UCLA defense won't be spread thin

Datone Jones, making a tackle against Nebraska, figures to be key if Oregon State plays a physical game up front. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- The spread is dead, at least for this week.

When the No. 19 UCLA Bruins face Oregon State in a Pac-12 Conference opener for both schools Saturday at the Rose Bowl, it will be the first time this season UCLA will not be facing a team that runs the spread offense. That could be considered a bad thing for a team that is 3-0 against spread offenses and is coming off of its best defensive performance of the season, but coach Jim Mora says he is excited for the challenge.

"We need this right now," Mora said. "We need to get back to some hard-nosed gritty football on defense."

Oregon State isn't exactly a juggernaut when it comes to running the ball. The Beavers had only 78 yards rushing in their only game this season against Wisconsin and were No. 118 in the nation in rushing offense last season with 86.92 yards per game on the ground.

But after facing a Houston Cougars team that passed 60 times and rushed only 19, Oregon State's traditional pro set offense with running backs Malcolm Agnew ans Storm Woods will look and feel like a smash-mouth team from the leather helmet days.

"They run powers and they run lead draws and split bellies and isos and stretches and inside and outside zone," Mora said. "Real live run plays so we have to be on it. Against these backs, arm tackles are not going to do it. It’s definitely a point of emphasis for us this week."

So far this season, the run games UCLA has faced have mostly come in the form of one-back spread formations. The Bruins are No. 95 in the nation against the run, having allowed an average of 191 yards rushing per game, but a closer look at those statistics reveals that they haven't been too bad against traditional run plays.

Quarterbacks Taylor McHargue of Rice, Taylor Martinez of Nebraska and David Piland of Houston combined for 278 yards rushing against UCLA. In comparison, the running backs from those teams have rushed for a combined 295 yards. Additionally, 218 of those quarterback rushing yards have come on three plays -- a 92-yard touchdown by Martinez, an 86-yard touchdown by Piland and a 40-yard run by McHargue.

Take away those three plays and UCLA is giving up 118.3 yards per game on the ground and in the top 40 in the nation in run defense.

"Our run defense has been outstanding except for quarterbacks, which I don’t consider real runs," Mora said. "When teams have tried to run real runs against us, we’ve been pretty good."

It's difficult to say for sure what Oregon State has planned, given the Beavers have had only one game this season and have had two weeks to prepare for UCLA. And to think Oregon State's plan will be to try and pound the ball is a mistake. Quarterback Sean Mannion was a freshman all-American last season when he passed for 3,328 yards and 16 touchdowns.

He has outside weapons in Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, gifted receivers who also play a part in the run game because Oregon State's offense has historically made liberal use of fly sweeps and end-arounds. Mora is banking on the fact Oregon State coach Mike Riley hasn't changed his ways too much.

"Fortunately they haven't had a whole lot of changes in their coaching staff," Mora said. "There's a lot of similarities in what they did last year."

But, Mora said, that doesn't mean it's going to be exactly the same because Riley is an experienced play caller who knows how to disguise plays through the use of different formations.

"He understands how to dress things up," Mora said. "So the challenge for us is try to see through the window dressing and recognize the final formation when the ball is snapped and put ourselves in the right places to make the play."