The first two games that the UCLA Bruins have played have shown some glaring issues, one still being the offensive line. So far this season, the Bruins have allowed 11 sacks and been tackled for a loss 20 times already. That’s at, or near, the bottom of both the Pac-12 and the NCAA in both categories. While it’s still early in the season, this is extremely troubling.
While I wasn’t a fan of Wilton Speight getting the start against Cincinnati, the fact that he was injured within the first half of the first game of the season showed just how far the UCLA front five has to go before they can even call themselves “decent.” Speight isn’t exactly a great scrambler, but both he and Dorian Thompson-Robinson were regularly running for their lives, and the abysmal stats are the proof in the pudding.
The Fresno State Bulldogs return seven starters on defense and their experience is showing. The Bulldogs are second in the Mountain West Conference in pass defense, third in total defense, third in scoring defense. However, they lack much of a pass rush and don’t have many tackles for loss, something the Bulldog defense will be looking to improve upon with a weak offensive line staring them down.
Let’s take a look at each part of their defense.
In order to give Thompson-Robinson time to throw if he should be the starter on Saturday, the Bruins will have to exploit Fresno State’s weak pass rush. He is more mobile than Minnesota’s quarterback, Zack Annexstad, whom the Bulldogs faced last week. So, this is a bonus for UCLA. Speight is still listed as day to day and not nearly as mobile. So, I don’t see any way he starts, whether he’s healthy or not. Through two games, Fresno State has just two sacks and eight tackles for loss.
All four starters on the Bulldog defensive line are replacing seniors, but they won’t be starting a single freshman on the entire defense. Redshirt junior Jasad Haynes and sophomore Kevin Atkins will be starting at tackle. Redshirt junior Mykal Walker and senior Emeka Ndoh will bke the ends. Both positions have solid back ups with no freshmen on the depth chart.
Haynes leads his teammates by far with 3.5 tackles for loss, one QB hurry, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. While the pass rush is a weakness, Haynes can definitely make things interesting. While the Bruins can’t underestimate their offense, they can’t underestimate the Bulldog defense either.
This is another unit with a ton of experience. Seniors George Helmuth and James Bailey, along with junior Jeff Allison, who is on the Butkus Award watch list, will most likely get the start on Saturday, and will be looking for the weaknesses on the outside to get to the Bruin quarterback whomever he may be.
In 2017, Allison had 126 tackles, was honored as the Mountain West defensive player of the week twice, and was selected first-team All-Mountain West. According to the Fresno Bee, Allison’s coach Kenwick Thompson says, “He’s a physical player, plays fast. The thing that surprises you is that for a guy his size is how he moves and how he changes direction.” He currently leads the team with 21 total tackles.
Helmuth, this year’s defensive captain, leads the team with two of their three QB hurries, and has added ten tackles of his own, with 0.5 for a loss.
Fresno State’s secondary is loaded with nothing but upperclassmen. Senior cornerback Anthoula “Tank” Kelly leads the team with two interceptions and three pass breakups, and will be a force to be reckoned with for the UCLA receivers. Junior Jaron Bryant will start at the other corner while juniors Juju Hughes and Mike Bell will start at safety. Bell is right behind Allison on the tackle list with 15 total, and could negate downfield passing efforts.
I was more confident about this game before I wrote this up. Minnesota was barely able to eek out a win last week because a Fresno State trick play went wrong at the end of the game. Afterwards, Golden Gopher head coach P.J. Fleck said that Fresno State plays “like a Big 10 opponent”.
However, UCLA saw some marked improvement from week one to week two, and I’m confident that we’ll see improvement yet again. Being at home is yet another advantage for the Bruins, so I think they will take this one but you’ll find yourself stress eating and biting your nails for most of the game.