When UCLA began the season, it was thought it would go with a "running back by committee" approach to replace the dynamic production of the departed Johnathan Franklin. Instead, Jordon James stepped in and put up big numbers, rushing for 116 yards per game with a 6.3 yards per carry average in the first four games.
A lead running back seemed better than a committee, at least until James hurt his ankle at Utah. With him out of the lineup -- and doubtful for the visit to No. 3 Oregon on Saturday -- the Bruins' running game has fallen on hard times.
UCLA scored a season-low 10 points in its loss at Stanford and also had season lows in rushes (27) and rush yards (74).
You could say, sure, but Stanford's defense does that to folks. Yet the Bruins had just 78 yards on 13 carries the previous weekend against an injury-depleted California defense that ranks 11th in the Pac-12 against the run. Since James' injury, the four running backs that UCLA has used to replace him have averaged 3.2 yards per carry and have 174 yards in 10 quarters.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, UCLA is averaging 61.5 rush yards per game on designed runs in the last two weeks, including a season-low 59 in the loss to Stanford. The Bruins averaged 2.7 yards per carry on such runs in those two games with none gaining more than 17 yards. In UCLA’s first four games of the season, they averaged 244.5 yards and 5.8 yards per carry on designed runs.
The Bruins averaged a combined 2.6 yards per carry inside the tackles against Utah and Stanford, 3.3 fewer than what they averaged to start the season The problem for the Bruins was they did not create room to run. They gained 41 yards before contact in the last two weeks. That is 80 fewer per game than the AQ average and 135 fewer than what they averaged in their first four games. Another way to look at it is they were hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 60 percent of their designed runs in the last two weeks, 27 percentage points higher than the AQ average.
That's not only James, of course. The Bruins offensive line is banged up, too. It lost LT Torian White for the season to an ankle injury at Utah, and his replacement, Simon Goines went down against Stanford with a knee injury and is doubtful for the Oregon game. Making matters almost comically bad, Goines redshirt freshman replacement, Conor McDermott, is out with a shoulder injury. The Bruins could start three true freshmen on the offensive line in raucous Autzen Stadium.
With James out and nobody stepping up in the running game, the two biggest issues for the Bruins offense were getting too many third-and-longs and struggles in the red zone.
The Bruins went three-and-out on a season-high 46 percent of their drives in their loss to Stanford. They had at least seven yards to go on 73 percent of their third downs, their highest percentage in a game this season. As a result, they converted on a season-low 33 percent of their third downs, including 2-of-11 attempts with 7 or more yard to go.
On third down against Stanford, Brett Hundley completed 3-of-10 passes, including two interceptions and a season-low two first downs. On average, he had to gain 9 yards to convert a first down on his third-down pass attempts.
As for the red zone, UCLA has had seven red-zone drives in its last two games that resulted in three touchdowns and four field goals. The Bruins’ touchdown percentage (43 percent) in the red zone during those two games is 19 points lower than the FBS average.
The Bruins did not gain any rushing yards in the red zone on six attempts in its last two games. They started the season averaging 3.7 yards per rush in the red zone.
Oregon yields 3.2 yards per rush, best in the Pac-12. Without James and with a banged-up line, the Bruins likely will have to throw a lot to keep up with the high-scoring Ducks. Therein lies another problem.
Hundley has been sacked 65 times over the past two seasons, 10 more than the next-closest FBS quarterback. Things have improved this year, though, with the Bruins surrendering 14 sacks in six games, which ranks seventh in the Pac-12. Oregon is good rushing the passer. It has 21 sacks, tied for 12th most in the FBS this season, and is tied with Miami for the second-most sack fumbles (five).
It would seem that James was underestimated during the preseason, and his absences has severely hurt the Bruins offense. The question at Oregon is can UCLA make key adjustments to compensate for the loss of James that eluded them at Stanford.