Houston: A Spring Board?

UCLA takes some baby steps in easily beating Houston Saturday, 31-13. The over-rated Cougars were definitely a salve for a wound, while there were also some signs that the Bruins might be taking some steps forward in their development...

There are many ways to look at UCLA's fairly easy victory over #23-ranked Houston Saturday, 31-13.

UCLA is good, pretty much dominating a top-25 national team.

Or Houston was just about the worse top-25 team ever.

It's probably a little bit of both.

Certainly, UCLA is better than it showed in its first two weeks of the season, but most rational Bruin fans knew that (perhaps they were staving off nightmares of a 2-10 season, but knew better). It could be that Kansas State (which is 3-0) and Stanford (3-0, and which absolutely destroyed Wake Forest Saturday, 68-24) are better than anyone imagined. And it was just one of those things that UCLA happened to face two of its toughest competitors this season in the first two games of the year, when this young team was still getting its sea legs.

So, with those two factors – UCLA being better than we thought and Houston being far over-rated – it's easier to understand the one-side game at the Rose Bowl Saturday.

UCLA clearly had bigger and better athletes on the field. In fact, most of the time they do, but sometimes that isn't enough to win. The Cougars looked small and slow, particularly defensively. But guys like running back Bryce Beall or linebacker Marcus McGraw, who you might have thought would translate into all-Pac-10 type of guys, looked kind of ordinary. Even quarterback Case Keenum, playing most of the first half (perhaps a bit dinged up, so we'll consider that), looked anything but like a world-class world beater. In a sandlot game and I I had the pick I'd take Arizona's Nick Foles straight up over Keenum any day.

And on the other hand, UCLA had guys who started to look more like the world beaters they were imagined to be. Houston had no one on the field who could play with the likes of linebacker/defensive end Akeem Ayers or middle linebacker Patrick Larimore, and the Cougar defense looked like UTEP trying to tackle Texas when they went after Johnathan Franklin.

UCLA's defense, with the superior athletes, did what it was supposed to do – and that's out-quick and out-athlete Houston's vaunted spread. An offense that had been averaging 61 points per game and 576 yards was held to 13 and 360.

In the Houston preview we pretty much nailed it when we said that Houston had faced only two BCS teams in its last 17 games, and they had rolled up those crazy offensive numbers against far inferior Conference USA competition and the UTEPs of the world.

From the outset of the game, it felt differently, too. Even though, of course, UCLA had to spot Houston 3 points, it came back on the next offensive series, drove the field and scored. That initial lead of 7-3 marked the first time UCLA had been ahead in a game so far this season, the first touchdown of the season in the Rose Bowl and truly the first time the Bruins had mounted a drive for a score this season.

So, yeah, things definitely felt a bit differently.

It wasn't just that UCLA looked more comfortable and confident. It wasn't just a feeling.

A great deal of it was that #23 was the starting tailback. Johnathan Franklin rushed for 35 yards in 7 carries in the first quarter, bursting through the line of scrimmage and busting tackles. His first touchdown run that put up UCLA 7-3 was one that former starter Derrick Coleman probably could not have made, with Franklin showing better burst and ability to shed tacklers.

So, that brings us to the Coleman Issue. Of course, Derrick Coleman is a great kid and a great story, and a good football player. And we don't want to kick Coleman while he's down (and hurt) but it's mind-boggling that the UCLA coaches opted for Coleman over Franklin in the first two games. Franklin's spark early was a huge difference in this game, and one that the Bruins lacked severely in those first two games. Franklin's quickness and energy ignites the offense, while Coleman's slow, deliberate running style seems to make everyone on offense play slowly and deliberately. You don't want to blame Coleman for UCLA's offensive woes, of course, but football is very much a game of pace and rhythm, and it's infectious. It's baffling, then, that the UCLA offensive coaches couldn't make the decision to start Franklin over Coleman themselves, but it took Coleman's injury to essentially make the decision for them. Often times I am unwilling to believe that fans know more than coaches, but in this case it seemed like UCLA's coaches were the last in the building to realize that Franklin should be starting and getting the bulk of the carries at tailback.

I know everyone is probably tired of the C-word, but the choice of Coleman over Franklin stems back to the underlying conservative bent of the program. Franklin had fumbled a few times last season, so he went into the doghouse and had to fight his way out of it – for an excessive 10 months. Coleman provided the more secure option, and Rick Neuheisel even conceded the fact that Coleman being a good blocker was a primary reason for him being the starter. Conservative.

I feel like I should have a big rubber "Conservative" stamp that I can wield whenever the ugly C crops up in the program.

Fans, instead of booing at the Rose Bowl, which we've heard clearly at times, should get some big signs that just read "The C-Word" and hold them up around the stadium every time the offense or defense falls back into conservatism.

Because, if there was ever a game that clearly illustrated how UCLA weakens both offensively and defensively when it goes conservative this was it.

UCLA's defense came out in this game in a nickel version of its defense, but it was attacking and blitzing. It was clearly the primary reason Houston's offense struggled to get in a rhythm in the first half, scoring on just one drive in the first 30 minutes. Give Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough credit; against Houston's spread he very easily could have gone into the conservative shell and stuck with a more reserved version of the nickel – which would just sit back with three pass rushers and hope to bend and not break. But Bullough did some great things schematically early, with more blitzes and more variety, such as zone blitzes, and more surprises in terms of how he moved around and used his personnel to keep Houston's offense guessing.

