• John Skinner

2016 UCLA Preview

Team takes on Helton’s calm and resilient demeanor in the face of adversity: When most of the national media and Trojan fans were calling for Helton’s head after its 1-3 start, Helton stayed true to who he is as a calm leader and didn’t appear to let the hurricane of critics and hostility phase him.  His resiliency was a subtle yet very impactful example that resonated in the locker room. When you combine that with Darnold taking over at QB and having a similar demeanor on the field, the mentality of the team/program shifted away from the helter/skelter atmosphere of the past four years into one of consistency and confidence.  This combination allowed SC to go into an extremely hostile environment against the 4th ranked team in the nation and not only win but dominate them on both sides of the ball.  When SC turned the ball over or had misfortune strike, they responded well to the adversity and played at an even higher level…we haven’t seen that out of an SC team in about ten years.  Helton and his staff deserve a ton of credit for overcoming the negativity they faced early in the season, especially with impressionable college students.

Despite UCLA/ND’s records, it is still a tough finish to the season: UCLA and Notre Dame are both struggling with losing records but they have very talented rosters with both ranked in the pre-season national top 15. Both of these rivals will do everything they can to beat the Trojans and pulling off these victories from a mental standpoint will be a lot tougher than it appears on paper.

When you take into account that SC just pulled off a huge road victory at #4 Washington and are playing its second consecutive road game (albeit right down the street in the Rose Bowl), this is a bit of a scary game for a young team and new coaching staff.  Don’t forget these are college- aged kids and it is the wacky world of college football where unless you wear an Alabama uniform uncertainty reigns supreme.

A key factor to SC’s defensive success has been the offensive pace slowing down: One subtle adjustment the offense has made is they are taking more time in-between plays and are not in the hurry-up mode they were in earlier this season or under the brief Sark regime.  When you combine this with a great 3rd down conversion rate with Darnold at QB, the Trojans are winning the time of possession battle allowing the defense to rest and have more time to adjust to the opposing offense.  With limited depth along the defensive line, this shift has been extremely important and has been key in the emergence of the defensive line.

The defensive line goes from the weakest unit on the team to an unexpected strength: A major worry in fall camp was the defensive line from a talent and depth perspective.  The worry was more pronounced during the Trojans 1-3 start when SC was getting little to no pressure on the opposing QB.  However, with some defensive adjustments from DC Clancy Pendergast and the SC offense becoming more efficient and allowing the defense more rest, the line has become quite formidable and creating organic penetration.  Porter Gustin and Rasheem Green have continued to improve on their technique and are becoming one of the best defensive line duo’s in the conference if not the nation.  Washington supposedly has one of the best offensive lines in the conference but Gustin and Green seemed to be in the offensive backfield all day long.   With his long blonde hair and large stature, Gustin is starting to remind us of the dominance of Clay Matthews while Green might have a little Leonard Williams in him.

A quick look at the Bruins: UCLA has not been beaten by more than 10 points all year and most of the losses came down to the last possession.  UCLA has the defensive firepower and special teams threat in Ishmael Adams to keep the game close. The UCLA defense is arguably the best in the conference and only gave up one touchdown in their loss to #10 Colorado.  DL Takkarist McKinley has 10 sacks, 46 tackles (18 for loss) and more importantly he gets in the head of opponents. He is expected to be a top three pick in the upcoming NFL draft.  Fellow lineman Eddie Vandervoes and Linebackers Jayon Brown (leads conference in total tackles) and Kenny Young make this a very formidable group that will test the Trojans protection of Darnold.  They have a very good defensive secondary and Fabian Moreau should be able to give Juju Smith-Schuster all he can handle.

Offensively, UCLA has a below average rushing attack and the offense in the hands of walk-on QB Mike Fafaul who sits behind a struggling offensive line.  Fafaul has put up decent numbers since taking over for Josh Rosen, but he also throws an interception per every 20 passing attempts and has yet to face a defense playing the way SC is right now.  Tight End Nate Iese, his #1 target and one of the better tight ends in the league hurt his knee against Oregon State and is a game time decision.  It would be a huge blow to their offense if he does not play.  WR Darren Andrews appears to be his second favorite target.  Ishmael Adams is always a threat for a major kick/punt return but UCLA’s special teams coverage and poor punting has hurt them quite a few times this season.

