Gold: UCLA, Oregon about to get up front and personal
In the Midwest they’ve got the beef, and in the South they’ve got the brawn, and out here in the West, we settle for the beaches and the beauties and maybe a good wide receiver. In the Midwest they’ve got size, and in the South they’ve got strength, and out here in the West, we have surfing and skating and maybe a good quarterback every so often. In the Midwest they’ve got the bulk, and in the South they’ve got the hulk, and out here in the West, we’re lucky to find a good running back or two.
The rap for years on the Pac-12 is we play a different brand of football than the bigguns in other parts of the country, that somehow football west of Texas gets away with skill position talent and little else. Glorified flag football. Leave the real pigskin to the plains and the panhandles.
No. 9 UCLA and No. 10 Oregon are set to disprove that notion on Saturday. For as much as the attention on their marquee matchup will be on a boffo quarterback battle and on the chess match between the offensive-minded Chip Kelly and the defensive-minded Dan Lanning, the biggest game of the Pac-12 season will come down to the line of scrimmage, on both sides.
Yes, the fates of Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Bo Nix will play a big role in the outcome on Saturday, but which team keeps them upright will be the team that rules the day.
And both teams have been phenomenal at that this season. There’s a reason that both the Ducks and Bruins were 2 of just 22 teams named to the 2022 Midseason Honor Roll for the Joe Moore Award, which is presented to college football’s Most Outstanding Offensive Line unit.
Oregon ranks No. 1 in the country in fewest sacks allowed, surrendering just 1 all season, a truly preposterous number. The Ducks are on pace to shatter their record for sacks allowed in a season, though it would be tough to contend with Army’s 1 sack allowed during the entire 2017 campaign. Here’s the key difference: The Black Knights only attempted 65 passes. For a team that throws as much as Oregon (more than 34 times per game), the sack numbers so far are astounding.
Dominant first half from this group 😤
Oregon is on the midseason honor roll for the @JoeMooreAward, which recognizes college football's most outstanding offensive line.#GoDucks pic.twitter.com/LLWSHhZrRL
— Oregon Football (@oregonfootball) October 18, 2022
The Ducks have been good up front before — at times ranking among the best units in the country — and they certainly have had ample NFL talent through the years. There was Calvin Throckmorton and Penei Sewell, and before them Jake Fisher and Hroniss Grasu, and before them Geoff Schwartz and Gary Zimmerman.
But what Oregon is doing this season is on another level.
It’s not just about keeping Nix clean, something he bears some credit for, as well. Oregon ranks 4th nationally in yards per rush (6.22), is tied for 8th in rushing touchdowns with 19 (and Nix has 8 of those) and 10th in the country in rushing yards per game (241.67). The well-seasoned Ducks, who were 1 of just 8 FBS teams to return with all 5 starters, have barely let opposing linemen get into the backfield at all — against Arizona in Week 6, the Ducks allowed zero tackles-for-loss for the first time since 2010.
The advanced stats favor Oregon, as well. According to Football Outsiders, Oregon ranks 3rd nationally in average line yards, 3rd in opportunity rate, 5th in power success rate, 1st in sack rate, 1st in standard downs sack rate and 7th in passing downs sack rate.
Oregon's offensive line is elite 👀 🦆 pic.twitter.com/xjnpcvRnAr
— Dominiqk Peterson (@DuckZone503) October 12, 2022
But it’s been a while since the Ducks have faced a defense like UCLA’s. Seven weeks to be exact. And while there’s no comparing the Bruins’ to the Georgia Bulldogs, Oregon left that matchup with its ducktails between its legs, falling 49-3.
The Ducks are on high alert for a much-improved UCLA defense that boasts numerous front-seven playmakers in edge rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy, Carl Jones and Bo Calvert and linebackers Laiatu Latu and Darius Muasau. On the year, the Bruins have 15 sacks and are allowing just 99 rushing yards per game.
“We just have to have a great awareness for really that entire front and the guys that play in the front seven,” Oregon head coach Dan Lanning told reporters on Monday. “They do a good job of pitching a lot of different looks at you. You see a variety of coverages and a variety of pressures that they’ll run. So, just having an awareness of him is the biggest thing. Knowing where he is at all times and being able to account for him.”
If Oregon’s line has been the best in the country, UCLA’s is not too far behind.
The Bruins rank 17th nationally in sacks allowed at 1.00 per game, only allowing 6 so far this season, including just 2 games with multiple sacks.
”I have full faith and trust in the guys here with how smart our O-line is and the rest of the guys on the offense, I have no worries we’re going to go in there and we’re going to do our thing,” Thompson-Robinson told reporters this week, according to BruinReportOnline’s Tracy Pierson.
The Bruins will have their hands full with a defense that allows just 98 yards per game, led by defensive lineman Brandon Dorlus and linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe.
UCLA counters with a running game led by Zach Charbonnet that ranks 20th nationally with 211.5 yards per game. Kelly has recently taken the restraints off Charbonnet, turning him loose on No. 15 Washington (22 carries, 124 yards, 1 touchdown, plus 3 receptions for 56 yards) and No. 11 Utah on Oct. 8 (22 carries, 198 yards and a score). Charbonnet now ranks 6th nationally in yards per game with 123.0.
The Pac-12’s leading rusher and 6th in the country in yards per game…
ZACH CHARBONNET! #4sUp pic.twitter.com/aDgaWSGqsO
— UCLA Football (@UCLAFootball) October 10, 2022
Kelly credits continuity up front for the team’s success this year. UCLA doesn’t have quite the returning experience that Oregon boasts, but the Bruins were able to seamlessly transition from former offensive line coach Justin Frye, who left for Ohio State, to Tim Drevno, a long-time college and NFL offensive line coach who spent a year last season as Bruins offensive analyst before being bumped up.
“We were fortunate enough to have (Tim Drevno) on staff when Justin (Frye) left for Ohio State, so there’s some continuity from that standpoint — not having to learn a new system and being ingrained in what we do here,” Kelly said. “He’s added some of his wrinkles. He’s done a really nice job. To have the veteran players — Sam’s been around for a long time, Nio’s been around for a long time, Duke has been around for a long time, Jon Gaines has been around for a long time, Garrett’s in Year 2, Raiqwon had over 30 starts in the Big Ten.
“We do have experience there and experience is a great teacher. Those guys can go back to situations that they’ve been in before. When a situation comes up, (they can) go, ‘Oh, we’ve been in this before and here’s the adjustment that we have to make.’ There’s no substitute for experience and I think those guys have done a really good job as a group of kinda molding together.”