What were you doing in 2007?
I only ask since that was the last year in which UCLA beat Oregon before the Bruins’ methodical 31-14 victory over a hapless Ducks outfit on Saturday.
Fittingly, the 2017 win mirrored that of 2007 - a victory over a backup quarterback-led Oregon team. Braxton Burmeister, deputizing yet again for the injured Justin Herbert, looked every bit the part of a true freshman quarterback thrown into the fire before he was ready. He finished just 8-15 for 74 yards with an interception, and he was inaccurate all game. He also finished with just 26 rushing yards as Oregon attempted to play offense with one hand tied its back.
Luckily, the hand Oregon had untied - its Royce Freeman-led rushing attack - was up against the nation’s worst run defense. And while Freeman got his yards, finishing with 160 yards and becoming Oregon’s new all-time leading rusher, untimely turnovers and odd playcalling doomed the Ducks in this game.
In truth, UCLA’s run defense deserves some credit for improving from the debacle against Arizona. While the raw numbers don’t look great - Oregon rushed 62 times for 246 yards - the 4.0 average for the Ducks was by far the lowest average UCLA has held an opponent to all year. UCLA also finished with 4 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, both season highs, in an improved effort to knife up field instead of playing conservative on the lines.
UCLA also shuffled its personnel, especially on the defensive line. After Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson left with injuries, Marcus Moore, Jaelan Phillips and Osa Odighizuwa combined for 6 tackles for loss and held Oregon to a long run of just 25 yards. Freshman nose tackle Greg Rogers also got his first playing time of the year and held strong against college linemen. The defensive line caused havoc all game and flustered a floundering Burmeister, who never looked comfortable in the pocket.
It’s an encouraging sign if you’re an optimist - a youthful defensive line causes havoc and allows for the linebackers to make plays. Kenny Young led the way with 12 tackles and had one of his best games as a Bruin. If you’re not, it’s just a one-off blip against a hamstrung, one-dimensional offense, and with better teams upcoming, the defense will revert to form.
On offense, UCLA was fine. The offense hasn’t reached its early-season heights in a few games, but it wasn’t needed on Saturday. Josh Rosen was solid, if unspectacular, finishing 21/36 for 266 yards and two touchdowns. He was hurt by early drops, but overall, he was fine. Not as accurate as one would hope, but also much improved in the face of Oregon pressure. The Ducks entered into Saturday as one of the nation’s best at sacking the quarterback, and Rosen only took two sacks and stepped up well into pressure on numerous throws.
UCLA’s running game continues to improve. Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olurunfunmi combined for 28 carries and 142 yards (Jamabo, 15 for 66, Bolu, 13 for 76) and looked more explosive and strong than they had done all year. In particular, UCLA found joy running left behind Kolton Miller and Najee Toran after the duo had struggled in the earlier parts of the season.
Oh, and Bolu also literally leaped over a dude for a touchdown. It gets more amazing every time you watch. So here are three more looks at it.
Bolu Olorunfunmi! Just WOW. #UOvsUCLA@UCLAFootball with the lead.— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) October 21, 2017
Watch: https://t.co/ZLABag9Ytt pic.twitter.com/8Xmi2PDINl
Bolu Olorunfunmi literally has “run” and “fun” in his name — and it’s appropriate. pic.twitter.com/uFthWpl143— Joseph Hoyt (@JoeJHoyt) October 21, 2017
UCLA's Bolu Olorunfunmi took the elevator up to the 3rd floor #UCLA pic.twitter.com/hrEXNXEOR1— Fanatics View (@thefanaticsview) October 22, 2017
Without the suspended Jordan Lasley, UCLA’s downfield passing game was somewhat mitigated, but Rosen had success on short throws to Theo Howard and finding Christian Pabico in traffic. Pabico finished with 4 grabs for 99 yards and his first touchdown, a 31 yard slant-and-go where he split the defense in two. All of Pabico’s catches came on third down to keep drives alive.
It was a workmanlike performance from the UCLA offense against a mediocre Oregon defense, and it got the job done. Jedd Fisch continues to piece together a fine offense that will have to do more and more to keep UCLA on track to finish in a bowl game.
UCLA now sits at 4-3, 2-2 in Pac-12 play with a brutal 5 game stretch left. The Bruins need at least 2 wins to become bowl eligible, and anything less than that puts Jim Mora’s job in some level of uncertainty going into 2018.
From the following, see where you can find two wins:
-at Washington this Saturday
-at Utah next Friday
-home to Arizona State
-home to Cal
Setting aside the Washington game as the most likeliest loss, Utah and USC look a lot worse than previously thought, whereas Cal and Arizona State look much friskier. Is it possible UCLA steals its first away win of the season and holds serve at home? Yes, and I think that’s the likeliest scenario (though I wouldn’t bet on it). It would involve the defense improving to being just bad instead of dumpster-fire bad like it was in the first half of the season and playing something closer to what it did against Oregon.
But is it also possible UCLA craters to a 1-4/0-5 finish? Unfortunately yes! If Saturday’s defense was just a blip, and Josh Rosen continues to press and make poor decisions, then this sure as heck could go sideways in a hurry.
But there were enough flashes from a youthful and more aggressive defensive line to suggest that UCLA can still right the ship. It may not look pretty, and it could get ugly, but it will most certainly be interesting.