OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
There were some very minor things, but not even worth quibbling about, that kept the offensive line from getting a straight A. But once again, for a third game in a row, the OL was easily the best unit on the field. Darius Savage, if he continues to play the way he has, deserves post-season recognition; he was again one of the most dominating players in the game. He has gone from merely blowing his man down the field a few yards to pancaking him. And he seemingly is getting stronger as the game goes on. On UCLA's last drive of the game, on one of Johnathan Franklin's sizeable runs that allowed UCLA to keep the ball, Savage looked completely fresh as he blew his man down the field 10 yards and opened up a massive hole for Franklin to find. Center Ryan Taylor had a very good game blocking, but still needs to get his shotgun snaps up a bit. Sean Sheller was solid to very good, missing a blitz once. Eddie Williams got beat on a tackle for loss early in the game, but then also looked stronger as the game wore on. Mike Harris, starting for the first time this season with Micah Kia injured, was never beat and contained his man. The one sack was a coverage sack, and Kevin Prince had plenty of time to throw for most of the night.
This is the offensive unit that really needs to step up for the rest of the season. There simply isn't anyone who has really made an impact in a game, and it doesn't appear that anyone – besides Ricky Marvray – has the heart to do it. Marvray made the best catch of the year so far, going up in the air in traffic, and seemingly hanging there for a while, then showing great athleticism to land and keep his balance, then also breaking a couple of tackles for more yards. He did, though, drop a slip screen and get called for a penalty. Nelson Rosario had a couple of solid catches, that you'd expect should be made, but there were a few balls thrown to him where he seemingly went up very passively for them. Taylor Embree made one good catch but also was passive in shielding to get position on a potential touchdown catch, allowing a defender to reach in easily and tap it away. Damien Thigpen had an impact on the night, catching an early pass for a first down and picking up big yardage on the end around. But other than that, the F-backs were silent. Morrell Presley had a couple of good blocks but didn't get the ball thrown at him and freshman Anthony Barr looked passive on a couple of blocks. The tight ends also aren't getting involved much in the passing game. Cory Harkey dropped a ball on UCLA's first possession that should have been a first down, but he went on to have a truly great game blocking. He had a spring block on Franklin's first touchdown run and one on his last, while also getting a number of other key blocks in between, while catching a pass. Joseph Fauria got in the game in some double-tight situations, but he's not getting a sniff at having a pass thrown to him, which is a wasted weapon.
RUNNING BACKS : B+
Johnathan Franklin gets a clear A, but Malcolm Jones in his first college grade gets a C, so it balances out to a B+. Franklin gained 158 yards on 26 carries, and did so in impressive fashion, many times gaining considerable yards after the initial contact. As we said in the game review, his first touchdown run, and many runs after that, are gains that Derrick Coleman simply can't make, in terms of burst and ability to break tackles. With Coleman down and Jones semi-benched because of his two fumbles, Franklin was a workhorse with those 26 rushes, and it makes for an argument against the tailback-by-committed and for the theory to continue to go with the guy who has the hot hand. It was the best game of Franklin's career and you'd have to hope that it could inspire the coaches to give him the bulk of the tailback carries. Jones had a freshman experience out there with the two fumbles. He also go the short shrift when he went in for a series, and it was the series when Houston stacked the box and he lost 4 yards on two runs. Then Franklin came in on a 3rd and 15, and got the draw call. Since Jones's fumbles didn't hurt the Bruins, it was probably a good thing to get them out of the way, so now he'll be more conscientious about hanging onto the ball.
Kevin Prince made a major stride forward in making his reads in the running game – and then actually running the ball with great effectiveness. His 28-yard run in the first quarter was impressive, but perhaps even more impressive was the touchdown run where he squared up and took a tackler on mano-e-mano and bulled his way into the endzone. He did, though, look like he made a couple of mistakes on run reads and could have exploited Houston's defense a few more times with keeping the ball himself. Passing the ball it was a mixed bag. He made more accurate throws than in his first two games, but he also missed a number of throws where he was unhurried and the receiver was open. The one throw that really reduces his grade here was the interception; on an unforced throw he floated it too high to Rosario. It appears he's still waiting too long to make the passing reads, and still sometimes locking onto a receiver. It was a step forward, though, for Prince, running for 64 yards on 10 carries, and making more of the easy throws that have to be completed.
