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UCLA Football Preview: Trojan Secondary Has Hit Its Stride
Southern Cal's defensive backs have proven to be a huge part of their success this season.
When the UCLA Bruins take on the #16 Southern Cal Trojans on Saturday, this is definitely going to be one of those years where anything can happen. While the Trojans are undefeated, UCLA has two losses that were each by less than a touchdown, and that includes a close game with #23 Oregon. Southern Cal nearly lost their first two games as well, but scored touchdowns late in the fourth quarter to get the win each time. They were able to beat Utah and Washington State decidedly, but UCLA has shown that they are capable of playing at a high level.
Let’s look at the defense that the Bruins will be up against.
After allowing their first two opponents to put up four touchdowns or more, the Trojan defense has clamped down and cut that number in half. Earlier this fall, Jay Tufele was slated to be a huge part of this defensive front, but when the Pac-12 season was postponed, he opted out and declared for the NFL draft. The loss of Tufele along with injuries and COVID-19 restrictions on practices caused this group to get off to a shaky start.
The defensive line, which includes redshirt juniors Marlon Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa, are already showing improvement under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and defensive line coach Vic So’oto. Figueroa is leading the team in tackles for loss, with six tackles for a total loss of 30 yards. Southern Cal lost redshirt senior Caleb Tremblay to an injury, which has allowed others to step up and have an impact. Freshmen Tuli Tuipulotu and Kobe Pepe and senior Connor Murphy have also been in the rotation filling in for injuries.
This group has been able to put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, recording 12 sacks in four games this year, causing questionable throws resulting in takeaways for the Trojans. With Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s tendency to hang onto the ball too long, he could very well find himself on his back quite a bit. The offensive line is really going to have to hold these guys off and protect the passing game.
Orlando was pretty open about the need for the linebackers to play more aggressively after they nearly lost their first game, encouraging his players to be faster, more physical, and more violent.
Sophomores Drake Jackson and Ralen Goforth, brother of former Bruin Randall Goforth, have had to play bigger roles this year. Goforth is second on the team in tackles with 23. Junior Kana’i Mauga is also putting up solid numbers, recording 18 tackles on the season, including 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He sat out most of camp. So, he is working on consistency in the new schemes.
The Trojans lost Palaie Gaoteote IV to the transfer portal this week, but due to concussion protocols, he has not had much playing time this month to begin with. Between injuries and transfers, the Southern Cal linebackers have not had it easy this year.
Southern Cal has been able to stop the bleeding in some of their games this year primarily because their secondary is not giving up long plays downfield. Junior Talanoa Hufanga has been a huge part of this, snagging three interceptions and leading the team in tackles with 33. Juniors Isaiah Pola-Mao and Olaijah Griffin have also played a huge part, recording four pass breakups each.
Sophomore Chris Steele and redshirt freshman Max Williams are also in the mix shutting down receivers, recording 14 and 12 tackles respectively. This group, working in tandem with a fully functioning defensive front, could prove to be a major obstacle for UCLA on Saturday.
Making a prediction about this game is just going to take the fun out of the whole experience, but it is safe to say neither team is really showing up an underdog. Even though Southern Cal is ranked #16, they are favored by less than a field goal. So, it at least says no one is counting the Bruins out yet. It would be majestic for UCLA to put a clamp on the Trojans’ undefeated season and also take away their hopes of being in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Rivalry games usually bring out the best in both teams involved. Som the only thing that can be said for certain at this point is that we should see some really good football and a hard fought game on Saturday.