On Thursday, Bruins Nation caught us up to speed on the UCLA offense. Now, it's time to learn more about arguably the best defense in the Pac-12:
Q: Does UCLA own the most well-rounded defense in the Pac-12 in your opinion? What does it look like when this unit is firing on all cylinders?
IE Angel: In my opinion, UCLA's starting defense and especially our front-seven can hang with anyone in the Pac-12 and maybe even the nation (but unlike others, I understand that the college football season is more than a few games deep therefore I'm not going to make a 'Bring on Bama' shirt anytime soon).
Even without presumed starting defensive end, Owa Odighizuwa out for the year with an injury, our defensive-line has been aggressive and I would dare say we have one of the best linebacking corps in the nation with the feared Anthony Barr, reliable tackling machine Eric Kendricks, crazy X-factor Jordan Zumwalt and the precocious and versatile Myles Jack. I wouldn't trade these four linebackers for any group in the country. In the secondary, we are a bit young with four first-time starters, but we have shown that we have the talent to hang with some of the best receivers in the Pac-12. It seems like as the season has progressed, the defense has gotten a better feel for playing together and executing Coach Lou Spanos' scheme.
When the unit is firing all on cylinders, we're tied with Oregon at halftime.
gbruin: I can't say we have the most well rounded defense because our secondary has had some real struggles this year. The personnel there have been young and played conservatively, so our opponents have thrown down field pretty effectively. Part of that may also be that the Bruins' front seven has been really really good, holding stud running backs Ka'Deem Carey and Bishop Sankey to pretty modest days. Even when Stanford ran for 192 yards, it was on 50 carries, for only a 3.8 yd average. So our opponents may be throwing at our corners more as that's our biggest vulnerability on defense.
Bellerophon: I don't know if this the most well-rounded defense in the conference, but I think it's one of the most well-coached, if not the most well-coached units in the country. The young secondary has really come along much nicer than most expected this season and Lou Spanos' second-half adjustments have really been phenomenal. It'd be nice if they didn't come out flat to start games a lot of the time, but when they click, they are upper-echelon good.
Q: Beyond Barr, who has been your defensive MVP and why?
IE Angel: Myles Jack. Why? Your offense can be your best defense, and vice versa. Jack's not only a linebacker who roams the entire field, but he can play some pass defense too. Versatility is key in the Pac-12, and Jack can do it all. Honorable mentions include Eric Kendricks, Anthony Jefferson, Cassius Marsh and Jordan Zumwalt.
gbruin: I'll say Eric Kendricks at middle linebacker. Although the entire linebacker unit has been outstanding, he is really the rock that holds it together and lets the others flash. Defensive end Cassius Marsh has been great on the defensive line this year. The secondary has been the defense's weak area, but Safety Randall Goforth has played very well back there.
Bellerophon: Myles Jack is a beast. He's our Bo Jackson, a freakish athlete (and about the same height and weight) who can just do about everything we need.
Q: What has been your observations from UCLA's secondary this season? How do they matchup against a fast-paced, spread 'em out offense like Arizona State?
IE Angel: Entering the season, the secondary was a huge question mark, as both projected starting safeties left the team (Dietrich Riley due to medical retirement and Tevin McDonald due to the dreaded violation of team rules). Both starting cornerbacks from last year (Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester) graduated too. Enter first year starters, Ishmael Adams and Fabian Moreau. Both corners have had their shining moments and learning experiences, but they've been pretty effective against some of the better Pac-12 receivers. Surprisingly, most of the miscues and blown assignments seem to occur when redshirt senior, Brandon Sermons is on the field. Our safeties, Anthony Jefferson and Randall Goforth are solid if not spectacular and true freshman reserve Tahaan Goodman has had his moments too. Jefferson has a knack for turnovers and Goforth is always around the ball (knocked the ball free from Ka'Deem Carey in the Arizona game). Athletically, we match up pretty well against a fast-paced, spread offense since that is what our secondary goes up against in practice every day.
Bellerophon: There is a lot of inexperience in the unit, with our Bruins having to replace the entire defensive secondary after last season (Price and Hester to graduation, Riley due to medical retirement and McDonald due to
marijuana violation of team rules). If I was Taylor Kelly, I'd be looking to throw at whatever wide receiver is being covered by Fabian Moreau, as he is clearly the weakest link in the unit. Adams sometimes takes risks that hurt, but he can also make incredible plays and he's much more apt to make a jaw-dropping interception than Moreau. What will help is that both Barr and Jack have the athleticism to drop into coverage in the short-to-intermediate routes, which should really help out the secondary. Myles Jack could seriously play safety (and if he doesn't get any bigger in college, I could see a NFL team drafting him as a hard-hitting big safety).
Q: What's the best case scenario for the Bruins as a team Saturday? And what's your worst case scenario?
gbruin: The best case scenario is that the Bruins run the ball successfully (and not pound it up the middle), buying Hundley and the passing game a bit more time against the ASU front seven, and allowing the offense to be diverse and unpredictable. Getting a quick lead and making ASU play catchup feeds into our defense where the defensive-line and the linebackers can really put pressure upfield and help the secondary. On the other hand, if the play calling gets conservative and we see a lot of short runs up the gut and short drives, then the ASU offense will have the luxury of attacking when and where it wants, and forcing the Bruin offense to play catch up, which it has accomplished only once this season back at Nebraska.
Bellerophon: Best case scenario is that we dominate in all phases and blow ASU out by 30+. The best realistic case scenario is that we generate a few turnovers and turn those into points, sustain some long drives to give our worn-out defense a break from battling your spread offense, and come away with a nice 10-13 point victory. Worst case scenario is that UCLA falls behind early, can't keep up with ASU's offense, and we lose at home by 14-17 points, ending our shot at a third Pac-12 South title and return to the Pac-12 title game.
Q: How do you see this one playing out? What's your score predictions and why?
Bellerophon: ASU will be extra motivated following last year's heartbreaking loss to the Bruins in Tempe and with the knowledge that a win on Saturday clinches the South and books them a trip to Eugene to take on the Ducks for the conference crown. But I think the Bruins have more talent on the roster and despite some questionable coaching decisions (that will reek of conservative play-not-to-lose mentality), I think we will pull out another narrow win. My prediction? UCLA 41, Arizona State 38
gbruin: I hate making predictions because mine are never right and it undermines any credibility I have. But you asked, so...With all the talk of offense, that guarantees a lower scoring game, so I think this will be a tighter defensive matchup than anyone expects. I think the Bruins will have a bit of a chip by being home underdogs. ASU has had some trouble playing on the road. It's a huge game for both teams, so both sides should be pretty equally motivated, and I just hope the Pac-12 refs don't factor into this. So I see something close in the range of 30-27.