In host Cal's case, the Golden Bears could never muster enough defense to adequately complement their potent offense. Despite averaging 37.2 points per game — No. 22 in the nation — Cal faces a losing record for the fourth time in six seasons.
UCLA's woes and first losing record since 2011 stem from the polar opposite end of the football spectrum. The Bruins played outstanding defense much of the season. However, an inability to run with any regularity and talented quarterback Josh Rosen's early-season injury combined to vex UCLA.
After losing last week to rival USC, UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley said this week's contest was about finishing out strong — closing the season with heads held high. Those are the stakes for the Bruins and Golden Bears.
UCLA at Cal
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 26, at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: UCLA -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A Chance for the UCLA Run Game
Bruins head coach Jim Mora said this week that despite UCLA's season-long struggles, he held out hope for that phase to put together a strong outing in the finale. And the Bruins have indeed struggled.
Last week's 55 yards rushing against USC marked the Bruins' seventh game this season failing to reach the 100-yard mark. With a season-long average of 84 rushing yards per game, only Texas State has been worse on the ground.
Conversely, the Cal defense has given up 290.9 rushing yards per game. Only Nevada has been worse. The Golden Bears most recently surrendered 357 to rival Stanford.
If there was a week for UCLA to establish the run, it's this. By the same token, should Cal finally succeeding in slowing the run, here's the Bears' opportunity.
2. Bringing Pressure
McKinley's development into one of the premier pass-rushers in college football has been a positive in the Bruins' otherwise disappointing season. He's eighth in the nation with 10 sacks, and he's keyed a strong UCLA defense with plenty more quarterback pressures.
He'll be key to slowing Cal's talented quarterback Davis Webb, who comes in ranked second in the nation at 363.1 yards per game. Solid offensive line play and Webb's own escapability have combined to limit sacks this season. The Golden Bears' 16 yielded ranks 25th overall.
Similarly, UCLA's had one of its better seasons in recent memory protecting its quarterback. At 21 given up thus far, the Bruins are No. 56 nationally — a vast improvement from recent years, when they ranked near the bottom of FBS in that category.
This week, defensive end DeVante Wilson poses a threat to Mike Fafaul similar to that of McKinley vs. Webb. Wilson's coming off one of the best games of his career, racking up five tackles and a sack last week against Stanford.
3. Starting Strong, Finishing Strong
Throughout the season, both Cal and UCLA have started strong in games that didn't quite go as planned. Cal squandered a three-score advantage against Oregon and only escaped in overtime, and coughed up a lead at Arizona State that became a loss.
UCLA led Stanford, Utah and USC at various points, but could not finish any of the three.
Finishing has not been a strong suit for either squad — quite the coincidence in a game that's all about finishing. The first half certainly won't tell the tale. Rather, the final 30 minutes of the 2016 season will separate Saturday's winner — and perhaps give a template for how to close out games once 2017 preparations begin.
Both UCLA and Cal serve as interesting case-studies into how much tumult one team can endure over a mere, three-month season. Both will finish with losing records, despite showing some very promising flashes of brilliance. Neither is necessarily as bad as the final mark would indicate — and certainly not for the loser Saturday, who will close 2016 with a 4-8 record.
But then, to borrow an old cliché, you are what your record says.
A game such as this can be tough to project, since neither team has anything except pride to play for. Cal's been solid at home much of the campaign, but UCLA enjoys a talent advantage, particularly on defense. The Bruins have the pieces necessary to slow Cal just enough to exploit the Golden Bears' defensive deficiencies.