Oregon offense, UCLA defense: One will solve its problems
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Oregon's injury-depleted offense and UCLA's battered defense have to be glad to be facing one another at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
The Ducks have scored a total of 17 points in two games since starting quarterback Justin Herbert broke his collarbone. The Bruins have allowed at least 434 yards in every game.
One team is going to solve its struggles. For one week, anyway.
"That's the obvious," UCLA head coach Jim Mora said. "How do we fix it? That's the job that, you know, we're trying to accomplish."
The issues at UCLA (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) have centered on a run defense that ranks last among FBS teams in yards per carry (6.57) and yards rushing per game (313). Giving up runs of 10 yards or longer have been an issue going back to the season-opening comeback win against Texas A&M. Arizona had 11 such plays to hand UCLA a 47-30 loss last week, including touchdown runs of 45 and 71 yards by quarterback Khalil Tate.
"Our problem is the explosive runs are just completely out of control, unlike anything I've ever seen in my career," Mora said. "It kills me. It rips my guts out."
Missed tackles have been frequently cited as a main cause of those breakdowns, and it has had an impact on UCLA's ability to generate takeaways. UCLA has recovered two fumbles and intercepted three passes, and as a longtime defensive coach Mora understands that turnovers come from either pressuring the quarterback or sound tackling of a ball carrier.
"Takeaways come in bunches, but takeaways, you create takeaways," Mora said. "Hell, we're just hanging on a lot of times even trying to make a tackle."
The absence of Herbert has allowed opposing defenses to focus their efforts on stopping the run and making freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister do everything for Oregon (4-3, 1-2). Burmeister is 18 for 35 passing for 178 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions in two games as the starter.
"It's not that we can't do it. We just got to execute and we can't beat ourselves," Oregon head coach Willie Taggart said. "We need more from everyone, coaches and players."
Here are some things to watch for as the Ducks and Bruins meet for the first time since 2014:
ROYCE ROLLS: Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman needs 140 yards to pass LaMichael James to become the school's leader in career rushing yards. Freeman would also pass James for second place in Pac-12 history, trailing only Charles White of Southern California.
Freeman has rushed for 4,943 yards and 54 touchdowns at Oregon.
Freeman is also 133 all-purpose yards behind James for that school record, while his next touchdown as a runner or receiver would break the tie with James for most touchdowns from scrimmage by an Oregon player.
ROSEN REBOUND: UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen is coming off his worst performance of the season after throwing for 219 yards and three interceptions against the Wildcats. Two came in the red zone, and the third was returned for a touchdown. In spite of those struggles, Mora believes the junior is finding a better balance between being aggressive with the ball and avoiding unnecessary risks.
"One thing I love about Josh is that he goes straight for it. And then you also have to balance that out with great decision-making, and I think he's really becoming really good at that," Mora said. "I can tell you this, I would always take a young man that is aggressive and has that type of attitude over somebody that doesn't because I think you can teach them to improve their decision-making but I don't know that you can always teach competitiveness."
CROSBY STILL NO SACKS: Oregon left tackle Tyrell Crosby has not allowed a sack or quarterback hit this season. However, Crosby's status for this week is still uncertain after suffering a concussion against Stanford.
UCLA is hoping to get its top pass rusher, freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips, back from an ankle injury. Despite missing the last three games, Phillips still leads the team with 4 1/2 tackles for loss.
TURNOVER TROUBLES: Oregon and UCLA have each turned the ball over 15 times this season, which is tied for 118th nationally. Both teams have been especially sloppy in conference play, with UCLA committing nine turnovers in its three Pac-12 games. Oregon has thrown five interceptions and lost two fumbles since Herbert got hurt.
"Turnovers end games. In general, turnovers are the great neutralizers that allow worse teams to beat better teams," Rosen said.