At one point this season, the UCLA Bruins were ranked seventh in the country.
In recent weeks, however, the Bruins have lost two games and their most dynamic player to a season-ending injury. They did take care of business against California last week, proving they still have the ability to rise up and play well.
This week, Buffzone.com caught up with Jack Wang, who covers UCLA for the Los Angeles Daily News, to get his take on the Bruins, who host Colorado on Saturday.
Buffzone: After consecutive losses, UCLA got a great win against Cal last week. Is there a sense that the Bruins are back on track, or are there some bigger issues they are still working through?
Wang: UCLA is definitely still a flawed team, albeit one that should benefit from what is — on paper, at least — the weakest part of its Pac-12 schedule. Winning four of its last five games is certainly within reach, and getting a win against Cal was necessary to keep the team from a potential downward spiral. Still, I think the Bears’ defense was waiting to be exposed after relying so heavily on takeaways through the first half of the season. Most of the Bruins’ question marks are on defense right now, which is unsurprising given that they lost three defensive starters in the first three weeks. That the secondary was able to play as well as it did was encouraging, however, especially against a quarterback like Jared Goff.
Buffzone: Josh Rosen has had a really nice freshman season to this point, but how have UCLA opponents found their most success against him?
Wang: Josh Rosen has done more than just about anybody could have asked of an 18-year-old starter, but he’s obviously still prone to freshman mistakes. He didn’t turn the ball over against Cal, but had a few throws that could have turned into interceptions. While he’s clearly cut down on those types of errors since the start of the season, there are still times where he misses a defender waiting to jump a route. The key for Colorado will be to take advantage of those moments, and to pressure Rosen in ways that he hasn’t yet seen.
Buffzone: How did the loss of Myles Jack impact the defense, and do you think they’ve adjusted at this point?
Wang: Losing Jack was by far the biggest blow that UCLA has taken this season. The junior is obviously talented, but it’s his versatility that makes him so difficult to replace. He was a linebacker first and foremost, yet also had the ability to play safety or match up one-on-one with receivers. That allowed the Bruins to adjust their defense without making substitutions, which was particularly useful against the Pac-12’s many up-tempo offenses. The “next man up” philosophy is very difficult to apply in this case. It helps that senior linebacker Aaron Wallace is playing the best football of his career, and now leads the team with four sacks, but it isn’t really feasible for UCLA to completely fill the void.
Buffzone: The numbers suggest that UCLA is not very good against the run. How much of that was simply struggling against two teams (Arizona and Stanford), or is there a genuine concern over the Bruins’ ability to stop the run?
Wang: There’s genuine concern. Nose tackle Kenny Clark is a star, but he’s just one guy; even if he commands a constant double-team, opponents can still draw up runs away from the part of the field he occupies. Not having Jack or defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes has made run-stopping very difficult on the Bruins.
Buffzone: How healthy are the Bruins, and in particular running back Paul Perkins, receiver Devin Fuller and linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea, as they go into this week?
Wang: Jim Mora said he expects Paul Perkins (knee) and backup running back Nate Starks (concussion) are “on track” to play this weekend, but was less sure about Devin Fuller (head). I’d expect UCLA to be very conservative with all three of those players. The team would ideally like to have all three of them at full health when it closes the regular season at Utah and USC, and the Bruins’ offense has enough weapons elsewhere to get by on the freshman backfield tandem of Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi. Savaiinaea’s absence is less easy to fill. He has a good nose for the ball, and quickly became the team’s leading tackler after moving into the starting lineup post-Myles Jack.
Brian Howell: email@example.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.