UCLA football boasts one of the worst defenses in the nation.
That statement may have been accurate any other day. But not Saturday against Oregon.
Players surged past the offensive line with ease, forcing Oregon freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister to improvise. Linemen and linebackers disallowed the Ducks’ running back rotation to navigate the game for three quarters of the game.
Though Oregon broke through in the second quarter and maneuvered past the Bruins’ barricade for two touchdowns, coach Jim Mora and company stayed in control for a majority of the matchup.
UCLA’s (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) stout defense relieved much of the weight on the offense’s shoulders and carried the team to a 31-14 victory over Oregon (4-4, 1-4).
And the defense made its presence known right away.
After a quick three-and-out by the Bruin offense, the Ducks’ Darrian Felix fumbled, prompting Jacob Tuoti-Mariner to scoop up the ball, giving his team its first takeaway since the Stanford game.
Then the offense got to work. After a few critical fourth-down runs by junior running back Bolu Olorunfunmi, UCLA put itself in prime position in the red zone.
Senior running back Soso Jamabo slammed into defenders on second and goal, then received a thunderous push by lineman Andre James, helping the running back propel into the end zone.
After thwarting the Ducks’ offense during the next drive, UCLA extended its lead.
Rosen snuck in a picture-perfect lead pass to Christian Pabico, who snatched the ball and scurried into the end zone to give UCLA a 14-0 lead. It was the former walk on’s first career touchdown as a Bruin.
The primetime quarterback celebrated with his best Thor impression following the score – if you didn’t notice.
UCLA’s defense swarmed Burmeister throughout the first quarter, forcing the slinger out of the pocket often. The Bruins halted the Ducks on the ground, limiting them to just 37 yards in the first quarter.
Burmeister, and Oregon in general, learned to adapt to the pressure.
The 6-foot-1 first-year eluded defenders frequently during his team’s third possession, mixing in quarterback draws with other running plays. He eventually capitalized on a seven-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to bring the Ducks within seven.
But he couldn’t work any passes into the offensive equation. Any time he attempted to catapult one downfield, he overshot his receivers’ outstretched arms. The one reception from a deep pass play was deemed incomplete after a referee review.
UCLA’s defense showed its potential – for a quarter. The offense exhibited some worrisome habits. Rosen spent time face down in the dirt on occasion as a result of shoddy blocking from the Bruins’ front line during the first half.
Oregon captured the momentum heading into the break with another rushing touchdown by Burmeister, but UCLA didn’t yield any points on the opening drive in the third quarter.
The Bruins carried the ball downfield from the three-yard line thanks to two key catches and a few critical runs. Sophomore JJ Molson notched a 42-yard field goal to cap the drive and put UCLA back up 17-14.
After a third-and-out by the Ducks, two drops from Jordan Wilson and Darren Andrews prevented the Bruins from gaining significant yardage downfield on the next drive. But Pabico made up for it, with a 49-yard grab, leaping in front of the defensive back to secure the catch.
Then Olorunfunmi took flight.
The bulldozing back vaulted over a Ducks defender, flipping into the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown. It didn’t look like the smartest idea, but it paid off with Olorunfunmi’s fourth rushing score of the season.
Oregon’s next drive didn’t last long.
Coach Willie Taggart resorted to his passing game with his team down 10. But his plan was foiled quickly.
Burmeister flung a deep pass intended for Dylan Mitchell. Yet Colin Samuel stood up with the ball in hand, as he wrestled the ball away – UCLA’s second takeaway of the game.
With an opportunity to get back into the game, Burmeister continued to be flustered. On a pivotal fourth down, he fumbled the snap, giving the Bruins possession.
Rosen connected with Andrews for the dagger on the next drive. Oregon couldn’t assemble any successful drives after the touchdown.
Overall, UCLA’s defense looked transformed.
Oregon, which averages more than 200 yards a game in the air, failed to garner 80 yards via the passing attack. The Ducks’ rushing rotation looked potent, thanks in part to Royce Freeman, who captured several milestones.
Freeman, with his 160 rushing yards, tied LiMichael James for the most consecutive 100-yard games with 26. He also became Oregon’s all-time leading rusher.
Nevertheless, considering how the defense has fared against opponents’ running games, Saturday looked to be two steps forward, rather than one step back.
UCLA’s offense didn’t post a ridiculous 500-plus yards Saturday, but it didn’t need to. With a sturdy defense, Rosen was not called upon constantly to keep the Bruins in the game.
Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch prevailed in the tempo game, alternating a stable running attack with a few deep tosses from the “chosen one.” And a few offensive drives lasted longer than three minutes long, which is a victory offensively.
The victory may have been a pyrrhic one, as some players suffered some minor injuries – but nothing too major.
As a whole, both the offense and defense look more promising than they did a week ago. And with a critical road matchup with Washington next week, UCLA surely hopes it can ride the momentum and ultimately tally its first top-25 victory of the season in Seattle.