OFFENSIVE GAME PLAN, SCHEME AND COACHING: B-
The Pistol is a winning scheme. You saw Nevada tear up Cal Friday night running the Pistol and you can see UCLA's potential in it. So, from that standpoint, the scheme gets an A. But the game plan and coaching are still lacking. You can't give the coaches credit for making Franklin the starting tailback when they had Derrick Coleman's injury make the decision for them. And it still seems that there are other personnel moves that should, at least, be experimented with, particularly in the wide receiver rotation. Josh Smith is easily the most dangerous receiver on the team and he didn't get many plays or looks in this game. Since BROs have been so good in calling the personnel changes that were needed at tailback and on the defensive side, we'll do it again: It's getting to be that time that Smith and Marvray get their chance to create some energy and excitement. At least get them in more for Embree, since between the two starters, Rosario offers you more. Jerry Johnson had a bit of a break-out week in practice, but he didn't see much playing time. The coaches say they're al about competition, but it doesn't seem that way, staying with the conservative choice of Rosario and Embree, who definitely look like they need a competitive fire lit under them. The play-calling was okay; not great, and still conservative. It was masked by the clear effectiveness of the running game. At least there were calls for pass routes that set up beyond the first down marker on third down. There was the end around (which by the way they botched almost 1 in every 3 times they attempted it in practice last week), the attempt at a receiver screen, a few flairs out to running backs in the flat, a couple of slants, but still the pass play-calling was pretty close to the vest. I still don't get the short quickie that Prince had batted down at the line of scrimmage. Is it really worth the risk of a 1-yard pass play when it's such, really, a high-risk throw? That ball came close to being intercepted and if it had been the game might have been different. We realize that when you can run for 200+ yards you don't need to do much through the air, but future opponents, such as the one in Austin on Saturday, aren ‘t going to be run through like Houston and UCLA's offense will need to throw the ball.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C+
You might think that grade is a little harsh, but if you're going to grade the entire unit you have to take all of its players and plays into consideration. If I were to grade just the guys who played the most minutes on the DL – Akeem Ayers, Nate Chandler, David Carter and Keenan Graham – they'd probably get a B. In his first game getting starters minutes Graham was solid, holding up his blocker on the line most of the time and getting pressure on the quarterback. He needs to learn how to finish a sack, however, and hopefully that will come since he's just a redshirt freshman. Ayers played his best game of the season, and it's not coincidental he did it while playing a great deal at DE. He is a force coming off the edge, on both running and pass plays, and is so quick he can slide right be his blocker and plug up an inside gap. Carter is improving, holding his blocker better, and making penetration on a couple of plays. He, too, needs to learn to finish a sack. Nate Chandler is still running around with some lack of discipline, but he's active and affecting plays. His ability to hold is blocker gave the linebackers so many more opportunities for tackles.
Defensive end Iuta Tepa was solid, also strong enough to hold up his blocker.
Those five, too, had a clear quickness and athleticism advantage over Houston. Many times they wouldn't even engage their blocker, but just side-step him.
Probably the guy who looked the next best is true freshman Cassius Marsh, even though he was in for limited snaps. He got nice penetration on a nice swim move that caused a tackle for loss.
After that, the subs were Donovan Carter, Damien Holmes and Justin Edison, all at defensive tackle. Carter might have played the most among the three, and got out-physicaled most of the time, but at least he has the quickness to recover. Edison was more of the same, getting taken out of the play and then dipping his shoulder and turning his back to the play, to take him even further out of it. Holmes didn't play much and played defensive tackle and, besides recovering the fumble, wasn't good. He was blocked on most plays, and on others he'd avoid his blocker altogether and run too far out on the edge and take himself out of the play. We know that, playing the three-technique, his assignment on a couple of plays was to edge rush and try to disrupt the backfield, but he was still running at the quarterback after the ball had been handed off. It didn't help Holmes's cause when he was flagged for two consecutive penalties, both stupid ones, a roughing the passer and a running into the kicker call. When Edison and Holmes were subbed into the the two DT spots together there was a significant drop-off in the DL's effectiveness.
It took the coaches all of fall practice and two games before they realized that neither of them were worthy of starter's minutes. The next question is how long will it take before they discover that the two true freshmen Marsh and Sealii Epenesa are more deserving of playing time.
It was Ayers' best performance of the first three games, and mostly because he was just as good when he played linebacker as when he played D-end. His interception was being in the right place at the right time, but so much of linebacking is just that, and he was far more disciplined in this game than in the first two at linebacker.
