Partly because of a barrage of injuries to an already struggling defense the Bruins have lost their last two games by a combined 36-point margin, have fallen out of the top 25 and going into Thursday night's game against Cal in the Rose Bowl they have the look of a team whose season is about to unravel. They lead the league in penalties, have trouble sustaining drives and are next to last in pass efficiency.
Much more was expected of this team, coming off a 10-3 season that included a bowl victory and returning the conference's leading rusher. But after that fast start the Bruins were upset by Arizona State at home, 38-23, and crushed by Stanford, 56-35.
Trying to put a good spin on things, head coach Jim Mora says his troops are bearing up during the disappointments.
"If you came to our practices you'd have a tough time telling if were 6-0, 0-6 or 4-2," he said during the coache' conference call. "And I think that's how it should be."
That's fine as far as it goes, but with the Bruins these days it's not so much "How", but rather it's "How Many." Several top-flight players, mostly on defense, have been lost for the season because of injury.
The most prominent is linebacker Myles Jack, one of the best returning defensive players in the country who also dabbled on offense as a running back. But they also have lost defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes and defensive back Fabian Moreau.
Cal coach Sonny Dykes sympathizes.
"Myles Jack is a special talent," Dykes said this week. "I haven't been around many guys who can do the things he can do. If was a running back he would have been one of the top linebackers in the league, if not the top. There are just not a lot of guys who have that skill set. So anytime you lose a player like that it has an impact on your program.
"They've recruited well, they have depth. In our business it's the next man up. It's bad for college football to lose a player like Myles Jack. He's fun to watch; he 's not fun to play against but he's fun to watch. You hate for that to happen. Certainly has an impact on them."
Junior Isaako Savaiinaea has taken over Jack's spot, Eli Ankou is filling in for Vanderdoes and Ishmael Adams, who was suspened for the first three games because of a legal issue, has started in Moreau's place. Despite starting just three games, Savaiinaea leads the team with 44 tackles. His fellow linebacker Kenny Young is second with 36, while nose guard Kenny Clark, now the Bruin' most experienced down lineman, is third with 35.
Cal tight end Stephen Anderson said the Bruins defense looks pretty much the same to him, despite the losses. "UCLA is always talented," he said. "They have good athletes in the second and third string. I take notice of it (the missing players), but I try not to pay too much attention. I treat it the same way as if they were all the same."
Under new defensive coordinator Tony Roberts the Bruins have technically switched from a 4-3 base to a 3-4. Although at least against Stanford on virtually every down one of the outside linebackers was stationed on the line of scrimmage, offering a variation of a 4-3. Anderson believes the Bruins have stuck to the same pattern, even through the injuries.
"They look a little different here and there," Anderson said. "Myles Jack is the biggest thing. He guarded me last year and he is definitely the most athletic linebacker I've ever seen."
Vanderdoe' absence has also been significant. Stanford's powerful offensive line pretty much shoved the Bruin front-four backwards every play. The 6-3, 305-pound Vanderdoes could have made a difference.
Statistically the Bruin' defense is league's best against the pass (176.2 yards per game) and the worst against the run (215.7).
"I think statistics are sometimes the indicator but not always the true story. You have to keep it in perspective," Mora said. "Sometimes pass statistics are the least reliable because if teams are having success running against you they aren't going to pass as much."
That certainly was the case with Stanford, which had 301 yards on the ground against the Bruins, although quarterback Kevin Hogan was able to find holes in the depleted UCLA secondary.
On offense the Bruins are led by quarterback Josh Rosen, who a year ago was playing for St. Bosco High in Bellflower. The freshman is fifth in the league in passing yards at 261.3 yards per game and has thrown for a dozen touchdowns.
The comparison between Rosen and Jared Goff's freshman year two seasons ago are inevitable. "I think they're really similar," Dykes said. "I think Josh has a big arm like Jared had. He is pretty far along developing physically. He has good size. What makes those guys special is their demeanor and maturity. … He can make all the throws."
Dykes said he was impressed with Rosen while trying to recruit him. "What sets him apart and what gave him an opportunity to play as well as he's played as a freshman is his confidence," Dykes said. "Gettting to know the kid a little bit during the recruiting process that is one thing that stood out. He seems to get through the tough stretches and improve. When you get to this point of the season and you've started six games, you really aren't a freshman quarterback anymore."
The Bruin' have a couple of talented receivers in Jordan Payton (31 catches, 486 yards) and Thomas Duarte (23 catches, 348 yards). The offensive line has done a decent job of protecting Rosen, who has been sacked just seven times. That could be a problem this week however. Left tackle Conor McDermott, the best offensive lineman, and guard Alex Redmond left the Stanford game with injuries. McDermott is doubtful this week.
The best offensive weapon is still junior running back Paul Perkins, who led the Pac-12 last year with 1,575 yards or 121.2 per game. This year his per game average is down slightly (113.5) but he still a threat whenever he has the ball in his hands. Although the Stanford defense was paying particular attention to him, he still managed to break off some impressive runs. Stanford coach David Shaw said Perkins is "Stepfan Taylor like", comparing the 5-11, 198 pound Perkins to his school's all-time rushing leader.
The Bruins have a fine place-kicker in Ka'imi Fairbairn, but punting has been an issue. Matt Mengel has averaged just 38 yards per punt, often leaving opponents a short path to the UCLA goal line.
"I would say if there was a positive in the punting situation it is that we're not getting many return yards against us," Mora said, tongue presumably in cheek. "That's something."
Backup wide receiver Kenny Walker III, who was a punter at Kennedy High in Richmond during his prep days, was being tried out in practice this week and could punt against the Bears.
- UCLA leads the series, 52-32-1 count. The Bruins have won the last two games, including a 36-34 decision last season at Berkeley. Marcus Rios intercepted a Jared Goffc pass on the two-yard line with 51 seconds left to seal the victory.
- Adam' suspension stemmed from an incident in which he was accused of assaulting an Uber driver and stealing his phone. He was reinstated when felony charges were dropped, but this week a misdemeanor charge was filed with a November court appearance scheduled. Adams presumably will play this week,
- Payton has caught at least one pass in 22 straight games.
- Last year UCLA lost two straight after starting 4-0 then won five straight.
- Fairbairn has hit 35 straight field goals from 35 yards or closer. He is 22 of his last 24 overall.
- UCLA is the most penalized team in the league, being whistled 47 times for 448 yards. Some of them were very costly against Stanford.
- The Bruins are also at the bottom in time of possession at 25:57.