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California Golden Bears vs. UCLA Bruins Preview and Prediction

Josh Rosen

Josh Rosen

Last season’s meeting between UCLA and Cal was a thrilling, back-and-forth affair that featured four lead changes in the second half alone.

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With former Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley and his Golden Bears counterpart Jared Goff throwing the ball over the place in a game that featured more than 900 yards of total offense, it's only fitting that it came down to the final drive. That's when UCLA defensive back Marcus Rios saved the day with a diving interception of Goff near the goal line.

Rios’ heroics that afternoon in Berkeley weren’t just game-saving; they were season-saving.

UCLA came in on a two-game losing skid, having lost in a considerable upset to Utah, then getting trounced by Oregon.

Sound familiar?

This year, UCLA welcomes Cal into the Rose Bowl riding a two-game losing skid with losses to sizable underdog Arizona State, and a blowout against Stanford. The Cal game sparked UCLA to a five-game win streak that had the Bruins in position to claim the Pac-12 South title on the regular season’s final weekend.

“You want to avoid focusing on winning every game,” UCLA head coach Jim Mora said. “You want to win the day.”

The first day UCLA needs to win is Thursday against a Cal team very much in the hunt for the Pac-12 title race.

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Cal at UCLA

Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET (Thursday)


Spread: UCLA -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Erratic Rosen vs. Cal’s Turnover-Generating Defense

UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen’s debut season is thus far characterized through high peaks and low valleys. Since completing more than 80 percent of his attempts in the season opener against Virginia, he’s thrown for better than 60 only once, in the win over Arizona.

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The freshman’s riding a three-game streak of multiple-touchdown games, but he also has three multiple-interception games, including his most recent outing vs. Stanford.

That’s noteworthy because the Cal defense is best in the nation in turnover creation, garnering 21 takeaways through its first six games, and fifth in interceptions with 12.

Stefan McClure’s move from cornerback to safety has provided the Cal secondary with a spark, and vastly improved play in the front seven has forced opposing quarterbacks to throw under duress.

2. Bear Raid Goes to the Ground?

Cal’s “bear-raid” offense powers one of most prolific passing attacks in college football, and quarterback Jared Goff shines in the system. However, against a UCLA defense badly thinned by injury, don’t be surprised to see the Golden Bears go to the ground more.

The Bruins rank No. 114 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game at nearly 216.

Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said in the past despite his team’s penchant for passing, his goal is to establish a balanced rushing attack. Running back Daniel Lasco, last year’s breakthrough ball carrier, has struggled through injury early this season, leaving change-of-pace rusher Khalfani Muhammad and power-back Vic Enwere shouldering much of the load.

If there’s a week for the every-down back Lasco to break out, it’s this one. Since losing do-everything linebacker Myles Jack, UCLA has given up 353, 192 and 309 rushing yards in its last three outings.

3. Penalties

UCLA teams under Mora have consistently ranked among the nation’s most penalized in college football. This year’s is no exception, averaging 75 yards per game in laundry, 15th-most in FBS.

Conversely, Cal is among the nation’s least penalized at 38.2 yards per game.

UCLA is coming off an especially flag-plagued outing at Stanford, in which penalties cost the Bruins almost 100 yards. Infractions cost UCLA on more than a few big plays, which may have made for a more competitive contest.

Final Analysis

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UCLA came into the season boasting depth almost unrivaled in the Pac-12. It’s been tested early with the bevy of major injuries hitting the Bruins' defense.

Thus far with Jack, defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau shelved, UCLA has struggled. Thursday, the Bruins are up against arguably the most explosive offense they have seen this season.

Stopping the talented Goff comes down to forcing turnovers, which Utah did effectively two weeks ago. A UCLA defense at full strength is comparable to Utah, but the voids up and down the lineup make replicating the Utes’ efforts a tall task.

The unpredictability of the defense in its current state, and Rosen’s up-and-down play, are too chaotic to trust against a Top 25 team that’s performed at Cal’s level. The Golden Bears stay on course in the Pac-12 North, and make UCLA’s aspirations for winning the South much more difficult to attain.

Prediction: Cal 35, UCLA 31

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.