starters returning from last year.
On the flip side, the defense was already a top unit last year and actually has the potential to be even better this year.
Let’s start with the defensive backs, which were the best unit on the field for UC Berkeley last year and look to continue that trend in 2019. Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins were one of the best safety tandems in the conference last year, grabbing ten interceptions between them. Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks were effective corners on the outside with twelve combined pass breakups. Nickel Traveon Beck threw in three interceptions on his own. The depth is still there from last year. You did not want to throw on this unit last year and that trend will continue.
Moving on from the best unit on the defense, let’s turn to the best player in the UC Berkeley defense: Evan Weaver. The inside linebacker led all of FBS with 159 tackles in 2018, with 88 being solo tackles, to go along with 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He was also great in coverage, chipping in two interceptions and six passes defensed. Across from him on the inside looks to be JUCO transfer Kuony Deng, who has made a lot of Berkeley observers giddy with his strong practice play. On the outside, Tevin Paul was one of the team’s best run defenders and Cameron Goode is back after missing 2018 with a leg injury. There are a few more questions in this group to consider it the best unit on the team, especially with Goode and Deng, but it’s still incredibly strong.
The biggest question will be the defensive line. The relative weak spot of UC Berkeley’s defense was the run defense, which was only above average. On top of that, the Bears are down two of their top four linemen from last year. Luc Bequette is still around and he was excellent at causing havoc, but there are going to be a lot of guys moving into larger roles.
UCLA has two things going for it in this game: the game is at home and it comes at the end of the year. Even discounting how much of a home field advantage the Rose Bowl actually provides, just getting to play at home always helps. As we saw last year, UCLA has shown the ability to grow throughout the season under Chip Kelly, playing some of their best football by the end. So, with all that in mind, let’s make the last prediction of these previews.
UCLA wins 37-7.