UCLA fans watched their basketball team lose in poor fashion to a mid-major program and then its football team's hopes of a bowl game get trampled by Arizona State, 55-34.
UCLA won't be going to a bowl game and, for many UCLA fans, it's probably bittersweet. Yes, you recognize that, for the team and the program, It would have been a positive. They get more practices, and Rick Neuheisel would more easily be able to spin a 6-6 season to recruits. But man, on the other hand, it's time to get this season done.
And so it is, thankfully, in a week.
For UCLA's defense, it seemed like they ended their season before they stepped foot on the field of Sun Devil Stadium.
Of course, let's acknowledge that the defense has been beset with injuries this season, and you have to take that into consideration when analyzing its performance Friday. But even so, that was a horrendous defensive performance, one that you'd have to suspect firmly puts Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough in the firing line. It was almost certain Neuheisel was considering replacing him before the game, but there can't be any doubt now.
Even despite the injuries, there are some issues with the defense that warrant it. If you want to disregard that the scheme seems to be ineffective, fine. But you can't look away from the fact that players just aren't developing. Rahim Moore, while you have to acknowledge was over-hyped coming into the season, still should be a much better player than he is. Akeem Ayers has almost virtually disappeared as the season has gone on. He looked all-world in September. Now, you could make a case that this might be on Ayers, and that's true, to an extent. But a great deal of it, too, is that opposing offenses are doing things to minimize Ayers' effectiveness, and UCLA's defensive brain trust isn't doing anything to effectively counter those adjustments.
But the thing is – you can't throw out the scheme and the defensive philosophy. It's a passive approach, one that utilizes a bend-and-not-break mindset. It employs the idea that you allow the offense some ground but keep them in front of you, and then make them have to execute down the field. Even if this had been successful philosophically, and UCLA had just been nickel and dimed down the field by ASU all day, there would still be something inherently wrong with the approach. But that wasn't the case Friday, with ASU cutting out huge chunks of the field on single plays. So, not only didn't the defense succeed philosophically, it failed in execution, and it's failed so often to execute the philosophy there comes a time when you have to question the approach itself. It's not difficult to conclude that college players aren't professionals, obviously, and they can't execute at that level. You have to discount in that college players are going to make a considerable amount of mistakes in execution, and devise a defensive approach that offsets it. It's why so many college defenses have gone to a more aggressive mindset of blitzing and putting pressure on the line of scrimmage and the quarterback - because, for a defense of college players, it's less risky. In doing so, you are putting more pressure on the college football players on the opposing offense to execute, rather than allowing them enough time and space to do it. It proves to be a better bet to blitz a college quarterback and hurry him on a higher percentage of plays than it does to sit back and challenge him to execute down the field.
Against ASU, there was probably never more of an instance this year when it was the case. ASU doesn't necessarily run the ball well, but relies heavily on its passing game. For it to succeed offensively, their quarterback was going to have to execute, and both Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler have proven that they can, in fact, execute the dink-and-dunk approach down the field. It's what their spread offense is predicated on. Heck, they dink-and-dunk so excessively one of their staple plays is to consistently throw a swing pass that is a lateral (which burned them again in this game, resulting in a fumble). Pretty much, if you were going to allow this offense the short pass, and challenge them to execute it down the field, they more than likely would be capable of doing it.
But see, ASU employs this approach because they want to get the ball off before the quarterback is pressured. But then, it adjusts, and recognizes, as it did in this game, that the opposing defense isn't putting any pressure on the quarterback. So, with enough time for its quarterback to throw downfield, it does so. It starts taking shots vertically. And now, the pressure is being put on UCLA's pass defense, and it just can't hold up. In fact, there aren't many college secondaries that can hold up when opposing quarterbacks have a great deal of time to throw the ball. Again, these are college kids, so there are going to be breakdowns.
And this is how it happened Friday.
While there are offenses that Bullough's defense can look better against (and have this season), this was the prime example of an offense that was destined to exploit Bullough's passive approach. If you were looking to expose the UCLA defensive scheme, the ASU offense would be a prime candidate to do it. Being the second-to-last game of the season, sealing the deal on UCLA not making a bowl, you'd have to assume pretty much seals the deal on Bullough.
