The No. 18 UCLA football team (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) will close out the regular season in Berkeley on Friday afternoon with a showdown against California (4-7, 2-6). The Bruins will look to avoid a third straight loss, while the Golden Bears will try to close out the season on a high note. Here’s this week’s report from sports editor Sam Settleman – who can’t believe the regular season is already coming to an end.
Offensive scheme: Pro-style
Run Percentage: 58.9% passed, 41.1% passed
Strong: Haste Attack (sometimes)
Weakness: Call playback
The X Factor: RB Jaydn Ott
The Golden Bears have one of the worst offenses and one of the best prospects in the country at the same time.
It doesn’t make much sense, but hear me out.
Cal is one of 11 teams in the country to average fewer than 100 rushing yards per game. Take away the anomalous 354-yard performance against Arizona, and Cal is rushing for 73.8 yards per game — which would be second to last in the nation. On three separate occasions this season, the Golden Bears have rushed for 35 yards or less.
And yet, Cal’s rushing offense is led by one of the most promising players in the Pac-12 in freshman true Jaydn Ott. A four-star recruit out of Norco High School — the same program that produced Oregon-turned-USC standout Travis Dye — Ott burst onto the scene his freshman year.
One of the top freshmen in the country this year and likely a freshman All-American at the end of the season, Ott has already broken numerous freshman records in Cal program history with his unique combination of size, speed and agility.
Ott would reach the 1,000-yard mark on the ground Friday with 158 yards and 38 catches for 270 yards, reminiscent of the numbers put up by former Cal running back and Super Bowl champion Shane Vereen.
So what’s the problem?
Cal’s offense has been far from a consistent product this season. So much so that after a 156-yard outing against Oregon State two weeks ago that included nine rushing yards on 16 attempts, the Golden Bears parted ways with two members of their coaching staff.
After three seasons with the program, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and offensive line coach Angus McClure were let go for 10 Cal games through 2022. With coach Justin Wilcox, who has a defensive background, the Golden Bears’ appeal for the rest of the year is a mystery.
In the offense’s first game without Musgrave at the helm against Stanford last week, Cal played the first half like it has all season: passing more than running. For whatever reason, the Golden Bears threw 27 times in the first half and only ran the ball six times].
Unsurprisingly, Cal scored six points on two field goals in the first half, while Ott rushed for zero yards on three carries. When Ott started getting touches in the second half, the offense came alive. The running back’s 21-point second half on 97 yards on 15 carries sparked a comeback victory for the Golden Bears.
Cal has success when they trust Otto and the ground game.
Conversely, UCLA’s rushing defense has regressed in recent weeks. The Bruins held four of their first five opponents under 100 rushing yards, but have since given up 170.2 rushing yards per game in their last six games.
UCLA’s defense doesn’t improve through the air, while Cal has some weapons that could test the Bruins’ secondary.
The Golden Bears’ passing game is led by quarterback Jack Plummer, a transfer from Purdue. Plummer fits the mold of an average Pac-12 quarterback, with no rushing threats and a tendency to make poor decisions from time to time.
Beyond Ott — a common option out of the backfield — Plummer’s top targets are wide receivers J.Michael Sturdivant and Jeremiah Hunter. When neither of those two is open, Plummer often hangs on to the ball too long and forces throws to the wrong spots instead of throwing it away.
Plummer will likely give UCLA at least one chance for an easy catch on Friday. And if you feel like he’d be the first pick for the Bruins’ secondary for a while, that’s because he would be. The blue and gold secondary has just one hit since September 30th.
Interception or not, UCLA should be able to contain a confused Cal offense.
The Golden Bears’ offense is young and still trying to adjust after a personnel shakeup two weeks ago. If Cal decides to put the ball on the ground, Ott should have a good day with the ball and could try to break the 1,000 yard mark. But in the end, it won’t be enough to keep up with UCLA’s offense.
Defensive Scheme: Nickel 2-4-5
Strong: Takeaway food
Weakness: Lack of pressure
The X Factor: With Daniel Scott
Just like on the offensive side of the ball, the Golden Bears have largely shifted their focus to defense this season.
When the two teams met a year ago, Cal entered the contest ranked first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense. The Golden Bears dropped to seventh in that category this season — and ninth in total defense — largely because they got a lot younger on defense in 2022.
Cal starts defense with just two seniors — and a pair of true freshmen. Last season, that group was led by then-sixth-year senior linebacker Cameron Goode and then-senior safety Elijah Hicks, both of whom have since left for the NFL.
Its two senior starters, safety Daniel Scott and inside linebacker Jackson Sirmon, are undoubtedly the leaders of this defense. Sirmon scooped up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown to spark Cal’s comeback victory over Stanford, with Scott adding a late touchdown to seal the deal.
The forced turnovers proved to be the saving grace for this defense as the Golden Bears ranked 38th in the nation with 18 on the season — a ranking that far surpasses their ranking of 105th in total defense.
Cal is especially stifling against the pass, allowing 287.7 yards per game through the air, a mark that makes the Golden Bears the fifth-worst defense in the country. The lack of success against the pass starts with Cal’s ability, or lack thereof, to generate pressure.
The Golden Bears rarely choose to send pressure, instead often opting to drop seven or eight into coverage. With just 18 sacks on the season, he ranks tied for 97th in the nation in sacks per game. And given their numbers against the pass, dropping more players into coverage was clearly not an option.
Friday should provide the perfect opportunity for redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to get back on track after a four-turnover day in UCLA’s loss to USC. If the Bruins can take care of the ball, they shouldn’t be too creative to easily attack the Golden Bears.