Although the odds may be stacked up against them, the UCLA Bruins have a genuine shot to put a damper on the undefeated season of the Oregon Ducks when the two Pac-12 rivals match up on Saturday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN).
Sure, beating Oregon at Eugene will be no easy task—a place the Ducks have only lost at twice since 2008. However, UCLA has quietly put together one of its better teams in quite some time.
And as we’ve already seen so far this season, anything can happen in college football.
The Bruins’ hopes took a bit of a shot earlier this week with running back Jordon James expected to miss his third consecutive game, via The Orange County Register’s Ryan Kartje. Not to mention, the team will also be without starting left tackle Torian White, White’s replacement (Simon Goines) and even Goines’ replacement (Conor McDermott).
That could leave UCLA starting three freshmen on the offensive line in a tough road environment. We saw how well that worked out last weekend as the team dropped its first game of the season to Stanford, 24-10.
Regardless, there is still a formula the Bruins can follow that will lead them to pulling off the improbable upset.
For starters, the team needs to keep quarterback Marcus Mariota and Oregon’s vaunted offense off the field.
Entering this weekend, the Ducks rank No. 2 in scoring (57.6 PPG), No. 2 in total offense (643.1 YPG), No. 2 in rushing (332.4 YPG) and No. 19 in passing (310.7 YPG). Furthermore, they have put up 55 points or more in six of its seven games.
However, the team can’t hurt you if Mariota and the offense are sitting on the sidelines.
That only makes third downs all the more important.
Thus far, UCLA ranks No. 9 in third-down offense (52.2 percent) and No. 9 in third-down defense (29.4 percent). Conversely, Oregon ranks No. 45 in third-down offense (44.3 percent) and No. 15 in third-down defense (30.6 percent).
Bruins outside linebacker Anthony Barr could have a big impact in this part of the game.
In over six games, the senior has recorded 35 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, four sacks and four forced fumbles. But what makes him stand out is the versatility he displays at his position.
Barr is big enough to break through the defense and stop the run, but agile enough to rush the passer. He displayed this much by racking up two sacks and three tackles for loss in UCLA’s 34-27 victory over Utah.
But Barr’s best asset is the ability to cover tight ends and slot receivers man-to-man.
However, it will be the play of quarterback Brett Hundley that ultimately decides whether the Bruins win or lose this game.
In six games, the sophomore has been impressive, throwing for 1,661 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions on 66.8 percent passing. He’s also added another 287 yards and three scores on the ground.
But it’s the ease in which Hundley was shut down against the Cardinal last weekend that is the most concerning.
In a losing effort, Hundley was held to a season-low 192 yards through the air with just a touchdown. He was forced into bad decisions all night, throwing two costly interceptions while being limited to just 27 yards rushing on 11 carries.
Against a Ducks defense that ranks No. 2 in turnovers gained (21), that will need to change.
Hundley will need to play more like he did against Cal on Oct. 12—31-of-41, 410 YDs, 3 TDs—than he did against Stanford.
If he can’t, and the defense can’t slow down Oregon’s offense, it will be a long, long night for UCLA; one that could ultimately lead to a downward spiral for the team the rest of the way.
All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of NCAA.com.