The Deseret News caught up with Ryan Kartje, UCLA beat writer for the Orange County Register, to get the inside scoop on the Bruins in preparation for their game Saturday night against Utah.
Deseret News: The UCLA defense has forced a number of turnovers and has scored often but has given up a lot of yards. What defense do the Bruins run? Will UCLA do anything different against the Utes? Do the Bruins expect to keep up the number of turnovers they are forcing?
Ryan Kartje: UCLA's defense definitely hasn't been what it hoped for so far — at least against the pass — and if it hopes to improve against Utah, the pass rush will be where the progress starts. So far, UCLA has been pretty ineffective at getting to the quarterback, with just four sacks in four games, so I expect defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich will be a bit more aggressive going forward.
UCLA most often runs a multiple 3-4 defense that will shift — early and often — into a hybrid nickel formation against the pass. That's when UCLA is usually at its best, taking advantage of linebacker Myles Jack's versatility. So far, the back end of UCLA's defense has relied on forcing turnovers and converting them into scores.
Amazingly, the Bruins have four defensive touchdowns already. That definitely won't continue at that rate, but if UCLA can get more penetration up front, it won't need to rely so much on forcing turnovers.
D.N.: How do the Bruins view Utah as an opponent? Is there any chance UCLA may be looking ahead to Oregon? Could this be considered a "trap" game for the Bruins?
R.K.: I don't think UCLA is looking past Utah; Jim Mora is pretty strict in his one-game-at-a-time philosophy, and I didn't get any indication that next week's game will be any issue this week. UCLA and Utah have had some close ones lately, last year included, so I don't think Utah will catch them off guard. UCLA has talked a lot this week about being prepared for a physical defensive front against Utah, so I'm sure that'll be a primary focus.
D.N.: UCLA has shown it can be one of the best teams in the country at times, and has surprisingly struggled at others. What has been the reason behind the inconsistency? Do you think the Bruins have overcome that? What team do you expect to show up Saturday?
R.K.: I'd say youth. The offensive line started the season with three sophomores and a freshman. Seven underclassmen play major roles on defense. And with all the hype surrounding the team, I think it's fair to say that UCLA's inexperienced roster wasn't ready for all the expectations to start the year. Now, I think they've moved past it somewhat; though, they've yet to play a team that's their equal or better and probably won't until next week against Oregon. Defense is the biggest concern, in terms of consistency, but after a bye and a long week after giving up 626 yards to Arizona State, it should be more consistent going forward.
D.N.: What does Utah need to do to slow down Brett Hundley and the UCLA attack? What is the health of Hundley heading into the game?
R.K.: I don't think Hundley's health will be an issue at all. His elbow looked fine last week against Arizona State, and it should only be healthier this time around.
As for stopping Hundley, the key will be to pressure him all game long — send blitzes, knock him down and force him into uncomfortable situations. When he doesn't have time, he has a penchant for getting antsy in the pocket and making mistakes. If Utah's defense can simply keep UCLA's drives short and force losses, then the Bruins' offense won't have the rhythm to keep things moving. Do that and Utah will definitely have a shot.
D.N.: What do the Bruins need to do get a victory Saturday?
R.K.: UCLA needs another big game from Hundley and a valiant effort from Paul Perkins and the run game against Utah's excellent defense. UCLA's defense is still a big, fat question mark, so showing progress with its pass rush and forcing Travis Wilson into making mistakes will go a long way. If they can continue to force any kind of turnovers, that would be a huge help, too.
UCLA's problem is that it hasn't turned in a complete performance on both sides of the ball. That'll be the goal on Saturday, with No. 2 Oregon looming large next week.