For a month now, UCLA’s defense has appeared vastly improved from the versions that hampered every previous team under Chip Kelly.
On Saturday at the Rose Bowl, the Bruins could find out if looks are deceiving.
They will face a Washington State offense that is among the nation’s best, particularly when it comes to throwing the ball. Quarterback Cameron Ward leads a passing offense that ranks No. 2 nationally with an average of 405.8 yards per game through the air.
Ward is coming off the best performance of his career, completing 28 of 34 passes for 404 yards and four touchdowns without an interception to spark the Cougars’ 38-35 victory over Oregon State. His 141 pass attempts this season are the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision without an interception.
“He should be in the conversation with the top quarterbacks in the country,” Kelly said Monday. “He’s athletic, he’s sharp, he throws an extremely accurate ball. I think he’s got great ball location, repetitive accuracy. It seems like he’s doing a great job decision-making this year. He can obviously beat you with his legs.”
Ward’s rise has been part of a stunning transformation under new offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle. A year after Washington State plodded along on offense, averaging 360.7 yards per game, the No. 13 Cougars (4-0 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) are sixth nationally with an average of 532.2 yards piled up by a high-tempo attack.
Kelly said Washington State has smartly designed its offense around Ward’s dual-threat capabilities.
“He keeps a lot of plays alive,” Kelly said. “They spread you out, they make you cover one-on-one and put you on islands at times. It’s tough sometimes for a rush to get home because Cam can keep plays alive. You know, he makes the off-schedule plays along with the on-schedule plays.”
UCLA’s defense has been stout … against far lesser competition. Giving up 11 points a game against two teams from Group of Five conferences, one from the Football Championship Subdivision and another that was nearly shut out by Oregon State last Friday leaves plenty of room to wonder about the significance of that statistic.
The Bruins have been better against the run (giving up 77.8 yards per game, No. 10 nationally) than against the pass (giving up 186 yards, No. 25), though both figures are impressive for a defense that once gave offenses almost whatever they wanted.
Kelly joked that a good showing Saturday would involve not allowing Ward to complete one pass, but the Bruins would likely settle for disrupting the quarterback enough to make his team rely more on a rushing game that’s produced only 126.5 yards per game.
“You’ve got to make them do the opposite of what they’re doing,” said UCLA defensive lineman Keanu Williams, a transfer from Oregon, “so I feel like if we can do that, we’ll be in good shape.”
Talk it out
The Bruins’ offensive linemen have spent a lot of time talking about how they need to do a better job of talking to one another. Communication issues led to breakdowns in protection and a crummy run game against Utah, something they want to avoid the rest of the season.
The effort has been complicated by blending new starters and transfers with veteran holdovers including right tackle Garrett DiGiorgio.
“We’ve been trying to focus on getting all those guys to turn into one brain and one unit,” DiGiorgio said, “and just be able to get that job done.”
Most of the communication happens pre-snap, DiGiorgio said. After that, it’s just a matter of reacting and blocking the right defender as fast as you can.
Of course, talk can only accomplish so much. At some point, you’ve got to do it.
“Impose our will is a big thing in the O-line room,” DiGiorgio said, “and I think we have to do a better job of finishing blocks and sticking.”