Patrick Larimore was a star. That simple. He led the team with 11 tackles, three for loss, one forced fumble and two break-ups. All in a day's work for your middle linebacker. He was so much more disciplined and under control compared to last week, and was quick in his pursuit. His tackles for loss were a result of taking great angles and using fundamental tackling techinques. He's getting to the point now where he's so confident he's merely throwing a blocker aside and making a tackle. He's also showing himself to be a big hitter; his clean hit on Houston's second-string quarterback Cotton Turner put him out of the game, and that had a huge impact. He seemed to get stronger as the game progressed and had a few noteworthy plays – including the big hit that caused the fumble – that really helped UCLA seal the deal. Being only a sophomore, Larimore, if he continues to get better, could be UCLA's next big-time linebacker.
Sean Westgate, too, had an exceptional game. After looking over-matched at Kansas State, he's followed it up with two good games, pursuing ball carriers well and making sure tackles. He's also tough to pick up on blitzes because he's so small he can sneak through cracks in the line well. He did lose containment on Keenum during his big run in the second quarter, but he made up for it throughout the rest of the game. He was hurt late in the game and we haven't heard to what extent.
Glenn Love came in for the injured Westgate, and struggled on his first couple of plays, but then got into the speed and physicality of the game. He sliced through the line on a blitz and put a hit on the Houston quarterback.
Jordan Zumwalt, the true freshman, got in for a series or two and had an impact. He actually played from the defensive end spot subbing in for Ayers, and just out-quicked his blocker to get a sack.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: B
The two corners both did well in coverage. Houston picked on Sheldon Price but he stepped up to the challenge. He did get lucky when he was burned on a deep ball but Keenum overthrew the receiver. On Keenum's big run, too, he completely lost focus and was late to the spot to make a play. Aaron Hester was solid, even though Houston didn't go at him much.
The safeties were a mixed bag. Rahim Moore had a poor game. He started out getting burned on the trick play, the receiver pass, and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the game. It was probably his poorest tackling game ever, missing many tackles. In fact, on Keenum's run he missed tackling him twice. He doesn't look particularly fast either; on one end around the ball carrier had an edge on him but Andrew Abbott jetted by him to make the tackle. The horse collar call is a tough one since it wasn't very flagrant and you're just trying to grab anything to bring down the runner. He, then made up for a lot of his play with the interception – a very typical one for him, where he's in the right place at the right time.
Tony Dye was fairly quiet on the day, mostly because, in the nickel he's positioned further back and isn't quite as involved in run support.
Easily one of the best defenders on the day was nickel back Abbott. The former walk-on had the game of his life, making great open-field tackles where he looked too quick for a Houston ball carrier to elude. He was so effective that, after this game, you'd have to be compelled if you're Bullough to play the nickel more often just to increase your defense's overall speed with Abbott in the game.
Safety Dalton Hilliard looks like he has a knack for slicing through blockers and getting to the ball carrier. I know this might be radical, but at this point there might be some though that Hilliard could get more of Moore's time at free safety.
True freshman cornerback Anthony Jefferson got burned on the touchdown pass in the second half, even though it shouldn't have been ruled a touchdown, with the receiver's knee not coming down in the endzone before he fell out of bounds.
DEFENSIVE GAME PLAN, SCHEME AND COACHING: B
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
After watching the tape of the game a second time, the defense didn't blitz near as much as I thought it had. It was a matter of the newly-vamped front four getting more pressure on the quarterback themselves. But Bullough gets some credit for blitzing at good moments, and doing so from unpredictable spots on the field. Larimore, Ayers and Westgate look like they're having a great deal of fun out there, threatening to blitz, with Ayers putting his hand down and even sometimes picking it up. Bullough also had Ayers stand up in the middle of the DL many times, and it confused the offensive line enough in their blocking match-ups. This also had to be easily the best showing a Bullough defense has had against a spread. The D looked like they knew exactly what Houston was going to do most of the time, and looked very comfortable in the nickel. The three-man rush, though, is almost never effective. On a third-and-15, Bullough went with a three-man rush and the Houston quarterback had all day to find a receiver for a first down. There also seemed to be a little bit of a let up on the pedal in terms of aggressiveness and creativity once UCLA went up 21-3.
Kai Forbath was solid in kicking a 42-yard field goal and Jeff Locke punted six times for an phenomenal 64.7 yards per punt. But for whatever reason, he couldn't get his kick-offs into the endzone. Punt coverage and kick-off coverage were good. Embree gets some credit for a good punt return, even though that return was set up so easily I think I could have done the same.