STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN
Key Matchup:Oregon Pass Offense vs. UCLA Pass Defense
Since Pac-12 play began, the Ducks and the Bruins have been on two completely different paths. While Oregon rose to as high as No. 12 in the national rankings before back-to-back losses knocked them out the rankings, UCLA has won two of three to put themselves in the Pac-12 south race.
That’s why Saturday’s matchup is so important as the Ducks will either end their recent skid or the Bruins will continue their late-season push to bowl eligibility.
Helping settle the outcome of the game will be the battle between Oregon’s pass offense against UCLA’s pass defense.
Oregon enters with questions and quarterback and wide receiver. Justin Herbert, the potential top-pick in the upcoming NFL draft, and Dillon Mitchell, the conference’s leading receiver in Pac-12 games, are both questionable for this weekend after undergoing Oregon’s concussion protocol this week.
The duo has been one of the best in nation, not just the Pac-12. Herbert has completed 155-of-260 passes for 2,069 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season. Mitchell has been the biggest benefactor, catching 48 passes for 677 yards and four scores.
This combination has proven deadly as Herbert, whenever in trouble or in need of a big play, looks to Mitchell, who always delivers. These two are what makes Oregon’s offense from being one-dimensional, a passing duo capable of beating any coverage or defense thrown at them.
Backup quarterback Tyler Shough and Braxton Burmeister will run the offense if Herbert is unable to go. Burmiester saw action in five games last year when Herbert was out hurt while Shough, the freshman, has yet to take a meaningful snap on the season.
“Should the case be where it's something where they have to play right away, absolutely, those guys will be taking a bunch of reps,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said of his backup quarterbacks.
Wide receivers Jaylon Redd, Johnny Johnson III and Brenden Schooler will all have to take on bigger roles if Mitchell is out.
“We've got a young receivers corps,” Cristobal said. “Some of them are getting better, they're working at it and some of them have had some really good success and some are still working at it — I wouldn't point to them as having poor play or whatnot.”
They’ll go up against UCLA, the Pac-12’s third-best pass defense in conference games, giving up 217.6 yards through the air with six interceptions and eight sacks.
Adarius Pickett is the leader of the secondary, as well as the entire team. He leads the Bruins with 10.5 tackles per game, 4th in the conference, and has one fumble recovery, one interception and two pass break-ups on the season.
His ability to play both in the box and in coverage is what makes him one of the Pac-12’s best safeties. An athletic and instinctual player, Pickett does a great job of diagnosing plays from his spot in the backfield of the defense.
“He's a good football player and he showed up a lot last year against us, made a lot of plays,” Cristobal said of Pickett. “He gets downhill in the run game, makes a lot of tackles and is excellent in pass coverage.”
Quentin Lake leads the Bruins with two interceptions, one of six players with a pick on the season, while Darnay Holmes leads the team with six passes broken up.
UCLA will try to pressure whoever’s at quarterback for Oregon by letting Keisean Lucier-South loose in the pass rush, forcing the Ducks to quick and uncomfortable throws that are hard to complete when going against man coverage. Opposing teams have used this formula to success in the past so it should be of no surprise if the Bruins attempt to do the same.
“They get exotic on third down and try to put pressure on your quarterback,” Cristobal said. “They’ll get up there and mug your wide receivers, they'll try to disrupt the timing of your passing game.”
Throwing the ball will be vital to the Ducks’ success because if they can’t, expect the Bruins to overload the box to stop Oregon’s run game. The Ducks must show the ability to beat man coverage, whether that be with crossing routes or double moves, to get the offense flying high again.
It could be a very tall order to do without Herbert or Mitchell but regardless of who’s in, this is a matchup Oregon can’t afford to lose.