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UCLA Football Preview: Southern Cal’s Defense Is Finally Healthy

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After suffering a myriad of injuries, most players are back and ready to stop the Bruins.

USC v UCLA Photo by Keith Birmingham/Digital First Media/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Last Saturday’s game against Utah was nothing short of an abomination. Too many turnovers and three trips to the red zone without scoring led to an absolute disaster in Salt Lake City for the UCLA Bruins.

However, it is time to leave the past exactly where it is—in the past.

UCLA will face the Southern Cal Trojans at the Coliseum this Saturday and, as of right now, the Bruins are about a two-touchdown underdog. The Trojans are coming off a 41-17 massacre of the UC Berkeley Golden Bears and it’s looking like the USC defense is completely healthy after having three of their key pass rushers and other players out with injuries. Southern Cal ranks 71st in the country in total defense, allowing an average of just over 400 yards per game, but this number may be misleading due to the number of injuries the Trojans have suffered on defense.

The Southern Cal defense certainly can’t hold a candle to Utah, but they will put the UCLA offense to the test. Here is a breakdown of the entire unit.

Defensive Line

The Trojans will have four men up front, including redshirt sophomore tackles Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele, redshirt senior defensive end Christian Rector and freshman Drake Jackson. Jackson returned last week after suffering an ankle injury on October 19 and Tuipulotu was also back after missing a game. Rector recently missed a few weeks due to a high ankle sprain, but returned last weekend at Berkeley.

UCLA’s run defense is actually better than Southern Cal’s on paper, ranking 51st compared to the Trojans in 77th. However, this will be yet another situation where running Joshua Kelley up the middle won’t be an option as inside rush defense is very good with the starters coming back.

Linebackers

Southern Cal is a bit banged up on the line and the injury bug hit the linebackers as well. Redshirt freshman Abdul-Malik McClain was injured on October 19 against Arizona, leaving the game with a dislocated shoulder. He returned to game action last weekend against UC Berkeley and he is working his way back into the lineup. The crazy thing about this is that his brother, freshman wide receiver Munir McClain, is on the team and he suffered a torn ACL in the same game. Sophomore Palaie Gaoteote is still out, first with an ankle injury and now a knee injury. So, it is unlikely he will play as he probably won’t be practicing all week. Stepping in for Gaoteote will be sophomore Kana’i Mauga, who is fourth on the team in total tackles at 51.

The real hero of the linebacking unit is redshirt senior John Houston Jr. He is way out in first on the team with 98 total tackles including 2.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery and three pass break ups. He is definitely going to be the one to watch on Saturday and will more than likely make his way to Dorian Thompson-Robinson if the offensive line can’t hold.

Secondary

Southern Cal’s secondary has managed to avoid a lot of injuries with sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga returning last week after a shoulder injury. Redshirt sophomore Isaiah Pola-Mao will be joining him in the starting lineup at safety, along with sophomore cornerbacks Greg Johnson and Olaijah Griffin and redshirt freshman Isaiah Taylor-Stuart. Griffin missed two games but returned last week along with Hufanga. Hufanga and Pola-Mao have each recorded 1.5 sacks this year and every starter in this group has notched at least one tackle for loss.

This unit is short on experience and is pretty much in a state of rebuild this year. True freshman Chris Steele has seen a decent amount of game action along with Dorian Hewett, Jayden Williams and Max Williams while players like Taylor-Stuart, Griffin, and Johnson were all out nursing injuries. The unit was pretty much intact last week against UC Berkeley, which explains the resurrection of the defense and the Bears’ measly 17 points on the board.

Analysis

Southern Cal is finally healthy again and this is troubling. They can pin an opponent against the ropes when they have all the pieces of their defensive puzzle, but in rivalry games just about anything can happen. The key question is: Which UCLA team will show up on Saturday? The Bruins looked like they had turned a corner stringing three wins together, then got absolutely embarrassed against Utah.


Go Bruins!! Beat SC!!