Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins 2018 football season! Each week we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 7 opponent: the UC Berkeley Golden Bears.
First year head coach Justin Wilcox took over a UC Berkeley squad that had really been depleted and downtrodden by the end of the Sonny Dykes regime, and got them playing...well, it wasn’t the best football, but certainly better than what had previously existed. Wilcox, being a defensive-minded head coach, changed the tenor of the program to be more hard-nosed and defense focused, and the Golden Bears tended to keep games close, though a final record of 5-7 showed they had a hard time finishing. Still, the Golden Bears were young, and as you’ll see, they have a lot of returning production on both sides of the ball, to the point where an improvement and a bowl trip aren’t out of the question.
Ross Bowers took over as the new starting QB in Berkeley after the Bears lost consecutive quarterbacks to the NFL (Jared Goff in 2016, Davis Webb in 2017) and he did an ok job. Bowers didn’t have impressive stats, but he was effective enough at times that there’s at least a glimmer of hope that he can take the next step forward. His biggest battle may be to keep his job, however, as a host of alternate options, including a transfer from South Carolina and a good redshirt freshman could push for the starting spot.
The good news for whoever plays at quarterback is that there are a lot of good weapons available at the other offensive spots. Patrick Laird ran for 1,127 yards last year, and he’ll anchor the rushing attack for the Golden Bears. Demetrius Watson returns from injury this year, and he anchors a wide receiver core that includes Vic Wharton III and Kanawai Noa. The offensive line was filled with freshman and sophomores last year, and now those players have a year of experience and should show steady improvement.
There are a few downsides to the offense, however. Outside of Laird, there isn’t a proven running back on the Cal roster, so injuries could cause some issues for the run game. And Bowers, as stated, didn’t exactly light the world on fire last year, so if he doesn’t show improvement this year, the Bears offense could find itself stalling out, or at the very least running through a variety of quarterback options to see if any stick.
Cal’s defense is an interesting case - with Justin Wilcox (a defensive coach who showed he was still extremely good at Wisconsin) as head coach and Tim DeRuyter (a former star DC at Texas A&M) as defensive coordinator, it was expected that the defense would improve. It was doubly expected to improve if you remembered that Sonny Dykes was regularly trotting out scarecrows and pretending they could play defense, so any positive level of play was bound to be a major improvement. Wilcox and DeRuyter got the Cal defense to improve to 79th in defensive S&P+.
The question, therefore, is how much of last year are we grading on a curve?
The linebacker play for Cal was the most solid by far, and with the three main producers (Jordan Kunaszyk, Alex Funches, and Cameron Goode) all returning, this should continue to be a good unit that will be relied on to help carry the Golden Bears’ defense. Ideally, this unit would be able to help out the rush defense, which was the Achilles heel of the Cal defense, and with a host of production from last year’s unit gone, the Cal defensive line will be thin and rather inexperienced, which could pose a huge problem.
Should they force passing downs, however, the Cal secondary should be able to hold up. DeRuyter utilized a pair of freshman cornerbacks last year in Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks and a pair of sophomore safeties in Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis, and all that young experience could pay off this year, helping a Cal passing defense that ranked 60th in pass defense S&P+ improve and become a strength. This whole situation should feel familiar to UCLA fans, who have watched a strong secondary be routinely nullified because the defensive line gave up rushing yards like a sieve.
I know the game is in Berkeley, and UCLA routinely has trouble there, and Chip Kelly teams have also struggled against Cal for some reason, and that the Bruins will be coming off of playing a physical matchup against Washington, but dammit, this is the Bold Predictions section, and I’m supposed to be making predictions that can never be thrown back at me should they not come to pass, so I might as well go all-out here.
UCLA wins a close game on the road 31-28.