Scouting Report: UCLA football vs. California
By Jack Nelson
Nov. 24, 2023 10:46 a.m.
Marking the Pac-12’s last-ever regular-season game, UCLA football (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) will battle California (5-6, 3-5) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. The Bruins – already bowl eligible – look to end their season on a winning streak, while the Golden Bears are in search of their first bowl game berth since 2019. Here is this week’s scouting report from Sports senior staff writer Jack Nelson – who will admittedly be deep in his feels Saturday night.
Offensive scheme: Up-Tempo Spread
Run-pass percentage: 53.9% run, 46.2% pass
Strength: Running the ball
X-factor: RB Jaydn Ott
The narrative for California has few twists and turns.
As of late, it has regularly put forth mediocre or downright bad football teams. Rarely do the Golden Bears come to the Rose Bowl with much to fight for at this time of year.
But, at long last, there’s something up for grabs – their first bowl berth since 2019.
Cal’s last postseason appearance – a 35-20 victory over Illinois in the Redbox Bowl – is but a distant memory for the program amid its desperate clamor for modern relevance. And if it wants to extend its season, it’ll need its one-man show to do what no one has done against UCLA.
The Golden Bears’ offense literally runs through running back Jaydn Ott. He’s been a force all season but has caught fire in their past four contests with three 150-plus rushing yard outings en route to 579 yards on 104 carries. He can be a true game-changer, since the unit as a whole doesn’t carry much firepower otherwise – ranking No. 51 nationally in total offense and No. 76 in passing offense.
Ott’s 118.2 rushing yards per game are good for fourth in the country, and though his pass-catching abilities make him dynamic, he’s not the most efficient ball-carrier, coming in at No. 38 nationwide in yards per carry.
He sits comfortably in the upper echelon of Pac-12 backs, and as a sophomore, Ott still has one year of college football in the tank before becoming draft-eligible.
But UCLA presents a new hurdle, and a tall one, at that.
Ott will be going against the No. 1 rushing defense in the country on Saturday – a stifling defensive front that allowed just three rushing yards to USC last week. Getting the run game going at all will be a struggle, with the Bruins allowing a minuscule 2.17 yards per rush and 64.6 yards per game.
With 1,180 yards on the ground to his name this season, Ott has accumulated upwards of 400 more than the total allowed by UCLA in 2023.
And if the Bruin defense can limit him, there are few other places the Golden Bears can look to for offensive production.
Quarterback Fernando Mendoza – a two-time Pac-12 Freshman of the Week – has played respectably in a run-heavy scheme, notching 1,269 passing yards and 11 touchdowns against five interceptions. For better or for worse, he’s been the definition of consistency, tossing one pick in five of his six starts while also throwing for multiple scores at that same frequency.
Mendoza’s two premier weapons – wide receivers Jeremiah Hunter and Trond Grizzell – each have five touchdowns and average over 10 yards per catch but haven’t shown enough individually to carry the offense’s weight should Ott be eliminated from the equation.
That’ll be a concern for coach Justin Wilcox when Ott can’t be his usually dominant self on Saturday.
Defensive scheme: 2-4-5
Strength: Stopping the run
Weakness: Whenever the opponent throws the ball
X-factor: LB Kaleb Elarms-Orr
Fortunately for Cal, the defensive precedent set last week by USC is a low bar. Allowing 31 points to UCLA – which scored just 17 combined against Arizona and Arizona State – deserves the distinction of the Pac-12’s most abysmal defense.
The Golden Bears can find solace in that, but in no way does it suggest they possess a lockdown unit.
It’s quite the contrary.
Surprisingly, for a program whose strength has historically been in the secondary, stopping any given opponent’s passing attack has been an ordeal for Cal in 2023. Ranked No. 125 nationally in passing yards allowed, only five teams have performed worse.
The injection of talent via the transfer portal once instilled hope. Defensive backs Patrick McMorris, Nohl Williams and Matthew Littlejohn were projected to be immediate starters, but only McMorris has established himself, tallying 71 total tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.
Still, he’s not the star on the defensive side of the ball for the Golden Bears.
That would be inside linebacker Kaleb Elarms-Orr, who before breaking out this season, only saw action on special teams and recorded nothing on the stats sheets. He now anchors the defense with a team-leading 84 total tackles – more than 10 ahead of the next closest Golden Bear – and he’s not carried by fellow defenders in that respect. His 46 solo tackles also represent a team-high mark.
Other than getting to the ball carrier, Elarms-Orr generates effective pressure, finding his way to the quarterback for a team-high-tying four quarterback hits. He’s brought consistency and high potential at a young age for a Cal defense in dire need of help.
And on Saturday, secondary struggles elsewhere in Berkeley won’t necessarily be the fatal flaw they often have been.
In a conference where six teams reside in the country’s top 21 in passing offense, the Bruins stand at No. 70.
Redshirt junior quarterback Ethan Garbers could only muster 155 yards against USC, which set a program record this season with 419 points allowed. Though his ability to move the ball was instrumental in the rivalry upset, there’s no question he places in a lower tier of Pac-12 signal-callers.
When healthy, Garbers seems to be the established starter for UCLA, but coach Chip Kelly has thrown his fair share of curveballs – freshman Dante Moore or redshirt junior Collin Schlee are never out of the picture, still sharing QB1 on the depth chart.
Cal has the tools at its disposal for an upset, but there’s far more to this game than the outcome.
The Bruins and Golden Bears will say their final goodbyes to their longtime home.