Technically, the UCLA Bruins’ defense has improved this year. The Bruins spent most of last year as a bottom feeder, regularly ranked in the high 120s out of 129 total FBS teams. Well, they’re sitting at #102 currently. So, while this technically is an improvement, it’s not nearly where Bruin fans wanted to be.
Meanwhile, the Southern Cal Trojans are in the 48th spot which isn’t where they’re used to being, either. Under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, the Trojans have ranked in the top 25 in defensive categories for most of his tenure at Southern Cal. While they’re known for wide receivers and running backs like Adoree Jackson and Juju Smith-Schuster, Southern Cal has also regularly produced top notch defensemen. Names like Uchenna Nwosu and Rasheem Green come to mind as current NFL football players from the Southern Cal Pendergast system.
Let’s take a look at the defensive unit from across town.
One of the issues that Southern Cal is dealing with is inexperience up front. Two redshirt freshmen, Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele are up front alongside redshirt senior Malik Dorton, with Tufele playing in both the tackle and the end position. These three have played in all ten games and have seven sacks between them this season. If there is a weak spot, it’s here. I’m hoping this will lighten the load up front and open some holes for UCLA’s run game.
Brandon Pili is solid off the bench and has also played in all ten games while Connor Murphy has also seen action in four games.
Right now, one of the better linebackers with a potential career in the NFL is Porter Gustin, who is sitting on the sidelines with a season ending ankle injury that he suffered back in October. He had trouble staying healthy last year as well, but is still high on the list in tackles because of how much he produced at the beginning of the season. He still leads the team with seven sacks and ten tackles for loss and was a major blow to the Southern Cal defense when he went out for the season.
In his absence, juniors Christian Rector and Jordan Iosefa have filled in, with Rector moving over this year from the defensive line. He had a pretty good year in 2017 despite the fact that he wasn’t highly touted and actually finished third on the team in sacks and lead the team in forced fumbles last year. He’s still performing well, with 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
The heroes of this unit are definitely redshirt junior John Houston, Jr. and senior Cameron Smith. They top the list of defensive statistics for the Trojans. Each has a sack and Houston leads the team in tackles with Smith right behind him. Smith missed two games this year due to a hamstring injury, but returned briefly for their contest against Utah and then full game action a week later.
One thing that stands out to me among all of Southern Cal’s defensive statistics is their lack of interceptions. They only have two across the team for the entire season, even though their secondary is stacked with veterans who are backed up by a lot of freshmen. Senior safeties Ajene Harris and Marvell Tell III are the the two guys with picks this season and they had a solid third in freshman Talanoa Hufanga, but he suffered a season-ending broken collarbone two weeks ago when Southern Cal lost to Arizona State.
Two other guys who are performing well in the secondary are senior corners Iman Marshall and Isaiah Langley. They’ve each got five pass break ups and Marshall has three tackles for loss. They have 66 tackles between the two of them. These are the guys UCLA’s receivers are going to have to look out for.
In poking around a multitude of statistics for this write up, one thing that caught my eye is that Southern Cal has actually been penalized more than the Bruins. UCLA sits at #104 and they’re at #114 (tied with Utah State) in fewest penalties and they average just under eight penalties per game. Here is another category where the Bruins can poke holes in their game plan. UCLA has had bright spots this year where the penalties were under control and the team wasn’t backing themselves up into their own territory. Gifting these guys yards could kill UCLA, but if they can keep it together, they can finally take advantage of an opponent’s mistakes.
I really think this game is going to be good. Both teams are out for their own retribution, and between the injuries on both teams and the desire to not look like a total joke, I think we’re going to see some of the grittiest, and maybe even ugliest, football we’ve seen all year.