An appearance in the Pac-12 championship game later this month is still possible for UCLA football, but that’s not the chief motivation for the Bruins.
The day-to-day grind – especially after coach Chip Kelly counted 12 missed tackles and six dropped passes against Oregon on Saturday – is more pressing.
“Improving, growing on the field, is very important these three games, just as important as the first three games of the season,” said redshirt senior safety Adarius Pickett. “All of the games have been important to me this year. I’m pretty sure that you guys can tell. Just the enthusiasm, the passion that I’m trying to put on display on the field.”
And there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Aside from wins against Arizona and California, UCLA’s on-field results have been dismal – the Bruins have allowed 27 rushing touchdowns, are ranked No. 103 in the country in total offense and have been outscored by an average of 12 points per game.
Another glaring hole is the lack of pass rush. UCLA’s 13 sacks rank No. 112 in the country.
Redshirt junior outside linebacker Keisean Lucier-South leads the team with four sacks this year, but the other outside linebackers have two combined. The defensive linemen have four total sacks, three coming from redshirt sophomore defensive end Osa Odighizuwa.
“(Defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro) says that you have to be obsessed with improvement,” said freshman nose tackle Atonio Mafi. “We’re out here every day trying to work on our pass rush. (Defensive line) coach Vince (Oghobaase) has been really focusing on that, with our bag drills.”
With the Bruins only registering one sack in the past three games, the secondary has been unable to slow down opposing passing attacks, giving up five passing touchdowns in the same span after having allowed six in the first six weeks of the season.
Next up are Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins and wideout N’keal Harry, a preseason second-team All-American. Harry torched Utah for 161 yards and three touchdowns – he has nine receiving touchdowns this season, one fewer than the Bruins have as a team.
“It’s just, how many times can we limit (Harry), how many times more can we win than he does,” Pickett said. “He’s a good football player, (Wilkins) has to get him the ball and it’s going to be on the defensive line to help bring the pass rush to stop easy pass-and-catch throws and stuff like that.”
On the offensive side of the ball, most of the Bruins’ problems aren’t related to throwing the ball – it’s their inability to make the simple catches. Kelly said UCLA needs to focus on fixing its dropped passes.
“The guys that are great pass-catchers have the ability to focus and concentrate, eyes to the top, and that’s part of the deal,” Kelly said. “We’ve been pretty good, I think, over the season in catching the football and a couple of times (drops have) reared their ugly heads.”
Drops tend to artificially lower quarterbacks’ stats. In the past three weeks, freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson and graduate transfer Wilton Speight have combined to complete only 52 percent of their passes, but at least 12 of their passes were on target and dropped by Kelly’s count.
If UCLA wants to avoid shooting itself in the foot in the last three games, the receivers understand they need to step up.
“I think it’s definitely something that we’ve been struggling with all year,” said redshirt senior wide receiver Christian Pabico. “You’re going to have drops, you’re going to have mistakes. And as you guys can see, we’re still kind of figuring ourselves out as an entire team.”