With all of the preseason hype, national rankings and Heisman campaigns, 2014 was supposed to be a title-contending season for UCLA in the Pac-12.
While back-to-back mid-season losses to Utah and Oregon appeared to have derailed this plan, a win over Arizona on Nov. 1 and Saturday’s thrashing of rival USC have changed the discussion. The Bruins are back into the hunt for the conference crown. When one includes the wins over Arizona and USC with the thumping UCLA put on Arizona State in Tempe in September, Jim Mora and the Bruins have quietly put together a strong season in the Pac-12 South. The victories against the top three contenders in the South have enabled UCLA to control its own fate Nov. 28 against Stanford.
With this in mind, how do the Bruins match up against Oregon in the Pac 12-title game with playoff implications involved?
In the loss to Oregon earlier in the season, UCLA outgained the Ducks in total yards and picked up more first downs. However, that was a product of accumulated yardage after Oregon went up 35-10 after three quarters. UCLA picked up 553 total yards against Oregon and dominated the time of possession at 37:11. However, the Bruins turned the ball over twice and fell to the Ducks, 42-30.
It is this offensive attack which will allow UCLA to play with Oregon. In this active five-game winning streak, UCLA has scored at least 30 points four times, including Saturday night’s win over USC. While the Bruins do have seven turnovers over the course of this streak, three came in the first game against California. In order to play with the Ducks, UCLA needs to put up the kind of offense it is capable of. More importantly, the Bruins cannot turn the ball over and give Oregon extra possessions.
UCLA is playing its best football of the season; the four game winning streak entering Saturday had the Bruins ranked No. 9. While it is hard to imagine UCLA finding a way into the College Football Playoff, there is nothing the Bruins would rather do than spoil Oregon’s title hopes.
Coming off his third victory over USC in as many years, junior quarterback Brett Hundley is also playing his strongest football of the season. Over the course of the winning streak, Hundley has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in each victory except one. He also has gone over 200 yards in every win but one. Three contests have witnessed Hundley eclipse 300 yards, and he has rushed for at least 100 yards in two games. Hundley has also thrown only two interceptions since the Oregon game. Most importantly, Hundley is healthy.
With this resurgence, UCLA has found a way to rush the passer. Against USC on Saturday, the Bruins picked up six sacks. Putting pressure on the quarterback is a key against Oregon, as Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota cannot be allowed to survey the field and pick the Bruins apart. However, with some read option mixed in, the Bruins must remain disciplined while rushing Mariota. This was an aspect of the chess match UCLA struggled with in the first meeting, as the dual-threat Mariota rushed for 75 yards and a pair of touchdowns on seven carries.
Though UCLA will be on the outside looking in as far as the playoff is concerned, the Bruins certainly provide the most interesting and entertaining matchup against Oregon. They have to beat Oregon’s recent nemesis, Stanford, in order to secure that matchup. (Kickoff is next Friday at 3:30 Eastern on ABC.) The only question is how the Bruins can control the keys to the blueprint of defeating the Ducks, because it will likely take a near flawless effort to pull off such a feat.