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Weighty Issues for the Defense

Times Staff Writer

Based on size, the matchup between Northwestern’s offensive line and UCLA’s defensive front does not favor the Bruins. Led by 6-foot-7, 335-pound right tackle Zach Strief, the Wildcats hold a huge weight advantage, but that’s not new for UCLA.

“Nothing compares to the SC linemen, so we’ll be prepared for them,” defensive tackle Brigham Harwell said. “We’ve been going against good guys all year. It seems like we faced an All-American every week, so we’re used to it.

“It’s really not about how big you are. It’s about us and how badly do we want to play.”

UCLA, which gives up an average of 238.6 yards on the ground, allowed four teams to rush for 300 yards or more this season when the Bruins were dominated at the line of scrimmage.

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Harwell said that after USC ran for 430 yards against the Bruins in their last game, defensive line coach Thurmond Moore challenged his players.

“He sat with us and told us that our effort just wasn’t there,” Harwell said. “Since then, our tempo has been much higher and we’ve been practicing with more purpose.”

Over the last year, UCLA had two linemen leave school (C.J. Niusulu and Kevin Harbour Jr.) and two suffer season-ending injuries (Kevin Brown and Nikola Dragovic). But Harwell says the Bruins understand that Northwestern is not going to be soft on them because they’re short-handed.

“This is going to be a great game for us,” Harwell said. “We know people have been down on us but this game, you’re going to see a much different group of D-linemen because of our effort.”

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Because of injuries to Mike McCloskey and Robert Chai, redshirt freshman Nathaniel Skaggs will start at center. Sophomore Noah Sutherland will get his third start of the season at strong-side offensive tackle, but regular starter Brian Abraham, who has been hampered because of an ankle injury, is expected to play. Sophomore Chris Horton will get his second start at safety ahead of Dennis Keyes, who started nine games.

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Northwestern averaged 39.4 points in seven wins and 18.5 in four defeats. According to STATS Inc., the Wildcats led the nation in touchdown-drive average at 72.6 yards per scoring possession and 77.3% of their touchdown drives covered at least 70 yards.

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Northwestern

(7-4, 5-3 in Big Ten Conference)

vs. No. 17 UCLA

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(9-2, 6-2 in Pacific 10 Conference)

Today, 11 a.m.

Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso

TV: Ch. 2. Radio: XTRA (570).

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WHEN UCLA HAS THE BALL

With former defensive lineman Nathaniel Skaggs starting at center, the Bruins will feature a patchwork line protecting quarterback Drew Olson, who has thrown 31 touchdown passes with only three interceptions this season. Olson’s main target is tight end Marcedes Lewis, who leads the team with 58 catches for 741 yards and 10 touchdowns. Joe Cowan is tops among wide receivers with 34 receptions. Running back Maurice Drew needs 100 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, but he has been held under 90 yards in his last four games.

WHEN NORTHWESTERN HAS THE BALL

Quarterback Brett Basanez has completed 65% of his passes for a school-record 3,206 yards and 19 touchdowns this season, and he’s also a threat to run. He’s second on the team in rushing with 391 yards and seven touchdowns. Freshman running back Tyrell Sutton led the Wildcats with 1,390 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. Sutton also caught 37 passes for 329 yards and two scores. Senior Mark Philmore, hampered by an ankle injury early in the season, junior Shaun Herbert and senior Jonathan Fields are the go-to wide receivers.

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KEYS TO UCLA VICTORY

1. Pressure Basanez: The Bruins can’t afford to give Basanez time to throw. With a combination of blitzes and a strong rush, UCLA may be able to force mistakes.

2. Ball control: The best way to slow down the Wildcat offense is to keep it off the field, and the Bruins can do that with running back Maurice Drew.

3. Avoid turnovers: Drew Olson had only three passes intercepted all season, but the Bruins have lost five fumbles in their last two games.

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HOW THEY COMPARE

*--* NU UCLA 31.8 Scoring 38.1 32.5 Points allowed 33.8 296.8 Passing offense 281.9 195.9 Rushing offense 147.1 492.7 Total offense 429.0 273.2 Passing defense 218.9 209.7 Rushing defense 238.6 482.9 Total defense 457.5

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