The offense, on the other hand, made a dramatic step in a completely different direction. The conservatism that has pervaded the program -- on both offense and defense – somehow didn't infect the offense Friday. In the middle of the game I wrote a mock news story on the UCLA message board that UCLA Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow had gone missing, and the evidence was clearly that someone else had to be calling UCLA's offensive plays. In a completely unanticipated departure, UCLA went to its passing game, throwing the ball 56 times and gaining 321 yards in the air. For UCLA this season, that constitutes passing stats for three games. Of course, against ASU's defense, which was the best run defense in the conference, logically you'd think UCLA would have to pass the ball. But UCLA has been in this situation before, facing a team that was good against the run, and it doggedly held steadfast in trying to predominantly run the ball. So, it was particularly surprising when UCLA's offense actually showed some guts and did what it should have done tactically.
Lo and behold, it proved to be successful.
The near-revolution in play-calling wasn't just because UCLA decided to pass the ball more often, but in just about every aspect. UCLA employed plays it hadn't all season, plays that were imaginative in terms of down and distance, and that moved the launch point for the quarterback. Richard Brehaut rolled out often. He threw quick hitters to his receivers, to take advantage of the cushion ASU was providing. It attempted to throw to its F back and tight end, and actually utilized 6-8 tight end Joseph Fauria on a goal-line fade, a play they've been practicing all season. Two receivers, Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree, had 9 catches each. For Embree, UCLA's leading receiver, that constituted 36% of his total receptions for the season. There were screens, swing passes and a flea flicker. UCLA's running backs caught four passes in this game – when they had caught only 10 previously all season.
And it wasn't just the imagination in the pass plays, but also in the running plays. There was a fly sweep. There was a well-timed draw. There was a pretty counter draw, in which many of the ASU beat writers sitting next to me in the press box muttered, "That's a nice play."
And it was all done with imagination in terms of down and distance. UCLA, for the first time in recent memory, actually exploited the offense's natural advantage of surprise. We have been advocating all season that UCLA's quarterback, particularly Brehaut, would have a much better chance of flourishing if UCLA's offensive coaches took the pressure off him by not continually forcing him into 3rd-and-longs where he'd be under pressure and have to make a play – and on a conventional drop-back. We thought it would never happen, but in this game it actually did.
We could nitpick a couple of things. Like repeatedly going to the run play where the interior OL pull to the opposite side. It was scouted out last week by Washington and again Friday by Arizona State. It also seemed that, with the offense opening up, and with ASU's secondary pretty vulnerable, UCLA could have looked downfield more often.
But heck, it almost seems spoiled to nitpick the play-calling in this game, when it finally showed some imagination. As we've said all along, we never expected UCLA's offense to be hugely explosive, but we did think that the play-calling was so conservative it was drastically limiting the potential of the offense and, most importantly, not compensating for its weaknesses. This was easily the only game all season where the play-calling was dynamic on almost every down. It's not a coincidence, too, that it gained 442 yards against one of the best defenses it's faced all season. This was the only Pac-10 game, besides the one against Washington State, in which UCLA actually gained more yards against an opposing defense than what it was averaging allowing per game.
We've been critical of Chow and his play-calling all season, so you can't probably give him enough credit for the play-calling against ASU. The one fear is that this is a one-time thing, a play-calling aberration that manifested itself merely because the UCLA offensive coaches thought it was the only way to move the ball against ASU's defense, which was so good against the run but had a mediocre pass rush. Hopefully the imagination we saw in Arizona will continue over to the Rose Bowl next Saturday against USC.
Richard Brehaut's performance was easily one of the most satisfying aspects of the season. He threw for a career-high 321 yards and 3 touchdowns. He did miss some throws, and tends to panic in clear blitzing situations, but he also showed a great amount of accuracy to his throws and poise in being able to improvise and make plays. He even looked off receivers a number of times. For a true sophomore, he showed that he has the capability of growing into at least a very serviceable quarterback for UCLA, and maybe even more.
Perhaps we're so beaten down by the season and the last 12 years of UCLA football, but the dynamic play-calling, the performance of the offense, and particularly that of Brehaut, was enough to make up for the fallout from getting blown out, the now guaranteed losing record and prospect of no bowl game.
See, UCLA fans aren't hard to please.