UCLA football will kick off its season the same way it did last year – facing off against the Cincinnati Bearcats. After losing 26-17 last year at the Rose Bowl, the Bruins will travel to Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on August 29 with a chance to turn the tables. Standing in their way is a run-heavy offense and one of the nation’s top defenses from last season. Here is the scouting report from Daily Bruin staff writer Jack Perez.
Base formations: Spread, pistol
Run-pass percentage (2018): 61.6% run, 40.44% pass
Strength: Running backs
X-factor: RB Michael Warren II
The Bearcats rushed for 239.5 yards per game last season, racking up at least 125 rushing yards in every game. Cincinnati ran for over 300 yards twice in 2018 and had more rushing yards than passing yards in nine of its 13 games.
It would be a shock if coach Luke Fickell moved away from the offense playstyle that led the team to a 11-2 record, especially against a Bruin defense that gave up 194 yards on the ground to the Bearcats at the Rose Bowl in 2018.
Warren will be leading backfield once again for Cincinnati. He rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries against the Bruins and finished the 2018 season with 1,329 yards in 12 games.
Warren is not the only weapon the Bearcats have in the backfield. Running backs Tavion Thomas and Charles McClelland each rushed for over 400 yards and could take over for Warren should anything happen to the starter. At the very least, they’ll be effective change-of-pace backs.
While Cincinnati will undoubtedly lean on its running game, quarterback Desmond Ridder will take the reigns for the second year in a row. He was not asked to do much in the passing game last season, as he attempted just 311 passes – an average of about 24 per game.
Ridder struggled in the biggest games in his first season as the Bearcats’ primary quarterback. He completed less than 50% of his passes at Temple and UCF, en route to Cincinnati’s only two losses of the season.
However, Ridder is effective with his legs, racking up 583 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. He also protected the ball well last season, only throwing five interceptions compared to his 20 passing touchdowns.
If the Bruins stuff the Bearcats’ running game early and force Ridder to convert long third downs, Cincinnati may struggle to stay on the field. However, if Warren and company control the clock and keep the Bruins’ offense off the field, UCLA could be in for a long day in Ohio.
Base defense: 4-3 (can shift to 4-2-5)
Blitz tendency: Medium
Weakness: Loss of stars
X-factor: Defensive line
Cincinnati’s defense was one of the best in the nation and figures to be toward the top once again, which will lead to a tough challenge for UCLA in the opener.
The Bearcats gave up the 11th fewest yards per game in 2018, better than top-ranked teams such as Alabama and Georgia. This is not new for Fickell, who led Ohio State’s defense to multiple top-five total defense finishes as the Buckeye’s defensive coordinator from 2005-2016.
Fickell and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman regularly employ a 4-3 defense but have been known to shift around based on their opponent. The Bearcats did not blitz very often in last year’s game against the Bruins, but still sacked UCLA quarterbacks five times and had eight tackles for loss.
Although they created lots of pressure last season, the Bearcats lost two of their top three sackers from 2018 – Cortez Broughton and Kimoni Fitz – and will have to find enough new playmakers to make up the difference.
Cincinnati was 13th in rushing yards against per game last season but was vulnerable at times to speedy backs that were able to break through the defensive front. If the Bruins’ running backs, especially sophomore Kazmeir Allen – who had a 74-yard touchdown last year against the Bearcats – are able to exploit the new defenders’ inexperience, they can run rampant in Ohio.
Fickell will probably send more bodies early on to try to unnerve sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and make up for the loss of star power on the defense. If this succeeds and the Bruins are forced to make wild throws, the Bearcats can drop back into coverage and let their coaching lead them to another top defensive performance.