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Scouting Report: UCLA Football vs. California

No. 18 UCLA Football (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) will end the regular season at Berkeley with a showdown against California (4-7, 2-6) Friday afternoon. The Bruins will look to avoid a third straight loss while the Golden Bears will look to end a season to forget on a high note. Here’s this week’s scouting report from sports editor Sam Settleman – who can’t believe the regular season is already over.

Cal’s offense
Attack scheme: pro style

Run Pass Percentage: 58.9% pass, 41.1% run
Strength: Rushing offense (sometimes)
Weakness: play calling
X factor: RB Jaydn Ott

The Golden Bears simultaneously have one of the worst rushing offenses and one of the best running back prospects in the country.

It doesn’t make much sense, but listen to me.

Cal is one of 11 teams in the country to average fewer than 100 rushing yards per game. Pick up an anomalous 354-yard performance against Arizona, and Cal is rushing for 73.8 yards per game — which would be second-to-last in the country. On three separate occasions this season, the Golden Bears have rushed for 35 yards or less.

And yet Cal’s fast offense is spearheaded by one of the most promising players in the Pac-12: Jaydn Ott, a true freshman running back. Ott, a four-star recruit from Norco High School — the same program that produced Oregon-born USC star running back Travis Dye — burst onto the scene as a freshman.

As one of the best true freshmen in the nation this year and likely a season-ending freshman All-American, Ott’s unique combination of size, speed and agility has already broken numerous freshman records in Cal program history.

Ott would hit the 1,000-yard mark on Friday with 158 yards on the ground, and he’s made 38 catches for 270 yards to boot — reminiscent of the numbers the former Cal running back and Super Bowl champion has Shane Vereen set up.

So what’s the problem?

Cal’s offense has been far from a consistent product this season. So much so that the Golden Bears parted ways with two members of their coaching staff after a 156-yard game against Oregon State two weeks ago that included nine rushing yards on 16 attempts.

After three seasons each with the program, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and offensive line coach Angus McClure were released from Cal 10 games until 2022. With coach Justin Wilcox coming from a defensive background, the Golden Bears’ play caller for the remainder of the year is a mystery.

In the first game on offense without Musgrave in charge against Stanford last week, Cal played the first half like he did all season: passing more than running. Whatever the reason, the Goldbears threw 27 times in the first half and only ran the ball six times.

Not surprisingly, Cal had six points with two field goals in the first half while Ott rushed for zero yards with three carries. When Ott started getting touches in the second half, the offense came alive. A 21-point deficit of 97 yards on 15 carries for the running back in the second half spurred a comeback win for the Golden Bears.

Cal thrives when he trusts Ott and the ground game.

Conversely, UCLA’s hasty defense has receded in recent weeks. The Bruins held four of their first five opponents under 100 rushing yards but have since given up 170.2 rushing yards per game in their last six competitions.

UCLA’s defenses don’t get any better through the air, while Cal has some weapons that could test the Bruins’ high school level.

The Golden Bears’ passing game is led by quarterback Jack Plummer, a transfer from Purdue. Plummer fits the mold of a mediocre Pac-12 quarterback, with no rash threats and a tendency to make a bad decision every now and then.

Beyond Ott — a common option from outside the backfield — Plummer’s primary targets are wide receivers J.Michael Sturdivant and Jeremiah Hunter. When neither is open, Plummer often holds onto the ball for too long, forcing shots in bad spots rather than throwing it away.

Plummer will likely give UCLA at least one shot at getting an easy interception on Friday. And if it feels like that’s going to be the Bruins’ top choice for a while for a while, it’s because it would. The secondary school of blue and gold has only one break since September 30.

Intercept or not, UCLA should be able to contain a confused Cal offense.

The Golden Bears’ offense is young and still trying to adjust after a personnel restructuring two weeks ago. If Cal chooses to put the ball on the ground, Ott should have a solid day running the ball and could have a shot at breaking the 1,000-yard mark. But ultimately, it won’t be enough to keep up with UCLA’s offense.

Cal’s defense
Defense scheme: Nickels 2-4-5
Strength: snack
Weakness: lack of pressure
X factor: S Daniel Scott

As on the offensive on the ball, the Goldbears have also largely retooled on the defensive this season.

When these two teams met a year ago, Cal was ranked first in goal defense in the Pac-12. The Golden Bears have slipped to seventh in that category this season — and ninth in overall defense — largely because they became much younger on defense in 2022.

Cal starts with just two seniors — and two true freshmen — on defense. Last season, that group was led by sixth-year senior outside linebacker Cameron Goode and then senior safety Elijah Hicks, both of whom have since departed for the NFL.

His two veteran starters, safety Daniel Scott and inside linebacker Jackson Sirmon, are undoubtedly the leaders of this defense. Sirmon grabbed a fumble and returned it for a touchdown to spark Cal’s comeback win over Stanford, with Scott adding a late interception to seal the deal.

Forcing turnovers has proven this defense’s saving grace, as the Golden Bears ranked 38th in the country with 18 takeaways on the season — a rank that easily surpasses their rank of 105th overall defense.

Cal is particularly permeable on the pass, conceding 287.7 yards per game through the air, a tally that puts the Golden Bears the fifth-worst passing defense in the nation. The lack of success against the pass begins with Cal’s ability, or lack thereof, to create pressure.

The Golden Bears rarely choose to press, often choosing to cover sevens or eights. With just 18 sacks in the season, they rank 97th in sacks per game nationally. And given their numbers against the pass, putting extra players in cover was clearly not the solution.

Friday should offer redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson the perfect opportunity to get back on track after a day of four turnovers in UCLA’s loss to USC. If the Bruins can take care of the ball, they shouldn’t have to get very creative to put up an easy offense against the Golden Bears.

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