October 14, 2004

UCLA at Cal

We all know that JJ Arrington is the conference's leading rusher (144.5 yards per game) and Maurice Drew is right behind (138.2 yards per game), and they both have seven TDs and rank in the top 10 nationally in yards rushing per game and in all-purpose yards per game. But is that REALLY the story of this game?

Yep, you betcha.

This game is probably not going to break any passing records for either side. Last week Aaron Rodgers completed 23 consecutive passes. I'm not sure he'll get that many attempts this week. When you look at the statistics, it becomes pretty clear why.

But first, the rankings:
Cal is #8/9 in the polls, and UCLA is #28/29. Sagarin rates Cal #9 at 87.61, with the nation's 3rd-toughest schedule. UCLA is #26 at 79.64, with the nation's 57th-toughest schedule. With the home advantage of 3.19, Sagarin rates Cal an 11.5-point favorite. The oddsmakers think the Bears are better, though, making it two touchdowns and change.

The Bears were hurt by some injuries against USC last week, most notably Chase Lyman. McCleskey came back but is still slowed. The D line is nicked up.

UCLA is 4-1 overall, 2-0 in the conference, riding a 4-game winning streak where they scored at least 33 points in each win. Their only loss was to 5-0, #15 Oklahoma State (31-20). Their other opponents were weaklings, however: Illinois (35-17), Washington (37-31), San Diego State (33-10), and Arizona (37-17). (Sagarin ratings, respectively: #92, #79, #81, and #77.) So UCLA has proved it can beat up on weaklings, but it has not yet shown it can really handle a top-caliber team like the Bears.

Even against that weak schedule, the Bruins defense is statistically last in the Pac-10. They are dead last in rush defense (250 yards per game, 5.7 yards per rush, 10 rushing TDs allowed) and also total defense (415 yards per game, 5.6 yards per play, 13 TDs). They are also 7th in scoring defense (21.2 ppg). They are pretty good against the pass, however, ranking 3rd in the Pac (165 ypg, 4 interceptions, just 3 TDs).

Compare that to Cal's offense: First in rushing (247.8 ypg, 14 rushing TDs, 5.9 yards per rush), first in scoring (40.8 ppg, 5.75 TDs per game), first in total offense (510 ypg, 7.6 yards per play).

Let's put this into a little perspective. Cal averages 510 yards per game, but UW and Arizona COMBINED average 636 yards per game. Cal averages 7.6 yards per play; the next best offense gets 5.6 per play, and UW and Arizona average 4.6 yards per play. In four games, Cal has more TDs than any other Pac-10 team, ALL of which have played five games.

UCLA's rush defense of 250 yards per game compares to Cal's league-leading 88 yards per game allowed. The conference average for rushing defense (not including UCLA) is 122 yards per game.

When Cal has the ball, they should let the horses run. It's my belief that if Arrington and Lynch can get past the DL (and with Cal's big, powerful OL they certainly will), they can run right over the linebackers. The passing game should be used to keep the safeties honest against the run.

When UCLA has the ball, it is much the same story except it's not awesome running game against woeful defense, it's awesome running game against awesome defense. This is the best defense UCLA will have faced (although I admit I have not watched Ok St this year).

UCLA's line, like Cal's, is big and experienced. They average 326 pounds and, I believe, have more experience than USC's line. They're also tall, and everyone says that Drew slides behind them until he sees a hole, and then it's too late for the defenders to catch him. Since his seven TD runs have AVERAGED over 46 yards each, I would agree with that generally.

UCLA averages 5.6 yards a carry, very close to Cal's average and more than a yard more than the next Pac-10 team. The Bruins have 11 rushing TDs (seven by Drew from long distance, four in the red zone) and get 445 yards a game overall. They're 4th in the conference in scoring with 32.4 points per game overall and 35.5 ppg in their last four games.

Their passing offense, however, is not so awesome. QB Drew Olson has 8 passing TDs and 5 interceptions, and the bruins are just 8th in the conference at 204 yards per game. Olson also hits on just 57% of his passes (Rodgers has a stunning 76.8% completion rate, with over 80% in his past three games, and has thrown 9 TDs to just 2 interceptions). It should be noted that both Cal and UCLA have way fewer passing attempts than other Pac-10 teams because of their powerful running games. Cal averages 25 attempts per game, and UCLA averages 26. The rest of the conference average 36 pass attempts per game.

In addition, both Cal and UCLA have strong pass defenses. Both have 4 interceptions. Cal has allowed 4 passing TDs in 4 games, but UCLA has allowed just 3 passing TDs in five games. Cal allows 5.6 yards per attempt, UCLA 5.4 (OSU is best in the conference at 5.3). Cal allows 10.8 yards per completion, UCLA 10.1.

In short, this game is about two awesome rushing attacks and which defense will do a better job of stopping the other. Cal has the serious edge in this matchup. Most of the other statistical categories are a wash or further illustrate the difference in the defenses: Cal allows opponents just 14.5 first downs a game, whereas UCLA allows 22 per game. Cal has 3 sacks a game, but UCLA has just 4 sacks in 5 games against some of the worst offenses around.

There is one other edge the Bruins have: Their special teams are quite good. They have yet to miss a field goal (7 of 7) and have good kicking and punting games. Cal is no slouch in that area but is last in field goals (1 of 3) and kickoff coverage (23.6 yards per KO return, no thanks to Reggie Bush).

All in all, I have to give this matchup to Cal in a big win 9 out of 10 times, with the 10th a close game decided by a field goal. This is homecoming for Cal, fresh off a frustrating loss that will focus them. They have no reason to look past the Bruins to Arizona. UCLA, however, will be up for the north/south rivalry and will want to prove they can play with a good team and not just push cupcakes around.

The Bears, though, are just too good and too focused to let this be that 10th game decided by a field goal. Not this year, not with 65,000 fans hungry for Bruin, not with the Rose Bowl on the line every game, not with Tedford calling the shots. I think Cal wins this one going away, 45-28.

Go Bears!

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