Friday, 25 October 2013

The 2013 Pac-12 Journey Game 63: UCLA dares to oppose Oregon's march of destruction

What teams are playing?

The UCLA Bruins and the Oregon Ducks.

Where is this game being played?

Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.

What time does this game start and where can I find it on my television?

4:00 PM (PT) on ESPN.

What is the point spread?

Oregon is favored by 23 and a half points (-23.5)

What should I watch for when UCLA has the ball?

Gary A. Vasquez/US Presswire

Can the Bruins even get a competent performance from its offensive line? Through injuries and poor performance, the Bruins have turned to three freshmen including two true freshmen on the offensive line and it led to disaster against Stanford last week. The Bruins were out-manned all day and could not have run the ball even if they did have Jordan James at running back. Brett Hundley is a great football player but he is still a little raw as a pocket passer and does not throw on the run nearly as well as you would probably think. This was on display last week as the pocket collapsed around Hundley and while he did manage to extend plays, he was not able to throw accurately on the run and that left the Bruins shut out in the first half on their way to one of their worst offensive performances in school history.

 In theory, UCLA should be better this week. Freshmen, especially talented freshmen like right guard Alex Redmond and right tackle Scott Quessenberry tend to get better quickly with each start and you would think that UCLA's line could not play any worse than it did last week. Oregon does have a very big and athletic defensive line that has been disruptive this season but they are not quite as imposing as Stanford's unchained animals. But then you remember where this game is being played, perhaps the last place in the country where you want to travel with a young offensive line. Autzen Stadium has built a reputation for devouring inexperienced players. With a night game and ESPN's College Gameday in town, the Oregon crowd should be as raucous as ever and they will be especially hard on a player like Redmond who was once a verbal commit to the Ducks.

UCLA needs to speed up the process in the back field. Hundley needs to throw the ball quickly and on time; receive the snap, plant his foot, and throw. If Hundley plants his back foot and tries to scan the field, he will get consumed by pressure. UCLA also needs to rediscover its rushing attack even if James misses a third straight contest. Run blocking is a heck of a lot easier to do than pass blocking and it is certainly easier to communicate amongst a young offensive line. In run blocking, the offensive line is firing out and dictating the play to the defensive front seven, but on pass plays the line has to sit back and allow the defense to dictate the play to them. This has been especially problematic for UCLA even before injuries started to mount. With a sophomore first year starter at center, the Bruins have had issues identifying blitz packages and adjusting protections all season. Oregon loves to play a very aggressive and attacking style and must be excited to see the turmoil on UCLA's O-line. The Ducks use a lot of complex blitz schemes especially with their "radar" defense that involves no one putting their hand on the ground which confuses the offensive line because they can't possibly decipher who is blitzing and who is dropping into coverage.

If UCLA can raise its game up front and Hundley can show more poise under pressure than he did last week then UCLA has a chance. If Hundley is slow to get the ball out of his hands and if Paul Perkins or Malcolm Jones can't finally step up and pick up the slack from James, then UCLA will get consumed.

What should I watch for when Oregon has the ball?

Andrew Shurtleff/AP Photo

The most fascinating chess match within this game is how Oregon will deal with Anthony Barr. The nature of Oregon's offense is ideal for neutralizing a great player in the front seven. The Ducks always love to run zone read but will be especially active with their bread and butter play on Saturday in an effort to handle Barr. It sounds counter intuitive but the best way to block an elite defensive lineman or linebacker is to not block him at all. The Ducks will leave Barr unblocked and run their offense based on what he does. If he attacks down hill toward the mesh point between the quarterback and running back, then Marcus Mariota will pull the ball out of the running back's stomach and run. De'Anthony Thomas will return after missing the last four games with ankle injury so Oregon should have no trouble running away from Barr. If Barr sits back and waits for the play to develop, Mariota will let his running back keep the ball and run away from him.

Analysts and talking heads talk at great length about stopping the Oregon offense and they wonder out loud what scheme exists to stop the Ducks. The truth is, there is no specific scheme or system that is built to stop a team like Oregon. The equation for stopping the Ducks is the same now as it always has been and it is brutally simple, defeat blocks. Barr or whoever is designated as the read man is unblocked and made irrelevant in the play but if anyone up front can shed a block and get into the back field, the play is dead every time. The rest of UCLA's front seven all must have a career day if UCLA is to have any shot at beating the Ducks.

UCLA can win on running downs but they will only have won half the battle because Oregon has developed into an elite passing offense this season as well. As great as Oregon has been on offense since 2007, the Ducks have always been deceptively one dimensional with marginally talented quarterbacks like Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas. Mariota has flipped that equation and has become an elite pocket passer who is also lethal on the ground. In past years, defenses could get off the field against the Ducks simply by forcing third and long but not this year. Teams can't easily force incomplete passes with Mariota playing at such a high level and with Josh Huff and Bralon Addison emerging as the best tandem of wide receivers Oregon has had in over a decade. This is where Barr can make his impact. He needs to beat future All-Pac-12 left tackle Tyler Johnstone and pressure Mariota into bad throws because as talented as the UCLA secondary is, they won't be able to hold up for long against Oregon's receivers.

Johnstone has to have a great game protecting Mariota from Barr. Right tackle Jake Fisher is banged up and unlikely to play and whether it's Fisher or true freshman Cameron Hunt at right tackle, the Ducks will have to dedicate their tight ends and running backs to helping their right tackle block Keenan Graham who has five sacks this year and has been a perfect compliment to Barr. Normally teams assign as much help as they can to Barr but that won't be possible for the Ducks on Saturday. Johnstone needs to play his best game yet or else UCLA could slow down Oregon's offense.

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