As we said it was a clear illustration of the goodness of aggressive play-calling and scheming and the evil of conservatism, because there was such a stark contrast in this game when Bullough would go from one approach to the other. When UCLA went up 21-3, you could sense the conservatism coming out, and UCLA starting to get vulnerable. More three-man rushes, less pressure on the quarterback.

It's one of those things, again, that we need a statistician along the lines of Moneyball or Soccernomics to figure out for us. When you blitz, how many times do you get burned as opposed to how many times it either directly or indirectly disrupts an offensive play and renders it ineffective? Does it matter where on the field you should blitz? In what point of the game? With what score? From the non-mathematician's eyes, it appears that the benefits of blitzing more often far out-weigh the risks of getting burned by a blitz. There were definitely a few times in this game when UCLA got burned a bit by blitzing. There were a couple of third-and-longs UCLA blitzed and Houston countered with a screen and a draw and got a first down. But man, how many times when UCLA blitzed did it successfully disrupt the play? Whether it was against a pass or a run, UCLA's blitzing was clearly making a huge difference in not allowing Houston's offense to get in its usual rhythm.

Conservatism is, also, the bane of UCLA's offense. Even Neuheisel used the C-word in his post-game comments – that UCLA went conservative in the second half offensively, and it limited a few drives and kept UCLA from putting more points on the board. The offense did branch out a little in this one, giving Kevin Prince more opportunity to throw the medium-range pass, but it was still fairly conservative in its play-calling. You can make the point that, when you're rushing for 266 yards you really don't need to get too aggressive in your passing, but that, really, is a conservative's mindset. Your running game will fold up and shrivel away if you're not keeping a defense honest by throwing the ball, and throwing the ball down the field some. UCLA didn't really do that (did it attempt one post or go route?). But on third down it did at least throw beyond the first-down marker. We'll take our victories over the big C as we can get them.

Maybe fans shouldn't flash "C-word" placards in the stands, but the Rose Bowl scoreboard, instead of doing that NoiseMeter, should do a ConservativeMeter. It should just stay up on the Rose Bowl screen and every fan has a button they can push on the back of the seat in front of them when they sense UCLA's offense and defense are getting conservative and the meter displays the results on the scoreboard.

Or it sends a shock to the coordinators.

But, really, we're probably getting a little carried away with the anti-conservative bent, but you get the point. Maybe. As we said in previous game reviews, UCLA's two issues are the C-word and a lack of discipline, and the latter was the bigger hindrance on the Bruins Saturday. UCLA has a propensity for making mistakes and it was by far the bigger issue against Houston. When the Bruins had a chance three times in scoring position to put a foot on Houston's neck when it was up 21-3, it came up empty. Two fumbles and an interception. And, up 14-3, and playing pretty error-free up to that point, UCLA committed two stupid penalties. It was almost as if UCLA was afraid of success – it had to check itself with mistakes.

Luckily Houston was by far more mistake-prone in this game, with the Cougars looking a bit like the Bruins in their first two games.

All in all, there were, of course, many positives to take away.

The defense held a very high-powered offense in check. Even without Keenum, the Houston offense is still a potent one, and UCLA's defense played with intensity and focus. Bullough, as we said, has to be commended for coming out and immediately being aggressive in his blitzing. Ayers, at times, put his hand down, and then picked it up and moved back into his linebacker spot – something we hadn't seen before. Bullough got more snaps for more of the players who were more effective in the first two games, with Keenan Graham starting at the defensive end spot instead of Damien Holmes, and Nate Chandler moving inside to play more often at tackle instead of Justin Edison. A few personnel changes like that made a huge difference.

So, changes are happening. It just takes a little time to happen.

Offensively, it's amazingly ironic that UCLA is now a big-time running offense, with the Pistol succeeding incredibly in what it was intended to do. The Bruins are averaging a whopping 203.7 yards per game on the ground and 5 yards per carry. Of course, Franklin is the man. With the running game working so well, UCLA kept possession of the ball, just about splitting possession time with Houston, effectively limiting Houston's offensive possessions, which is the best defense possible.

And against Houston, the passing game, you could say, took a few more baby steps forward. Prince threw more accurate balls than inaccurate ones. While on defense it looks like some of the younger, more talented guys have broken through in terms of playing time, among the receivers it appears that only Ricky Marvray has done it. Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree still are getting the bulk of snaps, and we're seeing very little of a playmaker like Josh Smith, or an attempt to utilize the speed of Randall Carroll.

It was a good win, but just as visions of 2-10 were probably inappropriate and over-reactionary after UCLA's first two losses, it's completely inappropriate to think that this Bruin team is now on its way to 9-3, or even 8-4. An over-rated Houston team was a good salve for a wound, getting the team some much needed success on the field and confidence. But there are no more Conference USA teams on UCLA's schedule.

It was, though, a much-needed step forward, for a program that needed to get back on track after a two-game derailment. And hopefully it will be more than just baby steps, but a springboard for a young team that is still finding itself.

A unit-by-unit analysis is coming later today...


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