Times staff writer Zach Helfand examines the matchups as UCLA prepares to play Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl on Saturday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif:
Nebraska run game vs. UCLA defense
USC seemed to unlock UCLA’s defense with a simple strategy: Run. A lot. USC ran 59 times, compared to passing 26 times, in its 40-21 win.
UCLA has struggled to stop the run all season (it ranks 88th) and now must contend with a shifty, mobile quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr., in addition to a talented running back, Terrell Newby Jr.
Newby has rushed for a pedestrian 743 yards this season but averaged 5.2 yards per carry, the same figure as UCLA’s Paul Perkins. Newby was hobbled by an ankle injury for much of the season but says he is physically sound now.
Armstrong has run less often in the first season of Coach Mike Riley’s pro-style system, but UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley expects the Cornhuskers to turn Armstrong loose in the bowl game.
Armstrong has averaged 289 yards of total offense per game, 23rd nationally.
“We’ve got to keep him contained, keep him in the pocket,” linebacker Jayon Brown said. “If he’s going to beat us, it’s not going to be with his legs.”
Nebraska passing vs. UCLA secondary
The Bruins are betting that, if they can force Armstrong to pass often, they’ll control the game.
UCLA’s secondary is one of the best in the nation. It has allowed just 5.6 yards per pass attempt, the best mark in the Pac-12. And Armstrong has had seven passes intercepted in his last seven quarters.
The marquee matchup may be on the line, where Kenny Clark, an All-American selection, will battle Nebraska tackle Alex Lewis, an All-Big Ten selection.
UCLA run game
vs. Nebraska defense
Typically, UCLA prefers a run-first offense, and for good reason.
Perkins has been one of the Pac-12’s best backs for two seasons, and he has rushed for 1,275 yards this season.
But UCLA’s offensive line has been battered by injuries and attrition. Guard Alex Redmond left early, before the bowl game, to pursue the NFL draft. And backup lineman Fred Ulu-Perry transferred to Hawaii.
This week, when a reporter mentioned UCLA’s offensive line depth, Coach Jim Mora laughed.
“What depth?” he said.
Nebraska’s front seven offers one of the toughest challenges UCLA has faced this season. The Cornhuskers’ rush defense is ninth in the nation, led by two stout defensive tackles, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine.
UCLA will have to stay healthy, and even then, will have a challenge.
UCLA passing vs. Nebraska secondary
Nebraska cornerback Chris Jones isn’t yet sold on UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
“It’s going to be a test for each [defensive back] here,” Jones told reporters this week. But he added that Rosen is just “a decent thrower. He’s still a freshman, has a lot to learn.”
Despite the bravado, this matchup may be the Bruins’ strongest. Nebraska ranks 122nd in passing defense, out of 128 teams. It has allowed 288 passing yards per game this season.
Rosen, and receivers Thomas Duarte and Jordan Payton, should like this matchup.
Both teams bring dependable kickers. Nebraska’s sophomore kicker, Drew Brown, has made his last 10 field goals. For UCLA, Ka’imi Fairbairn, the Lou Groza award winner, has made 41 field goals in a row from 35 yards or closer.
Nebraska’s punter, Sam Foltz, was named the Big Ten punter of the year. UCLA’s Matt Mengel has put an equal amount of punts, 14, inside the 20-yard line.
Neither team has a return touchdown this season.
The status of UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone remains unclear for Saturday’s game. He is recovering from what Coach Jim Mora called a “serious” medical issue.
Earlier this week, Mora predicted Mazzone will attend the game, but it is unknown in what capacity.
Losing Mazzone would be especially troubling in a bowl game, where game plans are often abandoned or significantly adjusted early.
Riley’s first season at Nebraska has been tumultuous, and he has had issues late in close games. Nebraska’s first four losses came in the final minute of the game, and it’s seven losses have been by a combined 31 points.
UCLA 34, Nebraska 28
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