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UCLA

UCLA’s porous run game may catch a break against California’s porous run defense

Brandon Stephens, Marvell Tell
UCLA running back Brandon Stephens, front, is tackled by USC defensive back Marvell Tell III after making a catch during the first half Saturday.
(Mark J. Terrill/ Associated Press)

It could be the feast after the feast.

The question is, who might be getting devoured two days after Thanksgiving?

UCLA’s rushing offense ranks second to last among Football Bowl Subdivision teams, the same lowly standing held by California’s run defense heading into the regular-season finale for both teams Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.

The numbers are equally pitiful. The Bruins average 84.3 yards rushing per game and have not had one ballcarrier top 100 yards in a game this season. The Golden Bears give up an average of 290.1 yards rushing per game and were trampled by Stanford for 357 yards last weekend.

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That means advantage … nobody?

“I don’t necessarily look at their stats versus our stats,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters, “I just want to try to get something going in the run game. That would be a nice way to end the season.”

Bruins offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu said Cal’s simple defensive fronts and style of play present opportunities for a group of tailbacks who have collectively exceeded 100 yards in only four games this season. UCLA needs to rush for 73 yards Saturday to avoid the indignity of becoming the school’s third team to fail to reach 1,000 yards rushing in a season since 1945.

“We’ve just got to build our success and get our momentum going,” Polamalu said, “and I’m looking forward to that.”

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The Bruins have added freshmen Jalen Starks and Brandon Stephens to their tailback rotation the last two weeks, with some promising results. Starks scored two touchdowns against Oregon State and Stephens caught a 30-yard pass from receiver Jordan Lasley on a trick play against USC that might have gone for more yards had Lasley released the ball sooner.

“I was just looking at it like, ‘Hurry up, he’s coming,’ ” Stephens said, referring to the USC defender in pursuit. “But it was a good play.”

Stephens holds two distinctions among UCLA’s five primary tailbacks: He leads the group with 5.2 yards per carry and is the only one who has not lost any yardage this season.

He’s earned the nickname “Bunny” because of a style of running that can make it look like he’s hopping. Fellow tailback Bolu Olorunfunmi came up with the moniker.

“It’s pretty cool,” Stephens said. “I’m not saying it’s my favorite nickname of all, but it’s all right.”

One of the Bruins’ problems has been a lack of breakaway runs. No one has rushed for more than 32 yards on a carry this season, and that run came from Olorunfunmi in the season opener against Texas A&M.

Cal’s defense could provide an opening.

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“We just gotta hit those holes, get those dirty three or four yards,” Stephens said, “and that’s an explosive run for us.”

Air time

UCLA may have found its punter of the future in Stefan Flintoft, a sophomore walk-on who has performed admirably since taking over for the injured Austin Kent against Oregon State.

Flintoft placed both of his punts inside the 20-yard line against the Beavers, including a 53-yarder, and averaged 40 yards against USC while twice pinning the Trojans inside the 20.

“Stefan went in there and did a nice job,” Mora said, “so we just stuck with him.”

Mora said Kent was still bothered by knee soreness that arose during the Oregon State game. Kent has averaged 38.3 yards per punt this season.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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