One of only four ranked games in college football on Saturday pits the #18 UCLA Bruins versus the #15 Oregon State Beavers in a showdown with profound PAC-12 and national implications. Here are five storylines heading into the Corvallis chaos.
UCLA Vs Oregon State: 5 Key Points Of Emphasis For Mighty Bruins
Goliath Vs. Goliath
The Bruins are arguably the nation’s best defense. Yes, I’m in need of a hypnotist after typing those words about a Chip Kelly team in Westwood. The Bruins enter battle ranked first in yards per play allowed and rush yards per play allowed while being eighth in scoring defense despite consecutive pick-sixes in two straight contests. UCLA has 18 sacks and eight interceptions in just five games and last week held the hottest quarterback in the country to 256 passing yards BELOW his season average.
This vaunted unit is going up against a physically imposing Beaver offensive line that is eerily reminiscent of the Utah squads of the past two seasons. Oregon State wants to run in order to set up calculated play-action risk. It all begins with the two-headed monster at running back, Damien Martinez and Deshaun Fenwick, both of whom seek to embrace contact with their 220+ pound frames, respectively. The two have combined for 916 yards rushing and seven touchdowns in just six games.
The run-first, run-often mentality then allows former five-star Southern California native, DJ Uiagalelei to push the ball vertically down the field. A resurgent year after two head-scratcher seasons with the Clemson Tigers, DJU has found a resurgent mojo under the tutelage of Jonathon Smith, to the tune of a 61% completion rate, 1,307 passing yards, 13 touchdowns against only four interceptions. It’s often forgotten that DJU was a decorated, program-defining type prospect, sandwiched amidst the likes of Bryce Young and CJ Stroud.
DJU’s renaissance is primarily predicated on offensive clarity with his options. His three primary outside weapons are uniquely complementary while equally dangerous. Silas Bolden is the Beavers gadget big-play receiver, akin to Percy Harvin at Florida, D’Anthony Thomas at Oregon, or more recently, Zachariah Branch at USC. Bolden is the team’s leading receiver with 27 receptions for 369 yards and three touchdowns.
Bolden’s running mate is the prototypical slot possession pass catcher in Anthony Gould, whose 20 catches for 356 yards and two touchdowns, have a deceptively high 17.8 yards per catch given his ability to set up his intermediate routes with surgical double moves.
The final piece to the offensive puzzle for the Beavers is Jack Velling, who is DJU’s favorite red zone target as evidenced by his team-leading five touchdown receptions. All told, the Beavers have complete offensive clarity – a frightening proposition for a 10-3 team in 2022 that upgraded from the interception-prone Chance Nolan to the reigning PAC-12 Player of the Week in DJU.
The Ultimate Redo
The Bruins offensive line is going up against a physically imposing front seven in a hostile environment against a team with a chip on its shoulder for not getting enough national exposure as a PAC-12 title contender. Sound familiar? This game could be renamed “Utah II.” The biggest challenge that day was an offensive line trying to find any semblance of containment at the line of scrimmage. How much this group has physically, emotionally, and tactically matured in three weeks will be the tale of the tape as the strength of this Beavers defense is a combination of rangy linebackers, crafty edge rushers, and fearless bump-and-run corners.
The man who sets the tone for the Beavers is Easton Mascarenas-Arnold, a Rey Maualuga-like line-backing specimen, who leads the team with 50 tackles and two interceptions. The Bruins will need to counter this defensive prowess in three ways.
First, Chip Kelly must continue emphasizing the run game, regardless of yards per carry effectiveness, to prevent the Beavers from pinning their ears back as exclusive pass rushers. Second, the passing game will need to heavily rely on 1-2 read short underneath throws. Finally, the Bruins will need to invoke elements of strategic misdirection and tempo variation with screen passes, reverses, change of pace speed (i.e. Keegan Jones), and quarterback keeper packages (i.e. Collin Schlee).
Don’t let the Beavers two high-scoring road games fool you, this is going to be an offensive slog on both sides. In their 38-35 defeat at the hands of Cameron Ward and Washington State, OSU seemed shell-shocked early by the Cougars outside speed and tempo. After falling behind 35-14, the Beavers adjusted and essentially held WSU to three second-half points before falling just short. If that game goes five more minutes, OSU is 6-0 and top five in the nation.
Against Cal, while 52-40 seems like the ultimate shootout at the OK Corral, the Beavers had three inexplicable plays – an unnecessary onside kick, a freak Bolden fumble, and a boneheaded roughing the punter penalty. Those three plays directly led to 22 Cal points. If the Beavers play a clean game, that’s an under-20 score.
Points will be hard to come by and two players for UCLA are worth watching. The first is Carsen Ryan, whose combination of athleticism to evade Beaver linebackers, coupled with his soft hands and large catch radius, make him an ideal playmaker particularly on third down.
And then there is J. Michael Sturdivant, whose ability to separate in one-on-one situations is ideally set up with the backdrop of the Beavers bump-and-run emphasis. JMS won’t be targeted a ton given the presumed lack of time Dante Moore will have to get the ball off, but a three-catch for 100+ yards and a touchdown game-altering stat line could be in the cards.
The Bigger Picture
Joel Klatt said it best this week, that if, and it’s a big IF, the Bruins are able to prevail, this team is set up to be the dark horse for the college football playoff. The schedule for the Bruins is set up very favorably after this game: four consecutive unranked teams where Dante can find a rhythm and the offensive line can discover confidence, heading into USC with a PAC-12 title berth on the line. A win and the path to 9-1 with a top 6-7 ranking is very much in sight.
Furthermore, anything can happen in a rivalry game, especially with an elite defense. There is no 2019 LSU, or 2020 Alabama, or 2022 Georgia in college football this year. All you need to do is get in the dance and you have as good a chance as anybody to be Cinderella.
Okay, I’m getting way ahead of myself that the Bruins could be 2023 national champions…but I also never thought I’d ever put pen to paper that Chip Kelly has the nation’s best defense. Stranger things have already happened this season.
Let the madness begin Saturday evening.