Washington State: Avoiding Hubris

Just when you thought UCLA might be putting together a team, its defense goes in the tank and the Bruins get in a shotout with the worst team in the Pac-10, eventually coming from behind to beat the Cougars, 42-28...

Just when you think you have a handle on the UCLA football team, you lose your grip on it.

You might not have thought UCLA was as good as many were asserting after they beat an over-rated Texas team last week. And you might not have thought they were as bad as they looked against Stanford.

But here's a new curveball for you. UCLA's offense carried it against Washington State at the Rose Bowl Saturday to get the win, 42-28.

Every week with this UCLA team it's something new and surprising. It'd be nice to be boringly methodical and successful for even just a few consecutive weeks.

But not too long ago, who would have thunk this?

UCLA's offense gained a total of 565 yards. That's in one game, folks. It's the most yards UCLA's offense has gained in one game in three years (not since the 624 yards against Stanford in 2007).

So, that's a great sign, right?

But we, again, are faced with that same, age-old issue with the UCLA football team: If they ever put together a good offense and a good defense at the same time it'd be a miracle. Or the world would end as we know it. That mantra goes back to UCLA's ill-fated 1998 season when it had the best offense in the land – and a vulnerable defense. Ever since, the Bruins have not have one season where they clearly were good on both sides of the ball.

And the phenomenon is not even going merely by season, but now it's shifting practically by game.

If there was a game that you thought UCLA might have a chance to put together a good offense and defense it might have been against Washington State this season. But the defense was, well, fairly horrendous. It allowed a team that had been averaging 12 points per game to score 28. And do it fairly easily with 70- and 80-yard drives done on 8 plays. It happened so fast it was a blur. UCLA was up 20-7 with 6:25 left in the second quarter, and looked like it was on it's way to a blow-out. And then it was down 28-20 with 7:16 left in the third.

UCLA allowed WSU to score more points (14) in one half at home in the Rose Bowl than Texas scored in the entire game last week in Austin.

Again, who would have thunk it?

We did say in the game preview that Washington State had made some progress in its passing game, and it certainly showed it Saturday. WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel totaled 20-of-37 for 311 yards and two touchdowns. He got the ball off quickly, to generally pretty open receivers. But, even thought Tuel and WSU's passing game was pretty good, UCLA's pass defense did its share to make it look quite a bit better. There were holes in UCLA's pass coverage all over the secondary, and UCLA simply didn't get a consistent pass rush on Tuel, despite ending with five sacks.

The pressure, or lack thereof, on Tuel, was key. Without having the benefit of looking at the tape of the game yet, it appeared that UCLA utilized a four-man pass rush for most of the game, and it didn't do enough to pressure Tuel. Without consistent pressure, Tuel picked apart UCLA's secondary.

Okay, we understand that UCLA, having done well in pressuring Texas and Houston with a four-man rush, assumed it'd be able to do so against Washington State. Fair enough. But once it becomes pretty clear – like at the beginning of the second half when Washington State had then put together back-to-back long drives that pretty much cut right through UCLA's defense, and Tuel pretty much had a great deal of time in the pocket -- an adjustment might be in order.

At that point it seems that the situation might have called for sending more pressure, but it appeared UCLA Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough stayed with the game plan – to send four most of the time – and it continued to cost them.

Quite a bit of this might have to do with Akeem Ayers, UCLA's star defender, looking like a shell of himself (we're assuming from various nagging injuries). He struggled in being able to shed a block from the d-end spot, and if you take him out of the equation that's going to make a considerable impact.

So, really, this is this season's UCLA defense without Akeem Ayers.

UCLA's defense, as a result, seemingly got passive, and reactive to Washington State. When it didn't have the element that dictated the action – good pressure from a four-man pass rush – it appeared to accept that Washington State, now, was going to dictate the action and went back on its heels. UCLA didn't have a blitzing defender get close to sacking Tuel until Sean Westgate blitzed in the final few minutes of the game and got to Tuel untouched for a sack.

So, we get it now. As long as UCLA can get sufficient pressure from a four-man rush, its defense will probably have the upper hand with opposing offenses. But if it can't get pressure on the quarterback from a four-man rush, don't expect more blitzing to compensate; expect the defense to go into bend-and-not-break. Bullough will throw some deception at you with stunts and zone blitzes, and move around personnel on the field, but there almost certainly won't be more blitzing. It's essentially the same philosophy that was so successful against Texas and Houston -- but the difference was that UCLA got pressure from its four-man rush.

If this had been a boxing match, it'd be UCLA throwing the first punch, then Washington State throwing the next punch, and then UCLA, instead of throwing another punch, going into rope-a-dope.

And UCLA's defense ain't no Mumhammad Ali.

Washington State seemed to scout UCLA's stunts well, picking them up effectively, and its two tackles and random double teams pretty much kept Ayers and Keenan Graham contained, something that Houston and Texas were generally unable to do consistently.

It then follows that, if you're going to make it tough on your pass coverage this way, allowing a quarterback enough time to throw, you're going to get PIs like those committed by Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price.

UCLA's offense, on the other hand, was a machine. It racked up an astounding 437 yards rushing, which is the most in one game 21 years, not since UCLA gained 446 yards on the ground in 1979 in a 35-0 win over Oregon (those were the days). Of course, Johnathan Franklin was particularly good, gaining 216 yards, and Derrick Coleman was very impressive also, gaining 185. That combined total of 401 yards is the most total yards gained by two UCLA tailbacks in one game in UCLA history.

Richard Brehaut got the nod at quarterback, with Kevin Prince nursing the sore knee, and had a good enough outing, especially for being the first start of his career. When you have an offense gaining 437 yards on the ground and running the ball 56 times, all you need is your passing game to be sufficiently complimentary, which it was, with Brehaut going 12-for-23 for 128 yards.

We will get more into the players' performances, the schemes and play-calling in our unit-by-unit analysis Sunday. Of course, UCLA fans will take the win, and take some pleasure in UCLA improving its record to 3-2, especially after starting the season 0-2. It was, though, a bit of a disappointing performance, but very typical; Just when you started to indulge some fantasies about UCLA actually putting together a team for 2010, UCLA having a shoot-out, basically, with the worst team in the Pac-10, a team that barely beat Montana State, pretty much dashes those fantasies on the rocks. Or, at least, put them on hold until the next time UCLA gives you a slight reason to indulge them.

But look at the game this way: UCLA needed to hold serve against Washington State and get the notch in the win column, and it did that. The next objective is to notch a win at California next Saturday, and blowing out Washington State could very well have been the worst thing it could have done in realizing that objective. If the Bruins had, they very well might have convinced themselves that they were quite a bit better than they were. Having to come from behind to beat lowly Washington State could send UCLA the wake-up call it needed to offset any potential for hubris, and enable them to play at their highest level to beat the Bears.

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