Bruin game-plan and SC’s keys to a victory:  UCLA will want to make this an ugly, low-scoring game in hopes of getting the Trojans to play un-disciplined. This game-plan almost paid off at Colorado a few weeks ago but special teams’ blunders cost them from being able to win the game.  Offensively, they will have a tough time running on the Trojans so they will most likely rely on screens in the flats and in the middle beneath linebacker coverage.  Defensively, it will be all about taking SC’s running game away and trying to take advantage of Darnold’s willingness to try and fit balls into tight windows to create interception opportunities.  The Bruins will look to do something similar to the 2006 13-9 upset of the Trojans.

On the flip side, look for SC to try and rely on its defensive line to create organic pressure and disguise coverages against the Bruin walk-on QB which should lead to multiple interception opportunities.  Offensively, SC needs to play disciplined and methodical and eventually wear down the Bruin defense. Look for SC to continue to involve the tight ends and with Justin Davis healthier, he will likely be used as a receiver out of the backfield.  The only way SC loses this game is with multiple turnovers and 10+ penalties.  A disciplined effort should lead to a double digit victory.

Third-Down efficiency will be the key: UCLA has one of the best third down defenses in the country while SC has one of the best third down offenses with Darnold at QB.  One thing to keep in mind: Washington the best third down defense in the country, but SC had an above average 54% conversion rate in the 26-13 victory.

UCLA secondary stingy in the red zone: UCLA has not given up a passing touchdown while forcing six interceptions in its last four games.  Three of those four games featured good QB’s in WSU’s Luke Falk; Utah’s Troy Williams and Colorado’s Sofa Liufau.

Don’t blitz against Darnold: With a 73.8% completion rate against the blitz while throwing 9 td’s to just 1 interception, you better think twice when blitzing him.  Against Washington, Darnold was 7-9 on the ten plays that Washington blitzed and was only sacked once.

UCLA back-up QB’s have history of success as underdogs vs. SC: In 1966, Norm Dow started in place of the injured Gary Beban and guided UCLA to a 14-7 victory.  Walk-on Jon Barnes led the Bruins back from 14 points down to a 38-37 victory over SC in 1992 while throwing for 385 yards and 3 TD’s.   In perhaps the most painful of these losses, walk-on Patrick Cowan led the Bruins to a 13-9 victory in 2006 and denied SC the chance to play for a national title.  Ironically, like Fafaul, Cowan took over mid-season and lost four straight before beating Oregon State.

Important QB commitment from Darnold’s old high school teammate QB Jack Sears: SC picked up a significant recruit this week with the verbal commitment of four-star QB Jack Sears.  He is considered one of the nation’s best multi-purpose high school QB’s in the country and will provide SC with a solid back-up next season after Browne transfers.  Sears ran a 4.72 40 at the opening while Darnold ran a 4.90…In 11 games this season, Sears has 700-yards rushing and seven touchdowns to go along with 1660-yards passing and 24 scores through the air.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits:

*JK McKay admits that hiring Sarkisian was a mistake but did tell anyone that would listen this spring that Clay Helton would end up being a head coach the Trojan nation would be proud of once things settled down…

*The spread for Saturday night’s game favors SC by 13.5 points.  The spread originally opened at 10

*The SC offensive line has only given up five sacks in the past eight games

*For the third consecutive year, SC’s Graduation Success Rate for student-athletes is at an all-time high of 83% according to the NCAA.  This is 17% higher than it was 10 years ago…Former AD Pat Haden deserves some credit for this important statistic.

*Through 10 games, TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe has four touchdown receptions and no SC tight end has had more than four since 2012.

*Injury news: Defensive tackle Josh Fatu is most likely out with a sprained ankle.  Fellow Defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu is still dealing with a sprained knee and won’t be 100%.

*As much as SC’s victory over Washington validated the current win streak, a loss to UCLA would invalidate much of the progress the Trojans have made.