ANALYSIS: UCLA Screen Passes Shred Cal

BERKELEY -- Where were the breakdowns in the defense? Our Glenn Borok analyzes just what UCLA did in the screen game to take advantage of the Bears weaknesses.

BERKELEY -- For the first time since 1998, UCLA defeated California in the confines of Memorial Stadium, returning to Los Angeles with a .500 record in conference. For the Bears, it’s time to reevaluate after two consecutive Pac-12 loses.

“[It was a] tough, tough game today,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. “It’s a tough way to lose down the stretch. I’m proud of our team for the way we battled, particularly in the second half. I didn’t think we competed as well as we needed to in the first half. I challenged them pretty good at halftime. To their credit, they really stepped up and did that in the second half, gave us a chance to win.” Cal fans could blame the loss on the offense’s lackluster outing (putting up only 366 yards and averaging 1.8 yards per rushing attempt) or the Jared Goff interception on the possible game winning drive, and they wouldn’t be incorrect.

However, over the past two games, it’s been abundantly clear that they have an Achilles heel on defense: the screen pass.

Over the last two games, the screen pass has been used against the Cal defense with tremendous success. UCLA threw, according to our unofficial count, 14 screens with most of them resulting in significant gains, with two in particular resulting in gains of over 30 yards.

The first long screen occurred just before the end of the first half, where UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley threw a quick dump down screen to Paul Perkins who was quickly off to the races, and after the Cal defenders were all blocked up the sideline, Perkins ran straight into the end zone for a 49 yard touchdown to make it a two-possession game. In that sequence, Cal had blitzed the MIKE linebacker on four straight downs, and UCLA countered with a quick running back screen up the middle that worked to perfection.

“They’re going to try to condense the box and throw it out there to get those one-on-one match-ups,” said Michael Barton. “We got to win those one-on-one’s and we got to have guys from the box coming to rally to the ball and tackle up. In the first half, UCLA out-physicaled us, especially in the run game. Second half, we were able to dominate the line of scrimmage a little bit more, and if we would have done that in the first half, I think it would have been a different game.”

The second long screen occurred just before the end of the third quarter when Hundley threw another running back screen to Jordon James, who ran alongside the left sideline with it for 31 yards nearly untouched, down to the Cal 15 yard line. On the very next play, Hundley ran the ball in for a touchdown to retake the lead.

“There's no moral victories,” said Hardy Nickerson. “Bottom line we lost the game, and left some plays out there. Guys missed gaps and missed tackles. It’s just focus. We’ve got to make sure you square up, run your feet, wrap up. That’s the technique that we have to work on.”

These two plays are just examples of the consistent gains in the screen game that the Bruins were able to generate, much like Washington the week before. With constant pressure being brought to disrupt Hundley, the screens left cornerbacks on an island and with one block, the Bruins would easily pick up six or seven yards or more on a given screen.

This was not the first time we have seen the screen pass exploited though, as UCLA took a page out of the Huskies’ playbook from last week. Washington ran, unofficially, seven screens, much like Colorado did the week before that. The Huskies’ biggest play, an 86 yard touchdown run by John Ross, was a screen play where three Cal players took each other out.

“We need to make adjustments, and be able to wrap up and tackle,” said Barton. “I think that’s the most important thing for us to do. If we do those things, we’ll have a complete game. I think we’ll put it together eventually.”

Despite the fact that the tackling in this game from the Cal defense was horrendous, which exacerbates the problems they face against screens, it’s become evident that facing the screen is a recurring problem. They have less than a week to fix it, as Oregon comes to Levi Stadium this Friday, but if they want to have a chance to defeat the Ducks, they will surely need find a way to stop the screens.

“We’re going to come back strong,” said Barton. “Oregon’s going to be a must-win game for us. We’re looking to go to a bowl game this year, and losing these past two has hurt us. This next game’s going to be very important and I think it’s going to be the defining moment of our season depending on how we come out after a tough loss.”

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